Is Cooking for Oneself Part of Modern-Day Self-Care? We Discussed Future of “Alatable” with Yuka Yamaguchi, a Cooking Expert Specializing in Cooking for Oneself, and Michiaki Matsushima, Editor-in-Chief of Wired Japan.

We released the beta version of “Alatable,” an online service to expand the community of people who enjoy cooking. The service is designed to encourage people to “share the fun of cooking” at a time when home cooking opportunities increase, while more and more eat meals alone and cooking motivation declines. We recently invited Yuka Yamaguchi, a cooking expert specializing in single dwellers’ cooking for themselves, and Michiaki Matsushima, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine’s Japanese edition, to critique “Alatable” while actually handling its beta version. The topic of our conversation moved from the design philosophy behind “Alatable”—“cooking represents the cook’s personality”—to the significance of modern-day single dwellers’ cooking for themselves, and onto changes in due to decentralization brought by digital technology.
(Interview date: 02/28/2020)

What is “Alatable”?

It’s an online service to expand the community of people who enjoy cooking, designed to encourage people to “share the fun of cooking”.. Users will be invited to post photos of food they have cooked and connect with other users by using hashtags, casting Like votes and posting messages. Based on the concept of “a new community formed through cooking,” the service is now being developed in a design to bring people together through cooking and, further, offer new user experiences of enjoying cooking together online.

  • Yuka Yamaguchi
    A cooking expert specializing in cooking for oneself, she is also a food writer. When she was 7, her busy working mother gently “threatened” her saying, “We can’t eat dinner unless you make dinner tonight, Yuka. Can you do it?” She thus became involved in cooking. After stints with a publisher and a food-related PR company, Yamaguchi became a freelancer in April 2018. For herself she normally cooks meals consisting only of a soup, rice and a side dish to keep everyday cooking enjoyable and comfortable, while for special occasions she looks for small but strong restaurants. Through “Cooking-for-Oneself Lessons,” her face-to-face cooking class for beginners, as well as seminars, a visiting employee canteen service, essays and videos, she works in diverse ways to increase the number of single dwellers who cook for themselves. Her favorite food is miso soup.
  • Michiaki Matsushima
    As editor-in-chief of Wired Japan, a tech-culture magazine, Matsushima has been responsible for such feature stories as “Digital Wellbeing,” “Mirror World,” “Futures Literacy.” Born in Tokyo and now living in Kamakura, he joined NHK Publishing in 1996, becoming involved with acquiring Japanese translation rights, editing, promotion and more. He was engaged in the publication of many books including Free, Share, Zero to One, The Inevitable, Singularity Is Near and Born to Run. He moved onto Wired Japan in 2018.
  • Makoto Ojima : Product Manager, Alatable
    Ajinomoto Co., Inc. Consumer Data Analysis & Business Creation Dept.
  • Kentaro Sakai : Product Manager, Alatable
    Ajinomoto Co., Inc. Consumer Data Analysis & Business Creation Dept.

Cooking Represents the Cook’s Personality

Makoto Ojima: “Today I would like you to tell me your candid opinions on ‘Alatable.’ But first, let me explain the background for developing it. Our aim with ‘Alatable’ is to connect people through cooking and contribute to their wellbeing. “

“In the process of development, we came upon the theory, ‘cooking represents the cook’s personality.’ What sort of thinking made the person cook the particular dish? How did he or she come across the ingredients used, and with whom did he or she cook it? What kinds of tableware were chosen and how was the food dished up? All these elements involved in cooking reflect the cook’s personality. And when others identify with those elements, they will come to cheer for the cook or become inspired to cook that unfamiliar dish for themselves. In short, what we want to see is for the ‘Alatable’ service to spread food-related experiences.”

Michiaki Matsushima: “Interesting. How well cooking or food photos will depict their poster’s personality will be very important, then. When you post photos of your cooking, what can you do to make viewers better understand your intended context? If the photos were merely pretty, that wouldn’t be any different from any other social media.”

Ojima: “Right. We definitely want cooking to be the starting point. So our architecture for the site calls for photos of the poster’s own cooking, rather than the poster him/herself.”

Matsushima: “An artificial intelligence analysis feature, for instance, would add to the service’s expansion potential. AI would calculate calories and automatically generate hashtags based only on photos posted.”

Ojima: “Those kinds of data when accumulated would probably be able to make the context of any particular cooking clear. I think it would be interesting if Alatable ’ became a source of cooking trend information—information, for example, on what kinds of dishes were being cooked at Japanese homes, which could then be mapped on a map of Japan.”

Matsushima: “In this day and age, it’s extremely hard to have users install a new app on their smartphones. It might be interesting if, instead of rivaling to obtain a position on smartphones’ home screens, data accumulated while other apps were being used could be used for in place of a special-purpose app. How do you plan to develop your service?”

Ojima: “We have several plans. For example, we are considering cooking and eating together online via an app if participants can’t get together physically—starting with chopping veggies together. We thought it would be interesting to bring forth a sense of ‘co-presence’ through cooking ‘together.’ We would also like to offer a service to allow people to cook and eat physically together at a rented kitchen space—in a sort of a ‘kitchen as a service’ style.”

Yuka Yamaguchi: “That sounds great. It may not be easy to invite friends to one’s home and cook together, but it would be fun for friends to get together at a kitchen for rent that’s, say, inside a station complex convenient for all members. Left-over ingredients could be stored in a common refrigerator there for other groups to use. Some home kitchens in Tokyo have only a single-burner cooktop, without even enough space for a chopping board. It’s perfectly understandable for people in those circumstances not to feel like cooking. So your approach of changing the cooking environment itself is very convincing.”

Matsushima: “It’s great that people will be able to cook in a mood different from home this way. And if fine tableware and ingredients can be used there, or experimental cooking can be prototyped, entirely new value may even be created.”

Aiming to Build a Community Different from Instagram’s

Yamaguchi: “I think that it’ll be interesting to see a community formed around ‘Alatable’ that’s different from Instagram’s. I use Instagram myself, but I don’t want to really (laughs). The reason is that Instagram has become a place where, in order to increase the number of followers, you need to post photos that are unified in style. Mind you, I’ve personally given up increasing followers, and so I now use the media only loosely (laughs).”

Matsushima: “In other words, Instagram has become a venue for competing to attract attention.”

Yamaguchi: “That’s right. Besides, when you search Instagram with the ‘home cooking’ hashtag, pictures of some 15 different dishes arranged on a table come out. If such things were called home cooking, I wouldn't know what to do. This phenomenon I think still reflects the values of the old days, when the abundance of the number of dishes equaled richness. Like Mr. Yoshiharu Doi, a respected cooking expert, as a cooking expert specializing in cooking for oneself I, too, advocate minimal but satisfying meals, such as one consisting only of a soup, rice and a side dish*. I insist that, if you accept a simple meal like that as home-cooked, it will be easy for you to carry on cooking for yourself.”

* It has traditionally been considered that a standard Japanese meal is made up of a soup, rice and three side dishes.

Kentaro Sakai: “At ‘Alatable’ we don’t want to attract only Instagrammable food photos. Rather, we want to highlight and prize everyday cooking. As part of developing our service, we began testing it with a limited number of users. And we’ve found that some post photos of cooked really elaborately, and others contributed those of just a home-cooked fried egg. When I myself posted pictures of what I had cooked very quickly, surprisingly, quite a few identified with it, though I had expected no ‘Like’ votes.”

Yamaguchi: “You want to spend a day very carefully sometimes and want to just crash and sleep on some other days. That’s only human. ‘Alatable’ may attract a large number of those who can cook for themselves, but I think it will be important not to leave those who can’t behind.”

Matsushima: “Yes, a service’s culture is often determined by its initial users. So it’s important to be careful in that respect. Whether you will be able to establish a community different from Instagram’s will depend on it.”

Yamaguchi: “Right, those who cook elaborately would probably go for Instagram, and that’ll be fine (laughs).”

Cooking for Oneself as Self-Care

Yamaguchi: “When I talk to the students of my cooking class, I find that many feel they’re not doing their best compared to others around them, although they do cook for themselves to a certain degree. I also find that the more they feel they are poor cooks, the more they believe that greater amounts of ingredients and seasonings produce better cooking results. In other words, the abundance of the number of dishes and ingredients, which I referred to earlier, is still the criterion of a ‘rich’ meal. People should hang loose more, and I believe that being a cooking expert specializing in cooking for oneself is a job of helping them relax.”

Matsushima: “Hence you advocate a meal of a soup, rice and a side dish.”

Yamaguchi: “That’s right. You find a ton of cookbooks at bookstores, but the first three recipes in many of them are fried chicken, hamburger steak and rice omelet: the exact three most popular home-cooked dishes of the Showa era are still unupdated and still representing a certain kind of richness. But, though these dishes are popular and tasty indeed, they take time and effort to make, as well as a certain amount of skill. They aren’t exactly what busy people would want to cook everyday.”
“Besides, the ‘Gold Hamburger Steak’ sold at 7-Eleven is pretty good, and adding a fried egg on top of it is fine ‘cooking for oneself’ as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be happy if ‘Alatable’ turns out to be the sort of service on which a photo of a 7-Eleven hamburger steak with a fried egg added on top can be posted. It’ll be wonderful, too, if ‘Alatable’ can establish a culture where such a photo won’t be dissed as ‘lazy’ or ‘sloppy.’ “
“By the way, because I think this way, I call myself not a professional cook but a ‘professional amateur.’”

“What I want to do as a ‘professional amateur’ is help increase those who get satisfied and happy by cooking for themselves. That’s because, if you externalize your confidence by relying on other people’s evaluation of you—‘Like’ votes on social media, for example—you will be diminishing yourself.”

Matsushima: “That’s really about self-care, isn’t it? It’s surprising that a talk about cooking for oneself should lead to a social issue this way.”

Sakai: “We are concerned that, the way things are now, the future of food may not be fun. For instance, we don’t think it’s a wealthy life to keep eating just ‘complete food’ so that one can get absorbed in his/her work or hobby. If ‘efficiency’ will be the only value in the future even with food, then we will have no raison d’etre. Ms. Yamaguchi, what’s your thought about the future of food?”

Yamaguchi: “I sometimes wonder how many in Japan today are really hungry for any particular food at any given time. Isn’t it true that people today worry about nutrition values before thinking about the pleasure of eating? I do want people to prize their everyday feelings about what they want to eat at mealtime. I want to ask those who feel they ‘must’ ingest certain types of nutrition, ’And what about the health of your mind?’”

All Processes from Growing Foods to Eating Them;
What Digital Technology Can Recover

Ojima: When thinking about the future of food, what do you think is the role played by digital technology?

Matsushima: “I happen to think that the greatest joy of food lies in growing and harvesting it. That part is missing entirely from our lives today, but I think technology can perhaps recover it.”

“There is a startup move to develop vertical farming that originated in Berlin. When this approach is packaged, it’ll be possible to grow vegetables efficiently at supermarkets. Vegetables grown this way would have zero food miles and would therefore be environmental. As extensions of this approach, it will become possible to grow vegetables and cultured meats efficiently at home, enabling people to do everything from growing cooking ingredients to harvesting and eating them all by themselves. Seeing the future of such development would be extremely pleasurable.”

“Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have concentrated all functions necessary for consuming in urban cities. The fundamental characteristic of digital technology, however, is ‘decentralization’; I think that the process of decentralizing the production of food and energy for people to thereby ‘recover’ such necessities into their own homes will accelerate in the future.”

Ojima: “Do you practice anything along that line?”

Matsushima: “I live in Kamakura, and I grow veggies in the yard and harvest and eat them. That alone creates a relevant food context. It makes me happy to know what I’m eating 100 percent.”

“There’s another thing. Kamakura has had direct-sale outlets for vegetables called ‘Renbai’ (Kamakura City Agricultural Co-op Association Retail Outlets) since 100 years ago, and there are of course fishing ports as well. There are only fresh seasonal foods on sale at these places all the year round. Ever since I moved to Kamakura, I’ve been deciding what to cook after seeing what’s available at these outlets, instead of going shopping for stuff I need to cook what I decided to cook beforehand. That’s because I often can’t find the particular fish I wanted beforehand at the ports (laughs). But I find it fun to cook with the ingredients I obtain at these places.”

Yamaguchi: “Isn’t it surprising that supermarkets anywhere nationwide sell exactly the same cooking ingredients? Well, recipes work only because supermarkets anywhere and anytime offer the same ingredients, rather than nature in local areas limiting supplies.”

Matsushima: “Yes. Nature gives us the excitement of trying to figure out the best solution within limitations. It’ll be great if ‘Alatable’ can package that sort of excitement in its services. Earlier, there was a mention of establishing a members’ kitchen within a station complex; how about leaving in the kitchen only locally grown cooking ingredients, for instance? It’s a ‘farm to kitchen’ sort of idea, instead of the ‘farm to table’ one. It would be very interesting if ‘Alatable’ realized that kind of world.”

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