American View: Tell us about your childhood and education.
Ema Koeda: I was born in Iran actually, because my father moves around a lot. I moved to the U.S. when I was four. Until high school, I was in the United States studying and going to school at a regular American school. Then I went back to Japan for college. In my junior year I was an exchange student at Boston College. I worked in Japan, but I wanted to learn more about culinary, so I chose the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), where I always wanted to go when I was small.
American View: Is culinary school a college degree program or just a one-year program?
Ema Koeda: There are both programs. The CIA offers a college degree program also with a certification of culinary. If you want to graduate college and if you want to get a certification for culinary, I think there is no school in Japan that gives a college certificate and a culinary certificate. The U.S. has many programs that do that, so that’s one very good advantage. I think the United States is a great place because they offer all kinds of cuisine and you get to work with various people from all over the world.
American View: What sparked your interest in cooking?
Ema Koeda: It was probably my family situation. Almost every weekend we had guests over. I would cook with my mother and my sister. I really liked to host people and that’s why I thought if I could do this as my field of work, it would be great. When I went to Boston College, there were many exchange students and many people didn’t speak English fluently. Everyone on the weekends would have parties and gatherings and they would make their own cuisine from their country. They would become friends. I thought that cooking could be a communication tool between people who can’t speak each other’s language. That’s why I thought my field is probably not business or marketing, but using cooking as a communication tool worldwide.
American View: There are many cooking schools in Europe and Japan that are very popular. Why did you choose to go to culinary school in the U.S?
Ema Koeda: I thought it would take me maybe four or five years in Japan to learn about culinary, but in the U.S. it was a shorter program for a year and it was detailed. That’s probably why I chose the United States. Also because there are many people from all over the world at that school. Even if I went to culinary school in Japan, maybe I would only work with Japanese people, but the school I went to was very multinational, where there were Italian people and many people from Asia and Europe.
American View: You went to culinary school in the Napa Valley region of Northern California. Can you describe your impression when you first got there?
Ema Koeda: My first impression was very peaceful and very beautiful scenery. Before I went to the CIA, I was just going to learn cooking, but it ended up that I wanted to learn more about food and wine together. That’s because I was able to be at Napa, where wine was everywhere. Wine was on the table at every basic dinner. It gave me a very big chance to learn about how to pair wine and food. I was able to be with the people who make wine and be with the chefs that pair the food with the wine in very normal, everyday situations.
American View: When you were studying in the U.S., did you participate in any kind of job or internship program?
Ema Koeda: Yes, when I was at the CIA, I externed at a winery called Chalk Hill Winery. The kitchen would host guests that came to the winery, and pair the food with the wine. We would taste the wine and pair it with the vegetables and produce that we gathered locally. We would go there every day in the morning, see what the weather was like, and create food that the customers would enjoy.
American View: When you came back to Japan, how did you decide on your work?
Ema Koeda: I didn’t intend to focus on American cuisine when I was at the CIA, but I was amazed how the quality of American cuisine has risen in the past 10 years or the past couple years I wasn’t in America. The produce was so excellent that I was very surprised, and the development of American cuisine has changed. Even though I’d lived in the United States for more than 15 years at that time, I didn’t know American cuisine was so delicious, so I wanted to tell the Japanese people how delicious American produce and how delicious American cuisine is right now. That’s why I chose to become a California cuisine expert with food and wine when I came back. When I was in Japan I used to eat mostly Japanese food and I loved soba and sushi, but when I was in California I never craved Japanese food for some reason. That’s probably because I was eating all healthy vegetables and very high quality produce that was grown in California.
American View: Tell us about the work you do with the U.S. Embassy’s Agricultural Trade Office and at the Ambassador’s Residence.
Ema Koeda: We’ve done several events at the Ambassador’s Residence. We introduce American menus with the chef there. We also did a nonprofit project to support the victims of the tsunami that happened on 3/11. It was Susie’s (Susie Roos, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Japan John V. Roos) idea to do an event with Japanese ingredients and U.S. ingredients, and use both ingredients to make a recipe book. All the profits go to help the Onagawacho area. It was very nice to work on that project because I was in Japan and I couldn’t do anything. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what to do. It was a great opportunity for me to work with what I can do to help the people and it was Susie’s idea that we should use Japanese and American ingredients because we’re “Tomodachi” (friends). We created a recipe book using both ingredients and shared it at the Fourth of July party and other events.
Ema Koeda: In everyday cooking, I use lemon. I love lemon. Maybe California cuisine uses a lot of lemon and I also love the sourness but also the fruitiness of the lemon. In my house, I always have lemon every day. People in Japan are used to the concentrate, but fresh lemon really adds a lot flavor and a lot of aroma, so I would suggest using that for everyday cooking. For lemon instead of vinegar – komezu – I would use a little bit of lemon on ohitashi or sometimes even on sashimi, like carpaccio style.
Also, nuts add a great crunch and are also very high in nutrition. I would give my children nuts instead of other things, and fruits. For example, goma-ae is very Japanese with sesame and maybe tossed with vegetable, but I use crushed walnuts instead of sesame sometimes. It adds the same crunch but it has different vitamins. So it’s an everyday thing that you can arrange.
American View: In Japan there are many programs on TV about food, but could you tell us about food shows in the U.S?
Ema Koeda: Yes, I think there are many Japanese TV programs on how to cook Japanese food, Italian food, and household food, but there are no TV programs on entertaining. In the United States, there are many more TV programs on entertaining. There is also no TV program on American cuisine in Japan. There’s always Chinese, Italian, and French, but there is never American cuisine. That’s kind of sad for me because it’s a taste that Japanese people would I think appreciate and like, but most Japanese people don’t know what American cuisine is. They only know hamburgers. One of my goals is to be able to introduce American cuisine through the Japanese media on TV as well.
One of the American food shows that I love is Martha Stewart. That’s because it’s everyday, but it gives you also a dream to entertain and to bring a little bit of a décor or a stylish touch to your home and I think that’s very important. I think one thing that Japanese people are losing is time in their house. I want people to go back and to enjoy dinner at their home with friends and family. I think Martha Stewart does a great job on entertaining. In Japan, there are many TV shows that are about fast cooking, cheap cooking, and easy cooking, but there’s no dream. It’s just for that day.
There’s also a movie called “Julie & Julia” about Julia Child, where she burns the frying pan. But she said since no-one’s watching, it’s OK. That makes it easier for home chefs to cook, I think. In Japan you have to be perfect and you have to dice exactly in 5 millimeters, but on American TV shows even the professional chefs that are on TV don’t dice in the exact same size. That’s OK because it’s home cooking. It’s more casual and more fun. There are some TV programs that would be very interesting to watch and if you want to learn English, TV programs for cooking are good English builders for ears and eyes, and it’s fun to look.
American View: Do you have any message or advice for young people in Japan who are thinking of studying abroad?
Ema Koeda: I think if they’re afraid to go abroad, it might sound scary, but if you take the first step I think you would be able to expand your vision much more than being in one country. I think when you’re young, you should be with multicultural people and be exposed to many things so when you get older you’re ready to be able to work with those people and to be able to collaborate with those people. I think it would be a very good choice for people to learn in both countries if possible.
Ema Koeda was born in Tehran and grew up in New York. She attended Sophia University in Tokyo and spent a year studying abroad at Boston College. After graduating, she joined Myu Planning, Inc., a restaurant consulting company in Tokyo where she created concepts and menus for various restaurants in Japan as well as overseas. Pursuing her profound passion for food, she entered the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in California. After that she became a freelance food and wine specialist, providing services internationally. She is currently a spokesperson and chef consultant for the Agricultural Trade Office at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.