A Cook's Tour (2002–…): Season 1, Episode 2 - Dining with Geishas - full transcript

Rural Japan: Tony decides to look for a more relaxing, traditional Japanese culinary experience in the countryside. Tony travels to an old-style Japanese inn that specializes in kaiseki cuisine, ancient tea ceremony, and local ingredients.

Welcome to my world.

Two escargot, pate,
frisee, two green salads.


Lamb chops, steak frites.

Shouldn't you be
doing something?

Two sole fillet
and a pepper steak.

Thomas, make the dessert.

Chocolate tart, please.

As a cook, taste and
smells are my memories.

And now I'm in
search of new ones.

So I'm leaving New
York City and hope

to have a few epiphanies
around the world.

And I'm willing to go to
some lengths to do that.

I am looking for extremes
of emotion and experience.

I'll try anything.

I'll risk everything.

I have nothing to lose.

Tokyo, Japan is ultra fast,
ultra modern, and completely

21st century.

Japan with a grande
triple latte.

The amount of neon
and activity, it's

an overwhelming dose
of things Japanese

but also some things familiar.

Coca Cola in the
morning, now that's

the breakfast of champions.

I'm a New Yorker.

I'm very aware of
the fact that I'm

someplace else when I'm
not in New York City.

Yet Tokyo somehow still
seems to make sense to me.

It's a modern urban experience.

I wanted to explore
elements of Japanese cuisine

more alien to the
Western palate.

I thought it was a very good
idea to get out of Tokyo.

It was something I
hadn't done before.

We're going to Atami, to a
ryokan, a traditional country

inn with onsen, hot springs,
for kaiseki, which is, again,

a very old and refined
style of dining.

We're taking the bullet train,
I believe-- Shinkansen--

so we're going to
take a very fast train

to a very slow place.

Look at that.

It looks like the space
shuttle, doesn't it.

I love the compacted
insect life on the front.

I think that gives you an idea
of how fast this thing moves.

I'm a little intimidated,
I have to say.

It's very formal.

This is about as far away from,
you know, the urban experience

as one could-- as
I could-- imagine.

And I'm hungry.

I could go for a bento box.

Prepare for liftoff.

This is a little bento box.

It's what I just
bought on the train

from the nice lady who
came along in a uniform.

In this case, I'm having
a little unagi-- that's

eel-- sticky rice,
and some pickles.

It's a nice little
container here.

Bento, boxed meals like this
one, are very popular in Japan,

sort of like brown bag
lunch meets fast food.

Only instead of a Big Mac or
PB&J, you get rice and fish.

We should have this in America.

The scenery whips by my
window at 150 miles per hour.

That's [BLEEP] fast food.

Just feel that blast of air from
the other train that passed.

It's incredible.

55 minutes later, having
whipped through rural Japan,

past Mount Fuji,
glimpses of the ocean,

we find ourselves in a
mountainous seaside resort

town, popular for its many
ryokan with hot springs.

My first thought,
driving through the pass,

was that the bullet train
must have gone so fast

it broke the time-space barrier.

How do you get
yourself as far away

from the workaday bustle
of Tokyo as you can?

You go back to the
15th, 16th century.


From the minute I set
foot in the ryokan.

I feel like a
Japanese feudal lord.


Shoes off, I'm guessing?


I'm definitely being
treated like one.



This ryokan is no Motel 6.

It's basically an exclusive
getaway for affluent Japanese.


With humility befitting
a Japanese emperor,

I'm served a small snack, a
candied date and hot green tea.




Mm, good.

We are living large, man.

This is-- You know, I'm
reliving every Kurosawa

film I've ever seen right now.

It's a very
cinematic experience,

particularly if you're a
samurai buff like I am.


You really feel like you're
in another time completely.

You might as well be
in 16th century Japan.

This ryokan in
particular offers kaiseki

cuisine, which is a
cuisine dating back

many hundreds of years.

It is viewed by most as
the most refined style

of Japanese cuisine.



It grew up around
the tea ceremony,

which is incredibly
elaborate and seen

as the apex of grace
and sophistication.

Using almost
exclusively ingredients

from the local hills and
water, the kitchen staff

has been busy for hours.

Everything has to
be immaculately

cleaned and prepared long
before any cooking begins.

This isn't a style of cooking
as much as it is a discipline.

But before I can nose
around in the kitchen,

it is strongly
recommended that I

go take a soak in
the hot springs.

In kaiseki cuisine,
the food is inseparable

from the environment.

That's very much
part of the meal.

One has to be relaxed,
with senses fully primed

to appreciate it, or so
goes the thinking here.

So as my food is
being prepared for me,

I'm being prepared for my food.

When they're not
working in Japan,

they give a lot of thought to
how best to relax and enjoy.

Ryokan is the boiled-down
wisdom of generations

of thinking about
how best to relax.

And who am I to disagree?

When evening comes,
a zen-like stillness

settles over the whole mountain.

It's dinner hour.

Now, supposedly, other guests
are being served somewhere.

I haven't seen any of them.

In my tatami room, for
all intents and purposes,

I'm the center of the universe.

I'm about to have a tremendous
meal and be entertained.


This is about the most formal
experience you can have.

The possibilities for rudeness
and looking silly are enormous.

Most of us are reasonably
familiar with a formal meal,

the way one behaves at the
table, the way one dresses,

the way we handle
knives and forks.


It looks good.


But here, the etiquette
is even more rigorous.


So, you know, for a clumsy New
Yorker, completely ignorant,

it can be pretty
damn intimidating.



Fortunately, I have help,
two experienced and talented

geishas to help navigate me
through the meal and entertain.

Believe me, I need all
the help I can get.

It's like the
beginning of "2001"

where they throw
the bone in the air.

That's how I feel.

I feel like an ape.


And I need to walk erect.

Geishas are basically
professional hostesses.

They are not call girls
like many Americans think.



They're women who have
dedicated their lives

to the traditional
Japanese arts.

This is high-brow service.


This is good.

A little sake, and I'm ready.

First up is the kaiseki
equivalent of a sampler plate.

There's dried mullet eggs with
radish-- wonderful texture--

oyster cooked in soy sauce-- we
have nothing like it-- smoked

trout with lotus root--
it's like discovering,

you know, a new planet, a
new world-- and sea cucumber

seasoned with its own liver.

I'm afraid to eat it.

It's so beautiful.

Um, hm.

This is like a
Thomas Keller dish.

Oh, wow.

This is so good.

I'm told the next dish
contains fish liver.

That pasty lump you
see in the center,

I jump right in to
everyone's embarrassment.

The proprietor, who is sitting
in the wings, is mortified.


OK, a little bit in?

No, no, no, no.

No just--

Mix with the paste.

It turns out, this is like
getting an order of fries

and just eating the ketchup.






You're supposed to dip the
fish fillets into the liver.








The dishes get
increasingly exotic,

like slightly grilled squid
or soft-shell turtle soup.

The centerpiece of the meal
arrives, grilled local lobster.

So then I'll tunnel
that out of this shell.

It's going to be
very, very difficult.

Oh, look at this.

I don't think I'll
be able to get this.

I will definitely need help.

I am--

We can do this for you.



A bit more, [JAPANESE].

All right.

This is Mt.


My chopstick skills
are not that good.

Uh, huh.

The geishas, once
again, come to my aid.

You know, one of the many things
we make fun of when customers

ask for it-- a lazy lobster--
you're so stupid and so inept,

and you can't even pull
meat out of a lobster shell.

And I can't, not
with chopsticks.


Any great cuisine
grew up around the idea

of using what's local.

You know, American
culinary traditions

have been to make the
food the same in New York

as it is in Los Angeles.

And that's hurt us,
I think, you know?

We have a lot of good food.

But we are afraid
to show local pride.

That's what this is.

You know, this is something
from the neighborhood.

You know, they're
very proud of it.


This is very New England.

Mm, oh, wow, spectacular.


As I finish off my meal with
a soup of fresh local mushrooms

and miso broth, the
geishas treat me

to a private
musical performance.


Dinner at the ryokan, I've
been just completely seduced

into the entire experience.

Another couple of
days in this place,

and I'd start spouting
new age psychobabble

and talk about sitting on top
of a mountain contemplating

a tangerine for the
rest of my life.


Breakfast is another matter.

This is not bacon
and eggs over easy.

Now, I don't know
what the hell this is.

What are these?

Is this a seafood?

There are some sort of little
sea worms or something on it

and what I believe is mountain
potato dumpling underneath.

Now my tongue is sending
out violent alarm bells.

This is natto.

And it's, like,
a fermented bean.

This is a really
frightening texture.

I mean, it's mucilaginous.

This is like eating out of
a spit cup at the dentist.

And it takes every bit
of strength and grit

I've got not to let
my face show it.

That's me-- I'm, really--
I'm speechless, it's so good.

Despite breakfast,
I leave the ryokan

more relaxed than Perry
Como on tranquilizers.



Now I was ready for some
cuisine with an edge,

something dangerous.

Thank you very much.

We're on the road back
from Atami to Tokyo,

and we pull over
to make a pit stop,

you know, a little bathroom
break to pick up a few snacks.

Ah, the great
American truck stop.

I feel right at home.

This is not the Vince
Lombardi Service

Center on the New
Jersey Turnpike.

It's a vending machine paradise.

The Japanese love
building complex machines

for simple tasks.

A cup of Acapulco, a
cup of Tom & Jerry.

What to do?

What to do?

It all looks so good.

I decide to start with
the ticket machine.

It will spit out a ticket that
you can then bring to a counter

and get a nice bowl
of udon or soba.

Plain udon, udon
with dried fish.

That's for me.

That's noodles for you
bridge and tunnelers.


Mm, that whet my appetite.


Decisions, decisions.

Fries, the dog, uh,
the other thing.

I think the fries, a safe bet.

Is there a fryolator in there?

That's what I want to know.

It's a tiny, little basket.

Would you like fries
with that, sir?

How do I open this?



It doesn't open this way?



Your fries are up, sir.


Whoa, man.


Oh, man.

This, I mean, could
cause serious injury.

It's like hot steam
coming out of that.

Mm, soggy.

Let's see, for dessert, nothing
hits the spot like marble

cheesecake ice cream cone.

The Japanese love convenience,
and they love machines.

And it sounds ominous.

It's like a body being
dropped from a great height.

There's almost
nothing that can't

be done by a vending
machine apparently.

Mm, cheesy.

I don't know how far away
a dentistry machine is.

Maybe a little
coffee with dessert?

But I foresee that in
the very near future.

Himmel Mountain Blend, Mocha
Kilimanjaro, Mochaccino,

Frappuccino, Al Pacino.

Starbucks is in real trouble.


That night in my hotel
room back in Tokyo,

I'm having trouble sleeping.

I've been thinking about the
deadly and dreaded fugu fish.

Known to us as
blowfish or pufferfish

because it can blow itself
up like a big balloon,

its trump card is a
highly lethal poison.

So naturally, the Japanese
consider it a delicacy.

If fugu is properly
prepared by a licensed chef,

it is supposed to
be completely safe.

Yet every year, at
least 10 fatalities

are attributed to this delicacy.

I've told all my friends in New
York, I'm going to eat fugu.

I've told my wife I'm
going to eat fugu.

Now that it was time for my
appointment with destiny,

I'm having second thoughts.

This is the stuff of legends.

You eat fugu, you turn
colors, go numb, pitch over

on your face on the
table, and it's all over.

But for me, it's kind of like
climbing culinary Everest.

It's an obstacle
to be surmounted.

If people are willing
to risk death,

it must taste phenomenal.

And I'm guessing
that if maybe you

have a little bit of the poison,
you might get a nice buzz.

Fugu has a limited
season, and this is it.

That's how I find myself at
Nibiki Restaurant in Tokyo.

Inside Nibiki Fugu
Restaurant, I find

myself face to face
with Mr. Yoshida.




I'm not sure yet if he's
my chef or the grim reaper.

But he definitely holds
my life in his hands.

The danger of fugu comes
in its preparation.

One must be licensed,
extensively trained,

and handle it in certain
ways as prescribed by law.

It's a fairly
complicated business

to tell which parts are
toxic and which part's safe.

And there's
apparently no telling

how much of this
toxic substance is

present in any particular fish.

Every edible ounce must
be washed obsessively

to make sure it doesn't contain
a single micron of poison.

One ingested, there
was no antidote.


The cleanest way to
get-- the discarded organs

must be placed
under lock and key,

sent back to Tsukiji Market and
disposed of there so that there

is no possibility of this
potentially dangerous material

being misused or lost.

As I sit down at the
table, Mr. Yoshida

assures me, as long as the
fish is handled and prepared

correctly, there
is next to no risk.

Notice that's next to no risk.

The chef has just
informed me that if you

do start feeling a numbness
in your extremities,

you're in trouble.

If this is such a delicacy,
where is everybody?

I feel like the victim
of some gruesome joke.

Before I can slip out the
back door, the meal begins.

This is the fugu
sashimi, thin slices

of raw fugu served with soy
sauce, chives, and ground

radish, with red
pepper for dipping.

Mm, this is really good.

I can do this.

Next up is fugu nabe
style, the simmering soup

of fugu, tofu,
mushrooms, and cabbage,

made in a pot right
at your table.

All right.

Mm, it's wonderful.

It's very subtle.

I finish off the meal
with batter-fried fugu,

not unlike Arthur Treacher
or fish and chips.

You know, I could
eat this regularly.

There's nothing here that's
going to really weigh you down.

Here the whole idea
is you don't want

to distract from the taste
of the fugu, extraordinarily

subtle-tasting fish.

OK, so fugu actually
tastes rather bland.

I guess the thrill of eating
fugu is all in the risk.

I mean, this is a great
cocktail party story.

Yeah, yeah, I ate the poisonous
blowfish and I survived.

So I was a little disappointed.

I was kind of looking for
a buzz, frankly, and maybe

a little numbness
around the lips.

Once again, I had been laboring
under many misconceptions.

The old fugu story, I guess
it's the Japanese version

of the urban legend,
where, you know,

people talk about
it in New York as

if it were something very
different than what it is.

Like with most things in
Japan, the terror factor

is really overrated.

I mean, yeah, the cuisine
in Japan is different.

There's no two ways about it.

But food's like art.

I mean, just because
we're not Italian,

it doesn't mean we can't
appreciate Michelangelo.

It's the same thing with food.

Yet another in one of many
remarkable experiences

in this incredible town.

Someday, you know, in around
10 years of constant practice,

I think I will be a suitable
dinner companion in Japan.

And until that time, I'll
have to bumble clumsily

through one terrific
experience after another.