Food Loss Business Promoting Sustainability in the City of Gastronomy of Tokyo

An interview with Yamada Sakiko, who is using her broad domestic and international networks to drive forth a unique new initiative to combat food loss, discussing this issue in Tokyo.
Yamada Sakiko, President and CEO of FOOD LOSS BANK, at her office in Toranomon Hills.

Since its establishment in 2020, the FOOD LOSS BANK has garnered attention for its unique initiatives, including collaborations with luxury brands. The president of FOOD LOSS BANK, Yamada Sakiko, lived overseas for 18 years—in the U.S., the U.K., and Singapore.

Yamada, who says her love for food began when she was a child, became involved in the restaurant industry when she joined Meals on Wheels America, one of the largest privately funded charities in the U.S. Her career has included taking on the role of the Japan representative  of the International Academy of Gastronomy and that of an official ambassador for "The World's 50 Best Restaurants." She has utilized these international experiences, and the networks she has formed, to implement a wide range of food-based initiatives.

In 2022, Yamada received a decoration from King Felipe VI of Spain in recognition of her 11 years as the Japan representative at the International Academy of Gastronomy. On the left is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Spain Fidel Sendagorta. Photo: courtesy of Sakiko Yamada

—Why did you base FOOD LOSS BANK in Tokyo, and what are the organization's main activities?

"Partly it was because I was born and raised in Tokyo, and partly it was because I wanted to work towards urban sustainability. I've lived in three countries and have visited many, many cities overseas. And even then, I think of Tokyo as being the 'city of gastronomy.' There are so many restaurants, and the skill level of the chefs here is off the charts. Tokyo also has the technology that's essential to setting up a sustainable restaurant industry in an urban environment. Another advantage is that there are a lot of Japanese branches of foreign businesses, which makes it easier to communicate with a variety of companies.

"Japan is a country that is widely known for its food loss, with about 5.22 million tons (FY2020 estimate by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) of food loss every year. Because food loss is such an important issue in Japan, I think it's incredibly meaningful that we're taking these actions against it in the capital, in a city as distinct as Tokyo.

"What we do is quite varied, but the basic concept is 'Making sustainability sustainable.' What's important is making it a business that's sustainable for everyone involved, including those in the primary sector—and not just a volunteer effort, or some other temporary initiative. That's what's at the base of some of our projects, like UGLY LOVE, which makes use of non-standard produce like misshapen vegetables, and 'Rescue Rice,' which uses old Japanese rice, etc."

The word "bank" was included in the company name to express the idea that the "banking" of the right information by each individual is what leads to great change.

While the Food Loss Project sells some of the produce for the UGLY LOVE project themselves, they have also collaborated with restaurants and hotels. The initiatives that have gotten the most attention are those that work to reduce loss with the help of restaurants operated by luxury brands—for instance, Armani/Ristorante and Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura Tokyo, both located in the Ginza area.

Carmine Amarante, executive chef of Armani/Ristorante, who worked with FOOD LOSS BANK to offer a "Loss Food Menu" that uses non-standard produce, says, "Ms. Yamada is using her extensive network to communicate to chefs in Tokyo the realities of food loss, giving us an opportunity to take action. She also serves as a kind of bridge between chefs in Tokyo and local farmers." He went on to say,

"The 'Loss Food Menu' was a big challenge for us. We used a lot of different measures to maintain the quality of our dishes while using produce that could be of very different shapes and sizes. I think it helped enhance my experience and skills. We've been a lot more conscious of food loss in our store since we worked on this menu, and nowadays, the Armani/Ristorante kitchen barely has any loss (disposal of edible foodstuffs)."

Yamada with Carmine Amarante, executive chef of the Armani/Ristorante in Ginza. Photo: courtesy of Sakiko Yamada
"Chocolate Gems for Sustainability," a product that was developed in collaboration with BVLGARI IL CIOCCOLATO, a chocolatier in Tokyo. The products make use of fair-trade chocolate and non-standard produce, and the packaging is made of washi (traditional Japanese paper). "Sustainability" in this sense also refers to sustaining traditional Japanese culture. Photo: courtesy of Sakiko Yamada

—How do you feel about people's awareness of sustainability in Tokyo—in restaurants and on an individual level?

"I think chefs, restaurants, and companies are very aware of sustainability, and are making real efforts to make their businesses more sustainable. Very active efforts are being made, for instance, by L'Effervescence (Nishi-Azabu) and Restaurant Florilège (Aoyama), who have both received Michelin Green Stars (awarded to restaurants working actively towards sustainable gastronomy) in addition to their regular Michelin Star. These sustainability efforts being made by top chefs in Tokyo have vitalized the gastronomic scene, and have heightened awareness among young chefs as well. This year, I began serving as advisor to the RED U-35 (one of Japan's largest chef competitions and a setting for the scouting of young talent). What impressed me was how almost all of the finalists in the 2022 competition mentioned sustainability in the final round. I think in the past few years, the philosophy of chefs has shifted from the desire just to make tasty dishes to the desire to consider the future of the planet through food.

"Meanwhile, I think we as consumers haven't fully realized the urgency of the food loss problem as much as we should. In Japan, on an annual basis, almost half of the country's food waste (approximately 2.47 million tons) is coming from households. When we think of food loss and waste, we tend to think it's mostly the responsibility of governments and companies. However, considering this number, I actually think individual behaviors are also key. It's critical to start taking action now, even if starting with just a small step. Tokyo has a massive population, which means shifts in awareness amongst individuals can lead to a major change. If Tokyo, with all of its people and restaurants, is able to change its behavior, then we could become a model case for other cities across the globe. The best thing would be for all of us in the world to protect this planet together."

—What is your outlook for the future?

"I tend not to set goals that are too specific. I was supposed to be in the U.S. for only a year, and I ended up living there for over ten years. I'm where I am today because I've met so many great people and they have had a great impact on my life. I would like to live my life without deciding where I will be too much ahead of time. So, I don't eliminate unforeseeable possibilities."

"Tokyo is truly an excellent city, so unique and diverse. My general thought now is that I want to set up a framework that will allow Tokyo to help other cities as a model case. I also serve as a member of the International Promotion Executive Committee for the Tokyo Bay eSG Project*, and I'm very excited to see where that project will go.

"I will keep connecting dots—both tangible and intangible—that weren't previously connected, so that we can create new synergies. People would often tell me that I could connect these luxury brands and non-standard products, but it was clear that we could make a bigger impact by connecting concepts that seem 'far away from each other.' I think the farther away the concepts are, the greater the synergy that occurs between them—as long as they share a base belief or awareness."

 Next-generation urban development plan based on the concept of sustainable recovery, currently under implementation by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in the Tokyo Bay area.

Yamada Sakiko

President and CEO of FOOD LOSS BANK. Founder of Splendent Media LLC, a film production company based in Los Angeles, U.S. Holds many concurrent positions, serving as representative of the Academie Japonaise de la Gastronomie, producer of the Cabinet Office's Cool Japan Projects, a member of the International Promotion Executive Committee for the Tokyo Bay eSG Project, and more.
Interview and Composition by Monzen Naoko
Photos by Ueda Sho
Translation by Amitt