Review by Jamie McNeil
Sushi is the single most identifiable culinary tradition of Japan, so it seems unusual that a French artist creates an utterly fascinating book not just on the dish, but the entire culture surrounding it. In 2013, France was Europe’s largest consumer of the delicacy and by 2019 there were over 200 booths in French markets alone. Consider also that there are around 2,500 Japanese restaurants and sushi bars across la France compared to roughly 1,400 McDonald’s franchises. In the last decade, sushi has soared in popularity and with it the challenge of making your own. Do it well and you raise your social capital at parties and gatherings considerably within a few minutes. Do it poorly and all you get is food poisoning.
Franckie Alarcon is a unique creator who applies a journalistic curiosity to his projects, one of the few artists using the graphic novel medium to explore food culture thoroughly. Even then, few creators tackle their subject with as much commitment and passion as he does, from the detail and layouts of the artwork to the dizzying amount of research undertaken. As a result, The Art of Sushi is not just about food but the people who make it, the different traditions connected to it in each Japanese prefecture, and the mammoth economy surrounding it.
Think of sushi and you think fish, but Alarcon demonstrates throughout making sushi is not simply about putting fish on top of some rice. There are so many facets to the industry, so many sub-cultures within the greater culture that contribute to the little portion you ultimately see in front of you. Did you know that the way Japanese chefs use a knife has its roots in the warrior code of Bushido? That the swords many chefs and tuna merchants use are designated a national Japanese heritage made by a 24th generation bladesmith? It’s an utterly fascinating journey to meet rice farmers, fishermen, sake makers, seaweed farmers, and ceramicists, all of who contribute to the culture in some way. It’s all told enthusiastically with such quality, but the wealth of information Alarcon presents can cause information overload.
As with his work on The Secrets of Chocolate, Alarcon delights in capturing the people who work and inhabit the culinary world. With each person he meets, he strives to catch their essence and their idiosyncracies. The fifty-year veteran, three Michelin star Chef, and Sushi Master Hachiro Mizutani is portrayed as straightforward and dignified while the younger chef Okada is trendier and avant-garde in style. One represents the older, waning traditions of sushi making while the other’s approach embraces lesser-known recipes from every prefecture to make sushi accessible to the masses again. Every person we meet has a story and a unique identity that Alarcon brings to the page. You can feel the respect he has for the Japanese culture, yet expertly captures the funny side of those unintentionally awkward moments when cultures clash with perfect deadpan humour.
The Art of Sushi is a thick book rendered in elegant blacks and whites with beautiful splashes of colour in just the right places. From Edo to Yokohama, Alarcon not only renders the food mouth-watering but captures the beauty of Japan, modern and traditional, rural and urban. This is a captivating exploration of the complex and spiritual traditions of a nation all revolving around food. If you love sushi, you need this book and even if you don’t like sushi its style and energy will enthrall you.