David E. Wells

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • David E. Wells

    Main guest

    David E. Wells is a chef who specializes in Japanese cuisine. Instead of operating his own restaurant, he works from home as a caterer. He has been a winner of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Taste of Japan contest, an event aimed at increasing exposure to authentic Japanese food. Wells is interested in the various special traits and culinary possibilities that are inherent in Japanese cooking. He holds events centered on traditional Japanese cuisine at his home. He also travels to New York annually to hold cooking classes and seminars.

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May 22, 2018

Japanophiles: David E. Wells

*You will leave the NHK website.

Japanese cuisine is internationally renowned—restaurants serving sushi, ramen and more can be spotted in countries around the world, and washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, was even registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2013. But long before the current boom, one American living in Japan made it his mission to master both the flavor and presentation of fine Japanese cuisine. That man's name is David E. Wells, and he's the subject of the latest Japanophiles edition of Japanology Plus.

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David Wells and host Peter Barakan talk cuisine.

As we learn on the program, Wells first visited Japan in 1979 and has been fascinated with Japanese cuisine ever since. After a few years in the country, he decided to enter a culinary school and, afterward, did a two-year live-in apprenticeship at a kaiseki restaurant.

This prompts the question: what is kaiseki? As Wells describes it, kaiseki is a full-course Japanese banquet meal. But while the phrase "full-course meal" may evoke the image of a giant, lavish feast to Western ears, in kaiseki, each individual dish contains small portions of food, carefully selected and prepared by the chef using in-season ingredients.

In Japanese, there are two different character sets used to write the word kaiseki: one set means "body warmer," while the other means "get-together." The origin of the former, according to legend, comes from food prepared for disciples of Zen. So frugal were the servings that those seeking enlightenment supposedly placed warmed stones in their robes, near their bellies, to ward off hunger.

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In kaiseki, presentation is as important as flavor.

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No need for belly warming with the modern version.

Kaiseki has come a long way from those austere meals. As the years went by, it became more lavish, filled with high-end ingredients, textures and flavors and closer to the full-course meal it is today. These days, kaiseki is considered one of the most refined ways to enjoy Japanese cuisine, and visiting restaurants that specialize in it can be an intimidating experience.

Diners enjoying Wells' meals, on the other hand, can enjoy kaiseki without ever leaving the house. That's because this chef is a caterer who cooks in his own kitchen and presents his meals in his clients' homes. Wells, who was once the head chef at a Japanese restaurant, explains to host Peter Barakan that he took to catering because administration and other tasks were keeping him from his real passion: cooking.

Thus, while this edition provides some glimpses of mouthwatering Japanese cuisine, it simultaneously provides another visual treat for Japan fans: a peek into the interior of people's homes! In Japan (or in Tokyo, at least) home parties and other visits are not as common as they are in some Western countries, so actually seeing the interior of others' homes is something of a bonus. Perhaps the most interesting home on the program is that of Wells himself: aside from a large collection of pottery (all made by Wells) we get a surprising revelation about the size of this professional chef's kitchen.

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Peter digs in.

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The sticker on the wall of Wells' kitchen reads "hi no yojin" ("beware of fire"), a phrase viewers may remember from our Special Rescue Teams edition.

How do foodies in Japan feel about Japanese cuisine prepared by an American chef? If the reaction on the program is anything to go by, overwhelmingly positive. On one hand, he has clearly mastered traditional kaiseki, but on the other, his clients note that, perhaps because he is not Japanese, he isn't always bound by old fixed ideas either. As is often the case with the subjects on Japanophiles, a fusion of two viewpoints seems to have produced something better than either one could provide on its own.

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This edition of Japanology Plus will make you hungry. Viewer discretion advised.

*You will leave the NHK website.