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Discussing The Politics Of Food With Gastronomy Writer Melinda Joe
Interview by Mona Bavar
Article by Lynne Myers
“Food touches every person and every single part of our lives.”
~ Melinda Joe
Since relocating to Tokyo, American journalist Melinda Joe has firmly established herself as a trusted authority on all things food, wine and sake. A columnist for Japan Times and a contributing writer for a host of other publications, Joe is also a sake panel chair for the International Wine Challenge (IWC).
In conversation with DLISH, Joe shares her insight into the world of food: why it’s so important and how the industry must adapt to survive.
Mona Bavar: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you end up in Tokyo?
Melinda Joe: I'm Chinese American and I was born and raised in Louisiana. Then I went to school in California at UC Berkeley. I lived in the Bay Area and then New York, and I also spent a little bit of time in London. I was kind of bouncing around because I didn't really know what I wanted to do. For my undergraduate, I studied Fine Art and English Literature, but after school, it was really hard to find a job. It was such a wonderful experience and a privilege to be able to devote four years to studying the arts, but unfortunately, in terms of employment opportunities, it wasn’t really the best choice I could have made.
When I was growing up my family owned a restaurant, so food was always a big part of my life and I always had a deep interest in it. I was considering going to culinary school but as I had studied art, curatorial studies were also something I was considering. Then a friend of mine suggested going to Japan because I always had an interest in the country and the cuisine. I thought that it would be an interesting thing to do for a couple of years and I wanted to experience a culture and a place that was completely different from anywhere I was familiar with. So, I came over and I started teaching English at a university, and instead of staying for a couple of years, it's actually been about 15 years or so.
MB: How did you get into journalism?
MJ: When I came over to Japan, I was on a professor visa because I was teaching at a university, but I really didn't like that job. I was trying to think of something that I could do that was a creative outlet and one good thing about teaching at a university in Japan is that you have these long, paid holidays. So, I began studying wine and from there I got really interested in sake as well. Then I started a blog just for myself as a way of crystallizing my knowledge about what I was learning and experiencing, and it was actually through my blog that I started to receive some requests from editors to write stories. I gradually shifted my work focus to writing and in 2009 or 2010, I decided to go freelance.
Sliced Oranges & Crispy Spiced Bugs by Chef Edgar Nunezm
MB: What’s the main focus of your writing? Are you still writing for your blog, or are you contributing to other journals as well?
MJ: My main focus is on the whole world of food and drink. I write a lot about the restaurant industry, food producers and different kinds of programs around the world, and I write a lot about people who are adjacent to the industry as well. I do some travel writing but it’s much less than my concentration on gastronomy.
I haven't written for my blog in a very long time, but yes, I contribute to lots of different outlets both in Asia and also overseas in the US and some in Europe. I am still writing but of course, it's not really a great time to be a food writer, and also for media in general. For the past couple of months, it's been a lot slower. Hopefully, that will turn around.
I'm thinking about starting a food and drink-related newsletter, so that’s on the horizon.
MB: And now you’re almost an expert on sake?
MJ: It is one of my areas of specialization and I am one of the panel chairs for the sake division of the International Wine Challenge (IWC). I've been a judge since 2012 but I've been a panel chair since 2014.
MB: Were you always passionate about food and drink?
MJ: Yes, I've always been so deeply interested in the world of food and drink, but of course food first because that's been a big part of my life ever since childhood. Growing up Chinese American, food has always been really important, but especially because my family had a restaurant.
It's funny because just as I was walking home today from the train station, I was thinking about what the most important things in life are. I think this pandemic has really forced everyone to re-evaluate things. I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but when I was thinking about this, the first thing that came to my mind was food and drink. Of course, personal relationships will always trump everything but when I think of what it means to be living a good life, I can't imagine it without great food and drink. People, food, drinks, and beautiful things.
Spot prawn with caviar on a mussel cloud by Chef Julien Royer
MB: Do you think food is political?
MJ: Most definitely. Food touches every person and every single part of our lives. There's nothing that is not connected to food in some way. Inherently that's going to be political.
MB: What do you think the ‘new world’ post-COVID will be for the food industry?
MJ: That’s such a big question and it's so difficult because if we just look at the United States, the same day that they announced that restaurants in Los Angeles could reopen, the next day riots broke out (for the Black Lives Matter movement). And already, the United States has been facing food shortages, and more so than other places that I've noticed in other parts of the world. In the United States, there's meat shortages, flour shortages... And a lot of it has been related to the virus. It’s such a deep problem with workers getting sick, but then having no safety net, no healthcare.
Then there's the question of labor to harvest crops. I know that in Europe, this has also been an issue. It's less so here in Japan, we haven't really experienced the same level of crisis with regard to the food system that we have seen in the States and other parts of the world. Of course, there have been some disruptions in distribution because of the restaurant situations and institutions closing.
There have been some good things that have come out of it in Japan. Particularly for farmers because they're realizing that there are so many vulnerabilities in the food distribution system. There's been an increase in direct farm to consumer sales, even in the city. Not far from where I live in central Tokyo, there are areas where farmers have started to sell their vegetables right outside, which is rare and very new because so many of the farms are tied up in a cooperative system. There’s been a lot of interesting things happening, some good and some bad.
MB: In light of these issues, how do you think the food industry needs to adapt for the future?
MJ: I think people are realizing more and more that the question of how to build a better food system is intrinsically tied up with questions of wage equality and with equality in a broader sense. We’re just seeing how connected everything is and how complex it is. This crisis has laid bare the true hardships that restaurants face even in the best of times regarding employment, lack of security and extremely narrow margins that provide no kind of real living wage for people. There is no protection in the face of this kind of crisis.
We can't fix those problems until we fix the problem of inequality. Those problems will never fully go away until we really address the problem of systemic inequality. Our society has become so extreme in terms of wage gaps and it's become such a struggle for so many people to actually live.
Food should no longer be a commodity; it should be considered a public good. This is a very powerful and important idea that we have to push for.
Sea Bass with shellfish & green beans by Chef Pierre Gagnaire
MB: How important is it for you to write about the current challenges facing the food industry – sustainability, shortages, social issues?
MJ: I've been struggling with that in the food world. I don't write exclusively about fine dining and luxury products but that is a lot of what I have covered for the past 10 years. I respect the art and the craft of fine dining and the kind of experiences people can give, and over the past decade, a lot of these top chefs have been able to use their platform to begin meaningful social initiatives and have been trying to push forward the agenda of sustainability. However, I do feel quite conflicted these days. During this time with the enforced hiatus, it has made us really reconsider and re-evaluate our priorities and the way we have been living our lives. I don't know if I want to continue to make that such a focus for my journalism.
MB: How much of this has to do with the fact that perhaps the whole ‘luxury’ world is going to be less important in the future?
MJ: Again, it’s funny because I don't think that the response from Japan is going to be the same necessarily as it is in other parts of the world. Partly because our experience of this pandemic has been so different. I think people here are very much still interested in fine dining. Also, considering the number of foodies who fly around the world for meals, I know for a fact that so many of them are just waiting for the moment that they can return to Japan to experience the haute cuisine here.
In general, there will be changes in the food scene here because of the recession. Japan entered a recession for the first time since 2015, and it's going to be a bad one. We're definitely going to see a lot of closures. I spoke with a chef last week who told me that people are speculating that perhaps as many as one-third of restaurants will either go out of business or will barely be able to get by.
Ravioli stuffed with lotus & flavored with fresh seaweed by Chef Kotaro Noda
MB: How do you imagine the future of international travel and tourism?
MJ: I think it’s going to be some time before international travel returns. Another thing that we all have to reconsider is how much the ease of travel has been both a good thing and a bad thing, and all the consequences. Not only the ecological consequences but even if you think about the restaurant industry. Many places became so over-reliant on overseas tourism, and that’s hugely problematic as we've seen because when something like this happens, then all those jobs go away. We should be considering more sustainable travel and also really reconsidering the priorities that are given with regard to economic strategies.
Travel is important and tourism should be a part of the economy, but you can’t make that your only strategy. It’s extremely important that more support is given to local initiatives and local producers, however, I also don't think that should be to the exclusion of global trade. I don't want to see the end of travel.
MB: Finally, what are you planning on doing now that you’re free to go out?
MJ: I want to reconnect with all the people in the industry. I feel bad because I feel like I've been quite selfish during this time. The past month and a half I have really been staying at home, so I haven’t been as active in the food community as I maybe should have been. It was just too emotionally draining. Everything was so crazy and we had such mixed messages from the government here for so long that the uncertainty was off the charts. Also, I was so concerned about my family and friends in the States, and with the travel ban and not being able to physically go home during this difficult time was really tough. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of energy to give to my work. So now, it’s time to go out and support people in whatever ways that I can.
Click here to see more from Melinda Joe.
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