San Francisco chef Richie Nakano is as widely known for his opinions as he is for his ramen. An online biography describes the cocksure chef as “the expert of kitchen trash talk”, his regularly updated Twitter feed peppered with sideswipes at everything from local regulations to “Best Of” lists. Nakano doesn’t toss his thoughts around lightly, however, and his long abandoned blog reads like a Bourdain novel, an articulate, knowledgeable voice representing kitchen dwellers from Los Angeles to New York. A father, a baseball fan, a line cook. Another dedicated chef you won’t see at an awards show.
But where the awards fail, the recognition for dynamite food will not. Nakano has made a name for himself in the city by the bay, one of the many who took to pop-ups and food trucks to deliver their inspired wares. Following his work at Sushi Ran, Pres a Vi, and Nopa, the audacious chef opened Hapa Ramen at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, melding his love of ramen with formal technique and local ingredients. Fresh off a win at this year’s local Cochon 555 competition, Nakano will move his Hapa to a brick-and-mortar location to appease the noodle-loving masses later this summer.
Q: Where’d you start? What pushed you into the kitchen?
A: Food is in the family. My grandfather is a chef, my mom kept a garden and cooked every night while I was growing up. And I’m really poorly suited to do anything else, really.
Q: What chefs have really stood out as mentors/inspiration for you?
A: Laurence Jossel from Nopa made me the chef I am now. He taught me that above all else, intention and integrity is most important. He stressed using the best ingredients, creating a sustainable environment to work in, and having fun.
Q: I remember stumbling upon the linecook blog and thinking it was very Kitchen Confidential (which I’m sure you’ve heard). Did you intend for it to be that way?
A: Not really. In the beginning, it was a place for me to document dishes I was working on. Over time, it just blew up and took on a life of its own.
Q: You stopped updating it in 2012, while you were Kickstarting for Hapa Ramen. If you were to update it today with a summary of Hapa, and your evolution since, what would it say?
A: There isn’t a lot to say about Hapa. We’ve come a long way since 2010 and there have been little updates here and there but overall we’re still growing and learning and evolving. The best summary I could give is that we’re a work in progress and probably always will be.
Q: Talk to me about culinary awards. We have to have similar thoughts on just how out-of-touch they are.
A: I think it’s silly that we, as chefs, crave the approval of a bunch of media outlets we have no that from day-to-day interest in. Do chefs actually read Food & Wine, or could they tell you what the James Beard Foundation is doing eleven months out of the year? Obviously getting a Best New Chef award can be big in terms of bringing attention to your restaurant, but ultimately that attention is fleeting. At a certain point, you as a chef aren’t new anymore, and you stop generating ad revenue, your stock dries up, and the award givers move on to the next big thing. It’s completely unsustainable. [But I believe] The obsession with what’s new and hot in food has a lot to do with restaurants who struggle with longevity and cooks who have very short attention spans. I’d rather be known as a guy that made a 6-year-old appreciate broccoli than anything else.
Q: Who would you like to see recognized?
A: Folks who have restaurants that have endured. More female chefs. People without public relations agencies behind them.
Q: What’s up next for you?
A: Our [brick & mortar] restaurant is finally opening this summer so that’s big. Aside from that, just raising my boys and making jokes on the Internet.
*Photo credit: Hapa Ramen