I tell my Japanophile friends friends they’d love Cooking with Dog and wait a beat or two to enjoy their stifled looks of horror. It’s a YouTube Japanese cooking show from a team of three: the unseen producer, the chef—called Chef—and the host, a living dog. He’s a gray toy poodle named Francis and he’s quite safe from the frying pan. Reassuring, even-toned Chef briefly introduces her recipe of choice at the beginning of each episode and ends with encouraging tips in Japanese. Francis narrates cooking instructions in English from a doggy bed behind and to the side of Chef, while she demonstrates. He is never on the menu, except in the form of a dog-shaped almond cookie.
Cooking with Dog first introduced English speakers to washoku (traditional Japanese cooking) in September 2007 with a low-budget, low quality instructional video for making sukiyaki. Eight years later, that original video has over 1.3 million views. Cooking with Dog brings a new recipe to over 1.1 million YouTube channel subscribers every Friday. Francis’s fans are committed. A recent video for Yuki-nabe or “grated daikon and pork hot pot” has subtitles in Dutch, Indonesian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese, translated by regular viewers worldwide. The enthusiastic audience comments on each video with additional cooking tips and advice on making substitutions for dietary restrictions or difficult to find Japanese ingredients. A small minority are joyless people freaking out about the raw egg served with dishes, such as fried tsukune (chicken meatballs) or oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl), or a dog being so close to food preparation (dangerous and gross!).
The production value of the show has greatly improved in eight years and Chef’s kitchen has gotten upgrades. In the first episodes, the kitchen is glaring white tile and stainless steel on blurry footage. Francis’s narration is echoey and stilted. But his English pronunciation improves with time, so does the editing. The ugly frosted windows in the back of the Chef’s kitchen have been replaced with clear ones that let in natural light. She now keeps potted plants and figurines on shelves
Cooking with Dog isn’t a glamorized cooking show. It’s a longitudinal look into the life of a woman and her beloved dog in the intimate space of her home kitchen. In eight years, both Chef and the dog age and their styles evolve. Francis started with a poofy mullet, but these days his hair has lost some volume and is kept back with colorful hair ribbons or barrettes. His eyes are clouding. The tear stains on his face have gotten more pronounced. Francis is slowing down. He falls asleep on his feet, if he bothers to stand at all. Sometimes he wakes up and whines, especially when Chef is cooking meat. Check out his extended high pitched song of wistful yearning in the August 2015 video on pork steak shogayaki.
Francis’s popularity is growing. This year Cooking with Dog left the kitchen and went traveling to places of great culinary importance for a Japanese TV show called Go! Francis! Francis hosted in the form of needlefelted version of himself —created by a fellow YouTuber with a crafting show. In the summer, the toy version of this toy poodle sported a festive yukata (lightweight summer kimono) to visit a fresh cold noodle restaurant where his human companions used chopsticks to catch bites of somen flowing down a cool stream of water in a bamboo channel. For vicarious foodie tourists outside Japan, Go! Francis! episodes are available in the Cooking with Dog YouTube channel.
I moved to a rural prefecture in Japan to teach English for a year in March 2007. In Japan, I lived in a Leopalace, a metal block of tiny cheaply constructed apartments that reminded me of mailboxes. While ovens with stovetops and refrigerators are standard and provided by landlords in American apartments, Japanese renters own their own and move them from apartment to apartment. Leopalaces were popular with foreigners because they came partially furnished. My kitchenette had a small sink, mini fridge, two-burner electric stovetop, and microwave. I later added a rice cooker, but had to place it on the floor in the short hall to the bathroom. There was no oven, no preparation space, and almost no storage for food or pots. The cramped, thin-walled Leopalaces weren’t a place for families. Most of my fellow tenants were single. A young Japanese couple lived in the apartment next to me and had loud sex in English.
This was enough for young Japanese people who were expected to stay in their family home until marriage, but decided to pursue a solitary life for economic and social opportunities. Most young Japanse people did not cook in their small apartments, but ate in quick-paced restaurants instead. The only person I knew with a full-sized oven was a Japanese housewife with a family, house, and rose garden. As someone who enjoyed rudimentary cooking and baking, I was frustrated.
I wish I had known about Cooking with Dog when I lived in Japan. I was so desperate to find entertainment in English that I listened to Rush Limbaugh on armed forces radio and finished The Fountainhead. My DSL was slow—although I was lucky to have anything better than dial-up in rural Japan. I couldn’t access Hulu or Netflix. YouTube was as much of a load as my connection could handle. Cooking with Dog would have helped me understand what to do with unfamiliar ingredients in the grocery store and might have illustrated what was in the novel dishes I anxiously ordered at restaurants.
Cooking with Dog is precisely relevant because Chef cooks dishes for one or two people utilizing the types of appliances single Japanese adults might be able to fit in their apartment or nascent chefs worldwide just beginning to stock their kitchens. She uses a portable gas burner on a tabletop cooking with one pot at a time. For baking she chooses her toaster oven, or a small-scale conventional oven. This isn’t Martha Stewart stuffing for a giant Thanksgiving turkey on her massive granite countertop. This is Chef, Our Lady of Personal Nourishment, and her dog pal proving that anyone can make a couple servings of sukiyaki after work with helpful step-by-step instructions.