Bento boxes on their way to change the world’s lunch scene

September 15, 2012

By ERINA ITO/ Staff Writer

KYOTO--One could forgive Thomas Bertrand for feeling boxed in.

After all, the self-proclaimed "bento" (lunchbox) specialist operates "boutique du bento," a store selling every type of bento imaginable.

The French national, who now calls Kyoto home, also sells bento lunch boxes over the Internet and has cultivated bento fans in 80 or so countries.

This fall, a bento box competition will be convened in Japan and France simultaneously, for the first time. The word bento has also made it into the French dictionary, proof that the humble bento is going global.

Bertrand, 31, opened Bento&co in the city's Nakagyo Ward in April. The shop is packed with Japanese-style lunch boxes, including traditional "magewappa" bento sets from Akita Prefecture made of Japanese cedar.

There is a type of thermos lunchbox that keeps the contents piping hot. The lacquer-ware were developed with the help of artisans from Yamanaka onsen in Ishikawa Prefecture, which has a five-century tradition of producing beautiful bento.

Bertrand grew up dreaming of Japan.

"All French children of my generation grew up watching Japanese anime," he explained.

Bertrand entered Kyoto University as an international student in 2003.

His blog entries about life in Kyoto attracted numerous followers in his homeland, where a boom in Japanese culture was under way.

Then in 2008, his mother mentioned that she has read an article in a magazine about bento. Apparently the French were wondering about those "attractive lunches" that appear in Japanese anime.

Bertrand felt the stirrings of a business opportunity.

He bought all kinds of bento boxes.

And with his wife Eriko, 34, he set up a website for the French audience, and began selling Japanese lunch boxes online.

The timing couldn't have been better: the collapse of Lehman Brothers had sparked a global downturn and people were tightening their belts by packing their own lunches.

Bertrand's website caught on.

Two years ago, he expanded his services to English and added a Japanese online shopping site this year.

Business grew steadily. Each month, Bertrand ships out around 1,000 bento boxes to 80 or so countries.

The Great East Japan Earthquake sparked a movement to "support Japan through bento."

Bertrand saw orders streaming in from all parts of the world.

Starting 2009, he has been hosting a bento contest on his website. This year, there were 237 entries from 23 countries.

"There are lunch boxes in other countries, too," Bertrand said. "But they cater to single items like sandwiches or pasta. But Japanese bento are so colorful. They offer balanced nutrition. Everything is there, including rice and side dishes, even dessert packed inside the limited space of the tiny lunch box. Bento are economical, healthy and extremely attractive."

The word bento has now been added to the French dictionary. The definition places it as a masculine noun of Japanese origin: a packable meal taken during lunch breaks.

Professional chefs have also taken notice of the rise of bento.

"La Semaine du Goût" (Tasting Week), held each October in France since 1989, came about because professional chefs wanted to ensure that children had an opportunity to learn about the country's gastronomical culture.

This year, a bento competition will be held for the first time. Audiences, with the help of a popular recipe website, will cast votes based on photographs of entries to choose the winning bento.

The French "Tasting Week" event officially took off in Japan last year. This year, a bento competition will take place simultaneously in Japan, too.

Bento aficionados will be invited to send in their entries. A food writer who serves on the panel of judges for the French contest will be in Japan during Tasting Week for the selection process.

A Japanese official in charge of the event said: "We hope to show the world how the essence of Japanese aesthetics and culture is condensed inside the box; and to promote bento as a subculture of 'washoku,' traditional Japanese cuisine."

* * *

Check Bento&co's website at (http://en.bentoandco.com/).

By ERINA ITO/ Staff Writer
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Winners of the 2012 Bento contest:
Entry from France (Provided by Bento&co)

Winners of the 2012 Bento contest: Entry from France (Provided by Bento&co)

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  • Winners of the 2012 Bento contest:
Entry from France (Provided by Bento&co)
  • Winners of the 2012 Bento contest:
Entry from France (Provided by Bento&co)
  • Winners of the 2012 Bento contest:
Entry from Germany (Provided by Bento&co)
  • Winners of the 2012 Bento contest:
Entry from Singapore (Provided by Bento&co)
  • Thomas Bertrand recommends his top pick "bento" boxes to students at his shop, Bento&co, in Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto. (Erina Ito)

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