Meet the Chef That Brings Japanese Roots To Health-Conscious Southern Californians | KCET
Meet the Chef That Brings Japanese Roots To Health-Conscious Southern Californians
Necco, a small and stylishly bohemian restaurant in West L.A., offers innovative spins on traditional Japanese dishes that vibrantly showcase SoCal produce with healthful dishes. The intimate dining space on Westwood Blvd. is overseen by chef and co-owner Kenji Koyama who thoughtfully crafts ornately-designed small plates served à la carte with options for nearly all dietary preferences, as well as a newly launched tasting course menu that includes an option for both omnivores and vegans. Necco, which translates to “roots” in Japanese, not only showcases root vegetables such as lotus and taro on the menu, but also celebrates chef Koyama’s Japanese roots while at the same time deepening his foundation here with uniquely L.A. flourishes.
Seated at the chef’s counter in the cool, minimalist dining room of Necco, you’ll likely see Koyama preparing a few familiar ingredients that you may have had at other Japanese restaurants, but here they’re prepared in creatively unexpected ways. There’s the spicy tuna brown rice taco, a three-tiered tower made with layers of baked brown rice “tortillas” and large cuts of seasoned tuna. While you could certainly opt for small bites like the nori maki of salmon and roe or scallop and uni, non-fish-eaters and curious palates alike should try his vegan sushi such as the artfully prepared bell pepper pickles that resemble tuna or the wasabi-topped tempeh that looks like eel. And, of course, you’ll also find roots prominently featured in dishes like the lotus root and brown rice croquette with asparagus, or the satoimo agedashi made of a crispy ball of mashed taro with edamame and shiitake mushrooms and served in a vegetarian shojin dashi stock. Koyama also makes subtle use of nutrient-rich and healthy ingredients such as fermented koji rice and tensai sugar, an unprocessed option made from beets grown in Hokkaido, Japan.
Koyama grew up in Tokyo where during high school he worked part-time at an izakaya restaurant in the Setagaya Prefecture. But it wasn’t long before he would become inspired by the Southern California lifestyle. He first came to visit Los Angeles during a summer break when he and a friend came to visit his friend’s uncle who owned a Japanese restaurant in Encino, a connection that would soon help shape his career path. After graduating high school, Koyama explains, “I was young, I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then in 1993 my friend's uncle visited Japan, and he said, ‘If you want to, you can come work in my restaurant’. But he explained that if I came to work, I'd have to stay for three years because of the visa. I thought, three years is a long time, but in three years I'd be 22 and still young, so I thought, 'Why not, I'll just try it."
Less than a month later, Koyama was on his way to L.A. As the first country he had visited outside of Japan, he admits that he took to the U.S. immediately. “It was big, huge. It meant blue skies and everything bigger than in Japan, so it made me feel more free,” he says. “And it was a challenge for me, a chance to try something new. It was exciting.”
Not long after the move, however, the monotonous reality of working six days a week prepping izakaya skewers at the restaurant began to wear on Koyama. As a 19-year-old, he also felt isolated from his co-workers who were significantly older than him. So he was drawn to a new, and very SoCal, hobby. “I took up surfing because I had no friends,” he explains. “I worked at the restaurant six days a week, all day, and I would just see my coworkers who were all over 30 years old. I had no friends and nothing fun, just work and then go home and nothing else. I wanted to make friends and I thought, ‘I have to do something, find some hobby.’ And there are beaches everywhere, so asked someone if they could teach me to surf, and they did.”
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Koyama’s newfound hobby not only helped him develop a new group of friends and an escape from the grind of work, but it also led him to a new passion for playing music. “I met friends while surfing and they played music, so it was just fun just hanging around them. They were [experiences] of my generation, hanging around, drinking with friends. I didn't want to stay with my coworkers all the time, it's not healthy I think. They were older and would play golf all the time.” By surfing and playing music with his new group of friends, Koyama was able to gain a broader perspective on life in Los Angeles beyond the insular restaurant community. It would also lay the foundation for him to think outside of what a Japanese restaurant could offer.
“Twenty years ago, most of the restaurant people were hanging out with other restaurant people. It was a really small community,” says Koyama. “Now, think about how many Japanese restaurants are here, you've got sushi, ramen, everything here. But in the early 90s, it was limited to maybe about ten Japanese restaurants in the Valley, but now there's maybe fifty, a hundred, I don't know. It was a big city, but a small world. I wanted to go out more to experience more of America, of California, of Los Angeles, I didn't want to get stuck in that small world. So I met lots of friends and had lots of experiences, and that's why I'm here now.”
Just as Koyama was getting established in the U.S. at the age of 21, however, he received word that his sister was gravely ill. “I was applying for a green card so I wasn't allowed to leave the country. If I left, I wouldn't be allowed back,” he explains. A lawyer advised him that he could wait for his green card interview, which could take another six months, so that he could go and come back. “But I decided to go back to Japan the next day,” Koyama says. “Unfortunately, my sister passed away while I was in the airplane. So I stayed in Japan for a while to wait to apply for the green card again.”
While back in Japan, his friend's uncle that he had worked for in L.A., asked if Koyama wanted to work at a friend's sushi restaurant in Tokyo. “It was about fifteen minutes from my house, so I said okay and started to work there to get the green card. I saw that the sushi in L.A. was... different, there was a small amount and the quality was often not great. That's when I decided to become a sushi chef and began learning more traditional techniques, the serious Edomae style,” he says referring to the very traditional sushi technique from the Edo period in Japan. Koyama spent two years studying with a sushi master and honing his skills, before returning to the U.S.
When he came back to L.A., however, he found himself increasingly drawn towards playing music. He formed a garage rock band known as Voices in Black with his musician friends, and decided to focus on a musical career. “I was around 26 at the time. I was still young, and I thought, 'I think I need to try music at least once and if I can't make it, I'll go back to working in a restaurant.” Koyama also attended school to improve his English and worked as a waiter for a while to improve his language skills and have more flexibility to play gigs with the band. “I couldn't do that if I were working behind the sushi counter.”
Koyama played with the band for the next ten years, and admits that they grew to become a family. But when the band broke up after a decade of playing together, the friendships broke up too. “I lost the band and I lost my friends too, so I was missing something right here,” Koyama says while pointing to his heart. Torn between pursuing music further or returning to the restaurant world, Koyama debated his next course of action. “I thought, 'Music is fun, but I'm not good enough as a professional musician.' It's fun with the band, but by myself it didn't seem like a good idea. As a chef, I think I can do better. I had already worked seriously in a restaurant for six years, so I had skills and experience. I was in my late 30s at that point, so I decided to focus on cooking. I started a food blog and made whatever I wanted.”
It was that food blog, known as Sugar Mountain Sushi Company, along with some high-profile catering jobs with the likes of Lorde, that eventually caught the attention of a restaurant owner in Japan looking for a chef in the U.S. The two partnered to open Necco in the fall of 2014. To develop the menu, Koyama utilized many of the original recipes he had developed for the blog, and also looked to his training and experience working in high-end sushi restaurants as well as a vegan macrobiotic Japanese restaurant in L.A. It was there that he learned more about the shojin ryori style of vegetarian Japanese cooking, techniques developed by Buddhist monks that focuses on eating seasonally, delicate seasonings, reducing waste, and makes use of well-balanced ingredients, including tofu, seaweed, fermented soy beans, and pickled vegetables.
Koyama also admits he was inspired by his time spent playing music, where he was exposed to healthy eating options that hadn’t quite caught on across L.A. the way that they have now. “I had met a lot of health-conscious people while I was in the band. We'd hang out a lot in Topanga Canyon, and ten years ago I met a lot of vegan people who were drinking juice and smoothies every day. I had a friend making raw chocolate. At that time, I think it was too early, there were a small amount of people who were trying to be very health-conscious and eat organic, practice yoga. Fifteen years ago that was not huge like it is now. I found that there was a very good energy there.”
When he opened Koyama, he took all of those influences, drawing upon Japanese techniques and health-minded Californians, and distilled them with his own personal and original style. “I'm not a vegan, so I didn't want to have a fully-vegan restaurant, but still health-conscious and have options for people who were vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian, pescatarian, and people who eat meat. I wanted to make food where everyone could come and share.”
Trying the new four-course tasting course menu at Necco is a great way to get an overview of what Koyama offers, and offers a glimpse at his diverse life and culinary experiences. And at $60 per person for the omnivore option and $50 per person for the vegan version, it’s a solid deal. Both menus begin with small bites such as lotus and gobo (Japanese burdock) roots with white sesame dressing and house-made pickles. You’ll then move on to chef’s choice small plates such as taro root agedashi and lotus root croquette, followed by three pieces of sushi (either fish or vegan). Finally, the main course features either roasted wagyu beef with a kinoko mushroom purée or an eggplant steak with sautéed zucchini, carrots, mushrooms and a miso aioli.
Necco is located at 1929 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90025.
Top image: Small bites to start the tasting menu at Necco by Danny Jensen
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