A ‘Collab’ space for slow food
Chit U. Juan (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2017 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - An hour or so from Tokyo by Shinkanzen or bullet train, you reach a city called Ueda, within the Nagano prefecture. It is not only a place full of history like the Sanada Maru, but also of innovative ideas like a Collab Café. And it is not run by millennials, unlike “collabs” are in Manila.

Housewife Arimoto Shuuko had issues with her sons’ skin condition which was like eczema. She started to choose natural produce to cook him meals that were “clean” of pesticides and chemicals, organic vegetables and ingredients that she sourced from known vendors and farmers. All of a sudden her son’s condition improved and has never been better. And that’s the secret medicine – good and clean food.

Arimoto-san wanted to share these recipes with other mothers and is now part of a Collab Café in Ueda City, where chefs and would-be chefs come to use the kitchen and facilities. They get paid and in turn donate 30 percent for the upkeep of the lab cum café. The Collab Café was supported for five years by the Municipality of Ueda and sits beside a local Tourism office, on Ueda’s main street. On its sixth year it is now on its own sustainability path, helped by all the chefs and participants of its program.

So far many chefs have also put up their own cafés or restaurants after a stint at the Collab Café. At least, before venturing into a full-blown investment of a business they are able to take baby steps and get a feel of how it’s like to run a café or restaurant. All that learning for a small donation to the Collab Café’s coffers.

The day we visited, Arimoto-san prepared a chickpea curry with egg on rice, and another choice which was a savory crepe. I had the curry which tasted “free of MSG” unlike most places in Japan. They say Japan, though clean on raw food, is notorious for adding MSG in soups and even curries. After all, the biggest MSG manufacturer is a Japanese company, remember? At least until Philippine manufacturers, such as the big food companies in our midst, made their own “sarap” versions in small sachets. I actually feel sad that one of our local homegrown seasonings brand also sold to a big company.

The rules at the Collab Café are simple, according to Ito Tomoe, the lady who runs this non-profit organization. The code of conduct simply promotes the following:

Use local ingredients whenever possible. This ensures that local farmers are part of the beneficiaries. Many local farmers wanted to go organic but had difficulty finding regular markets. Until they found the chefs who could use their produce.

Educate the consumers. The chefs who use the Collab Café teach consumers about organic products and why they should support the local farming community. There are regular Monday chefs or Friday chefs as there are new guest chefs who introduce their home-cooked recipes. These housewives share their secret recipes while giving the consumers variety in menu items and featured dishes.

Promote CSA or community-supported agriculture. The customers become conscious of what they eat and what they buy. And local farmers get to meet the chefs and consumers as well. The consumers start to buy local produce to use in their homes.

The chefs are encouraged to follow the code of conduct, and that is just about the only requirement to be a guest chef and be able to use the facilities, including the kitchen staff, who are maintained by the non-profit organization.

To further increase their store’s income and improve sustainability of the enterprise, Tomoe accepts consigned goods from local artisans and bakers. The store sells gift items like handcrafted bags, local food like jams, pastries and sweets, too.

It’s actually promoting the Slow Food principles of eating good, clean and fair food.

So if ever you’re in the Nagano area of Japan, try out this café. And check who the guest chef of the day is.

It’s a wonderful idea we can adopt and suggest to the Department of Trade and Industry, where a shared service facility can be used by would-be chefs who can try out running a real café before investing good money in one, alone and scared of what will happen. This way, you can dip your toes first in the water, as the saying goes, before taking that leap of faith.

You can reach Ueda City from Tokyo by taking the train to Nagano. Contact http://ueda-collabo.com or email miccafe1217@gmail.com Photos by Chit U. Juan

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