The first time you travel to Japan, you’ll be blown away by intricate handicrafts, perfectly folded origami, manicured gardens, clean streets, and meal sets. Indeed, this attention to detail shows high regard for quality and order, which the Japanese are now known for. In my parents’ time, “Made In Japan” meant shoddy, but now “Made In Japan” is a mark of quality and innovation. Today, I’m talking about “perfect” meal sets.
Attention to detail is showcased especially the meal sets, even at casual restaurants. They are the stuff of an obsessive compulsive person’s dreams, each item delicately placed just-so, to ensure the best presentation of each small portion… one tomato sits gently on a single lettuce leaf, a few sheets of seaweed peek out of the ramen broth, and the slices of chaashuu pork are perfectly round, made of alternating ribbons of fat and meat.
Even Japan Airlines economy class meals were served to us like this, complemented by a “Thank you for waiting. Here is your meal.”
Air Canada really has nothing on those. On our last flight back, the meals were designed by competitors in a culinary competition! No joke, they came with a pamphlet telling us chef bios and specialties.
Usually meal sets are served to you on a tray, with the items proportionately set between the edge and other dishes. Even at Doutor, a coffee and breakfast pastry place where you slide your own tray along the counter as you pick up your cutlery, beverages, and heated food, the staff ensure that you put your coffee and plate in exactly the right place! A napkin was placed on my tray and I placed my iced tea glass beside it. A look of horror from the Japanese female employee, who then apologized as she reached across the counter, picked up the glass, and placed it on the middle of the napkin. Um… was that necessary? I’m sure my iced tea will taste the same whether or not I place it correctly on my tray.
Upstairs on the second floor at a Doutor in Ginza, Japan:
At first, it was quite nice to see my food arranged with care. It also tasted better than North American versions, although that might just have to do with the fact that I make healthier, veggie-laden, carb-free choices at home! But receiving such arrangements for approximately the same price as I’d pay at home meant more value, and I like value!
This is what we had one afternoon (after walking 20,000 steps that day!):
Served exactly as pictured and Twice Delicious! Look closely and see that “M” is “for heavy users”.
Meal sets made photo ready, one shot snaps for Instagram. As the days went on and every restaurant served up meal sets exactly as pictured, we started to wonder…
Why the obsession with Perfection?
After a few days we started to wonder about this obsession. We could see it throughout Japanese culture, in the shouted greeting, “irrashaimasee,” and hurried tidying of shops as we walked through the doors, in the immaculately cleaned streets, in shop windows, shined taxi cars, handicraft stores, and so on. Believe me, I am not a fan of East Hasting dirty dirty, which you’ll know if you’re from Vancouver, but I couldn’t help wondering what the motivation is behind this obsession with perfect presentation.
What is Perfection of Food?
I read that a Japanese chef once declined franchising his product, saying, “There is no way I can teach a foreigner to create this taste.” There are more 3 star Michelin restaurants in Japan than any other country. What are the Japanese doing that others can’t, in reference to the obsession with perfection? Perfection is defined as:
Perfection is not a Moral Good
We tend to think of Perfect as better than Good, which is better than Adequate. If Good food is good, then perfect food must be better, right? And both perfect and good food must be better than adequate food.
Actually, I think that’s wrong.
I guess this is one thing that might have been bothering me about the way Japanese serve food: the enjoyment of food is in the people and conversation that provide the environment for the meal. To me, food is not just about the way it’s salted and seasoned to bring out the best in the ingredients. The taste is part of it, but a Michelin star meal eaten with awkward people makes you want to box it up and head home. Food is not about how artistically it’s arranged, or what I look down at when the server slides it in front of me.
Food is about the person across the table I look at, how much we laugh, and how much the food facilitates conversation. Perfection in food is who we share it with. Clumsily home cooked curry tastes better than perfectly simmered and presented curry rice eaten alone to silence inner dissatisfaction with life and self.
Perfect Japanese service…
…But please serve it with a (Real) Smile.
Another thing you’ll notice about food workers in Japan is their attentiveness and politeness. You, the honorable guest, or “o-kyakusama” are treated with courtesy and efficiency. I admit, I never felt the need to complain about service in Japan; the order was taken promptly, delivered efficiently, and I never had to ask for anything as my needs were always anticipated.
You’ll probably love that about Japan, and it really does make dining out easy for tourists who don’t speak the language. If you’ll need it for your meal, they’ll already make sure you have it!
But that said, after a while it seems a bit farcical.
The smile you’ll get is awkward and nervous. Any errors are overly apologized for, with apologies for disturbing you or for having to wait (for ANY length of time, and I mean seconds). Any time the performance does not go according to script, there is a nervousness and desire to correct the performance that goes beyond necessary.
Japanese would gasp in shock if I told stories of how I treated customers when I was a bartender and server. I would laugh loudly, I occasionally spilled drinks, and I even called a customer a dick once (no complaint about that, surprisingly). Not everything I served was perfectly arranged or concocted, and sometimes I ended up delivering the wrong order on incredibly busy nights (also no complaints, surprisingly).
There is perfection in the way Japanese restaurants serve food. Absolutely. But what I really feel is missing from Japanese service is the enjoyment of the staff. Probably the reason I never got complaints about bad service was actually that I liked my guests and it was therefore easy to smooth things over. Of course, I apologized. But it was never more than once, and I felt no shame in having made mistakes – that just happens sometimes.
My blog is not meant to disparage restaurant eating in Japan. I really was impressed by Japanese food and am not trying to be culturally insensitive. But my experiences just made me wonder whether the Japanese obsession with perfection comes from a good or a bad place. In short, the way I feel about consumables in Japan is this:
If it’s created by artisans who love their work and feel passionate about it, then the perfection is something I’ll pay for an enjoy. Many treats in Japan are expensive precisely because they are artisan created by a human being who loves his work.
If it’s created by hourly wage workers, afraid of embarrassment and losing their jobs, who are working too hard for what they are paid, well… The perfection is something I can do without. Any enjoyment that I get from my ramen meal set is degraded when I see the blank look on the employee’s face and how obsessively accurately he follows protocol.
- Is perfection something to strive for? Is seeking perfection morally good, like telling the truth? Or is it just another regular act, like driving a car, or choosing to play basketball instead of playing chess?
- What is the role of a human being in a job? When you are paid, do you also need to show the emotions that your employer wants you to? Or is it enough to be competent and efficient?
- Does it feel good for a human being to try to be perfect? Why might trying to be perfect make a person feel good? Bad?