Wilcox, who arrived in Japan after graduating from a cooking school in New York State, decided to seek work at Kikunoi Honten after tasting "amadai no kabura-mushi"--a steamed dish of tilefish with grated kabu radish--one winter at the restaurant.
Wilcox said: "The dish extracted the gentle sweetness and complex taste from the radish. The dish was not only tasty but warmed my heart. "I felt shocked, rather than impressed. In the United States, sophisticated dishes like this don't exist."
Since then, he has learned to cook food very carefully, making sure it is arranged on dishes properly. He pays particular attention to seasonal elements. "In the future, I want to open my own restaurant in the United States and introduce the cooking skills and hospitality of the Japanese," he said. Kikunoi Honten owner Yoshihiro Murata, 60, said his restaurant has received an increasing number of inquiries from non-Japanese who want to learn Japanese cooking. In the past two or three years, about 10 cooks from Italy, Spain and other countries have visited Kikunoi Honten.
Many students from other Asian countries learn Japanese cooking at Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. The number has soared from five in fiscal 2007 to 54 in fiscal 2011. Lin Iku-shu, a 27-year-old from Taiwan, said:
"Taiwan people are extremely interested in Japanese culture. Japanese restaurants and izakaya pubs are popular." More people overseas are coming to love Japanese food. According to a Japan External Trade Organization survey, there are 14,129 Japanese restaurants in the United States--a twofold increase in 10 years--and about 1,000 restaurants in France and more than 500 in Britain.
Mika Hanada, chief of JETRO's agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food planning division, said, "Japanese cuisine is considered a life culture particular to Japan." Efforts will be made this year to promote Japanese cuisine overseas as a national "brand." In March, the government plans to apply to UNESCO to register Japanese food culture as an intangible cultural heritage.
In an effort to gain recognition next year, an Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry official said: "We want to demonstrate that the basic Japanese meal comprises a bowl of soup and three dishes with rice as the main staple. We will also emphasize its excellent nutritional balance, and our sophisticated cooking skills in which we use fresh foodstuffs suited to Japan's nature."
Some foodstuffs do not have a high profile in Japanese cuisine, but they have been praised overseas and eventually exported. One of them is Unzen kobu takana, a variety of takana mustard greens that have galls on the surface of leaf stalks. It is a traditional vegetable in Unzen City, Nagasaki Prefecture.
She continues to participate in the biennial fair and now exports the vegetable to not only Italy but also Britain, Denmark and other countries. Chieko Mukasa, a food culture researcher, said, "Like a kaleidoscope, Japanese cuisine is attractive on many levels. "It has been praised overseas and prompted the Japanese to rediscover the joys of a Japanese lifestyle. I hope people introduce the excellent points [of cuisine] to the rest of the world."
Efforts to foster local brands have already started. The Japan Food Industry Center, an incorporated foundation, has launched a system that gives a stamp of approval to "real and genuine" products that meet quality and production criteria. The system is modeled on those in Europe in which food products are labeled with geographic names to preserve traditional foodstuffs. The government also plans to create a certification system for local foodstuffs by the end of fiscal 2016.