It began with one man who decided it was time that vegetables and fruits deserved to be better understood and appreciated by the world.
Frustrated that Japanese farmers’ lovingly grown produce were underappreciated by consumers and how the public could not easily access authoritative and credible knowledge about vegetables and fruits, Mr Eiji Fukui made a life-changing decision.
The World’ First Vegetable Sommelier Association
In 2001, he set up the world’s first vegetable sommelier association in Japan. The Japan Vegetable Sommelier Association had daunting challenges to address.
Professionals and consumers perceived value in produce differently.
Staff in charge of vegetables at supermarkets and at other localities were knowledgeable in pricing and cultivation methods. However, consumers were more interested in what kinds of nutrients the vegetables possessed, or what sort of seasonal dishes could be prepared to best enjoy the vegetables, knowledge which the staff may not possess.
At that time, the vegetables were usually perceived as mere products for sale. Consumers were not willing to pay for premium quality produce as they do today. Farmers felt undervalued and Japan’s farming industry was already declining as the average age of farmers was increasing (due to Japan having an ageing population).
Professionals understood the value of vegetables from a business standpoint but struggled to communicate this to consumers, who valued different aspects of the vegetables such as health and nutrition.
The Important Role of The Vegetable Sommelier
Fukui-san wondered how he could bring forth the value that vegetables had in the daily lives of people, and how the public could learn how to discern and distinguish between different qualities of vegetables to appreciate the farmers’ hard work.
After some thought, he concluded that there was a need for a new role of a ‘Vegetable Sommelier’ to empower people with the knowledge and essence of what was wonderful about fruits and vegetables which were produced with care. He also hoped JVSA could prevent the decline of Japan’s (as well as the world’s) farming industry by acting as a bridge between producers and consumers.
Supported by just one part-time staff, Fukui-san rolled up his sleeves and began his work to train and groom vegetable sommeliers.
He first spoke to stakeholders in the industry — nutritionists, supermarket retailers, cooking teachers, academic experts and more — to analyse what the ‘value of the vegetable’ means. He looked for authoritative sources of information, such as the government and universities, and studied how Western countries like France, United Kingdom and United States valued and certified quality products (such as the Michelin Guide, ISO and HACCP).
He noted value factors such as where, when and how the vegetable was grown, its nutritional value, how it was transported and stored, how the seasons of the year affected its taste, to how it was cut, cooked and served.
Fukui-san approached presidents of wholesalers, supermarkets and F&B businesses like bakeries, salad companies and sandwich joints to convince them to send their staff for the Vegetable Sommelier certification.
In JVSA’s first year, 15 professionals were certified Vegetable Sommeliers. The learning didn’t stop there.
These newly-certified Vegetable Sommeliers gave feedback to their bosses that the certification made them realise how limited their understanding of vegetables was. Before the course, they were only concerned about the cost, shape and size of the vegetables they purchased, processed and sold to customers.
However, during the course, they realised they had overlooked how their customers valued the taste and nutritional value of the vegetables. Being certified enabled them to understand and upgrade themselves to address their customers’ concerns better.
Growing the Network of Vegetable Sommeliers
In 2002, one year after JVSA was formed, there was a tenfold increase to 150 students, of which 80% were professionals, and 20% were consumers.
In 2003, 500 students took the certification, with again 80% professionals, and 20% consumers. Among one of the students was a famous Japanese celebrity who blogged about her experience.
Through word-of-mouth, 5,000 students signed up to be Vegetable Sommeliers in 2004, and for the first time, the majority (80%) were consumers! Since then, JVSA has trained and certified thousands of Vegetable Sommeliers every year.
Until now, JVSA has not been largely advertised in any media or television commercials.
However, the fact that 58,000 people in Japan have become Vegetable Sommeliers proves just how important and beneficial professionals and consumers view the certification. The Vegetable Sommelier certification has expanded overseas to South Korea (with 15,000 certified Vegetable Sommeliers), China and Thailand as well.
How does one become a Vegetable Sommelier?
The Vegetable Sommelier certification is suitable for anyone who is interested in vegetables and fruits. Professionals in F&B businesses, food writing, nutritionists, health consultants and agriculture supply chains can take up the certification.
JVSA currently has three certifications:
• Vegetable Sommelier Course,
• Vegetable Sommelier Pro Course, and
• Vegetable Sommelier Advanced Professional Course.
In order to become a Vegetable Sommelier, students attend two-hour lectures on seven subjects each, ranging from classification and labelling to creating recipes that bring out the character of the produce. Students then undertake an examination and ensure they complete the mandatory assignments given by JVSA.
Students learn about food-related Japanese philosophies too. In Japan, there is a word “shun” (seasonality) which specifically refers to the peak period in which fruits and vegetables should be consumed for optimum flavour. With the knowledge of shun, we learn how to enjoy vegetables to the fullest in terms of their nutrients, preparation and taste. For example, natsu no shun (or summer seasonal dishes) include pickled plums, watermelons, soya beans and peaches.
The benefits of becoming a Vegetable Sommelier are acquiring a wide knowledge of vegetables and fruit essential to one’s diet, learning effective cooking methods and using your knowledge to help families improve their health and diet.
Many Vegetable Sommeliers are active in various fields such as recipe development, product development, agricultural product branding, cooking class, restaurant development and menu development. Some are also lecturers who conduct event seminars on the intrinsic value of vegetables (nutritional value and cooking methods) and food writers.
Why Vegetable Sommeliers Play An Important Role In Our Planet’s Future
According to Fukui-san, before the JVSA was founded, there were only three types of tomatoes in the supermarket and Japanese farmers only grew traditional Japanese vegetables. Vegetables also used to be a side dish in Japanese meals.
However today, you can find 15 varieties of tomatoes in supermarkets. Japanese farmers are also growing a range of international vegetables, and more Japanese are consuming vegetables as their main dish for health purposes.
Fukui-san, whose favourite vegetable is steamed kabu (turnip) and whose eyes light up at the thought of Japanese strawberries, says that vegetables are good for health and society’s well-being, which is why Vegetable Sommeliers are important because they make a difference to people and society.
He also hopes farmers can be appreciated and remunerated better for their labour so they will remain in the agriculture business. This means consumers must be convinced why they should pay more for quality produce, which can be expedited if more people are educated by Vegetable Sommeliers to appreciate the value of vegetables and fruits.
JVSA believes that by promoting a better understanding of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and encouraging more people to increase their intake of vegetables and fruits, we can create sustainable diets that are beneficial for both human health and Earth’s environment. This could potentially reduce poverty, hunger and climate change.
Having more certified Vegetable Sommeliers to educate the public will make a difference to our food habits and help us be more mindful of how our actions impact our world’s sustainability. We will also have a deeper appreciation of the hard work of multiple workers in the food supply chain that enables the end consumers to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Featured photo of a Vegetable Sommelier: JVSA