- PHOTOGRAPHY: JULIAN GATTO
Tokyo Yoyo: Kitchen RevolutionJulian Gatto, 2010/01/13
“I started cooking when I started VEGE Shokudo” – said Yoyo calmly. Since she is involved with the Shiroto no ran, or ‘Amateur Riot’ movement, underneath the surface of her nonchalant confession lie many relevant questions: Why should we conform to eating food that is overpriced? Should nourishing and healthy food be a luxury? Where do our vegetables come from?
These questions lead to an image of an ideal café in her head, which was eventually embodied in a bar three blocks west from Koenji station. The owner of the bar closed on Wednesdays, so Matsumoto-san (the main man behind Shiroto no ran, which is revitalizing Koenji with its conglomerate of independent venues, thrift stores and food shops) offered Yoyo the free slot to experiment with her ideas about what food should be.
I once had a teacher that used to say a very fundamental truth: “Just because something’s cliché doesn’t mean is not true.” Indeed, the axiom ‘You are what you eat’ cannot be more relevant here. The food served at VEGE Shokudo represents what Yoyo thinks and believes in. It is the honest result of a chain of events and influences that go from India (the source that Yoyo tapped into–triggered by a trip there- at the time to imagine textures, colors and combinations) to Mexico (embodied in the Zapatista coffee served at VEGE, which helps finance the cause of the Mexican revolutionaries) all the way to Kamakura, the origin of the fresh produce and bread. Another important influence into becoming a vegetarian was the noise musician Merzbow, primarily his ideas about music and not eating meat.
All these factors make Yoyo’s food unique. It’s light, airy and yet the textures and combinations are bold and the flavors sometimes very strong. It is well known that vegetarian food can be easily overwhelmed by too many spices and sauces or cramped by dry and flat, uninteresting textures however Yoyo’s food is first and foremost fresh, palatable, well-made food – whether you are a vegan, vegetarian or not. Her choices have to do with respecting the nature of each ingredient and finding the right combinations between them so that they play on each other. The way the food is constructed is there for you to see, because for the most part nothing is processed into something else.
There is only one little ‘trick’ I have found in VEGE shokudo, but it’s really a consequence of the way food is usually served in Japan: compartments. Bento style. Although VEGE does not offer bento lunches, Yoyo makes each menu as a constellation of flavors. What you may find in each is a surprise, and this is what allows Yoyo to have such a vast range of combinations – it’s then up to each patron to mix (or not) each small galaxy of flavor. One of my favorites: carrot curry with strawberry and wheat salad. True, edible magic.
So every Wednesday, food starts coming out from the miniature kitchen in the back at around 1:00 PM. Then Yoyo and Yuka (who bakes lovely pastries and brews amazing coffee) take a break from 3 to 5pm. Then they begin serving dinner. The menu is only ¥1000, and consists of soup as starter, the main course which usually includes beautiful brown rice and crisp fresh salad. To drink you’ll be offered tea or some other type of infusion (We gave her a pack of yerba mate from Argentina, and Yoyo soon came up with ‘mate-cha’). Dessert is not included in the menu, but Yuka’s green tea and chocolate pound cakes shouldn’t be missed. I’d like to make clear that I am not a vegetarian. Yet I would devotedly go to VEGE every week and marvel at Yoyo’s cooking. The place, the people and the food are filled with the noblest of ideas: being able to grow your own food, to learn how to cook it, to offer it to others so that maybe after a wholesome and satisfying meal they decide to try it on their own. There is nothing to be said, it’s all in the food. Isn’t this the way to begin a revolution?
Julian is an artist and book designer currently living in Buenos Aires. His personal work is focused on watercolor drawings and mixed media installations. Since 2008 he has collaborated with Mercedes Villalba in a multidisciplinary project called mejunje. During 2009 they spent three months in Japan doing a research residency, an ongoing installation at NOW IDeA and children workshops.