Lisa Nakamura – Patience, Persistence, Perseverance Personified
There are a lot of traits that exemplify many of the Chefs that I’ve interviewed to date. Passionate. Hardworking. Talented. Driven. Exhausted. Tough. Realistic. Strong-willed. Demanding. Humble. The list could be quite lengthy when it comes down to it. Lisa Nakamura possesses them all.
As careers progress there’s a bit of wisdom that comes with experience. Many Chefs are accidental tourists in their profession; not knowing how or why they got here but happy that they found their true passion – or it them. Some flame out. Others excel. And still others bounce between never finding a balance. It truly can be feast or famine both figuratively and literally.
We’re On a World Tour
Lisa Nakamura is one such chef who has seen the ups, downs and in-betweens of the culinary world. She’s followed a winding path that took her from being a flight attendant all the way to cooking as Thomas Keller’s sous at The French Laundry in Napa. A lot has happened along the way from the days of flying around the world to making hundreds of gnocchi every day at her new restaurant in Capitol Hill – the aptly named Gnocchi Bar. Here’s her story…
Tell me about the challenges of operating a restaurant in today’s culinary world.
There’s a real disconnect today between people wanting to say that they are eating local, sustainable food and wanting to do all the right things – but they also want cheap food. And it doesn’t go hand in hand. Or only very rarely. It’s a real challenge as a restaurateur. How do you give someone something that is wholesome that you have consciously decided to make and put on the menu and then customers come back and say it’s too expensive?
It’s one of the bigger challenges a restaurant owner has. How do you stay competitive and still make some money? I drive a ten-year old car for god sake. It’s a constant battle. It’s also where your skill as a cook or culinarian come into play. You need to be creative about what you are doing. These are all ways to turn resources into something edible to cut waste and not go into the trash can. Bread pudding is a good example.
Why did you get involved in food?
Well, honestly because I was bored. I was a flight attendant and I worked 12 days a month. I used to do a lot of cooking and I’d have big parties and devour Food & Wine and Gourmet magazine. This was when Julia Child and the Frugal Gourmet (before he got weird) were big and it was fascinating to me.
I took a leave of absence from flying and didn’t set out to be a chef. I wanted to be in international business but I had no idea really how. I kind of fell into the food thing and got a job with Lisa Dupar and I started cooking. I think if you are meant to be a cook it just affects you – I was hooked.
I felt like I was running out of time; I was in my late 20’s and needed to get the show on the road. I got a couple of scholarships and went to school in Maryland for a one-year program and it was a pivotal move for me. I went to L’Academie de Cuisine run by two very French brothers.
Culinary school was like learning the notes but you can’t compose unless you know how to speak the language. That’s how I got hooked. I just loved the intense energy and fact that you were creating something. It was immediately tangible – there was no waiting to see how things would turn out.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
There were two notoriously difficult chefs to work for in D.C. One was Gerard Pangaud and the other was Jean-Louis Palladin. I got into Gerard’s kitchen (called Gerard’s Place) and that’s where I started. He would terrorize me but it was really great. I remember the first time he just lost it with me and I was actually kind of happy – I didn’t have to worry about the other shoe dropping. I was still alive and I was relieved. I know there was something very wrong about that whole thing but it’s just how it was.
Gerard would have me assist him for the Saturday morning cooking classes for I don’t know how many Saturdays in a row. He really taught me how to cook. It wasn’t just about the mise en place, but also to see what he was doing. Thinking five steps ahead about what he would need. If he was making crème anglaise he’d need a chinois, a bain marie and an ice bath – I was always looking forward.
That sounds like a pretty incredible hands-on education. Where did you go from there?
It was. And one day Gerard said to me, “I think there’s a chef in Napa that you should work for”. I had just read about Thomas Keller in Wine Spectator. So he faxed Thomas a recommendation and that’s how I got my foot in the door. I started in October of 1997 and it was a huge break.
Thomas hired me as the commis and I worked with Grant Achatz. The start of the day was at 5 a.m. and I remember getting there on my first day there and he was like, “oh – you’re my commis?!” He had never had one before and that was really kind of cool. It was odd, but I didn’t realize that I was the only woman in the kitchen – plus I was a bit older than everyone else. I knew what I wanted and a lot of the other stuff just didn’t matter. That was my start.
What an amazing opportunity – to work with both Keller and Achatz in the same kitchen. How did you work your way up the ladder?
I was his commis for 5 months and they moved me to garde manger. I had 2 weeks to train and I almost didn’t make it. It was getting to be the end of the second week and, I don’t know, the person training me and I just didn’t speak the same “language”. Eric Ziebold was the sous at the time and he talked to Thomas and trained me the last couple of days. I got it, and then did that for a while.
After that, I moved next door to the meat station and actually thought I was going to leave and go to Nairobi, Kenya for some reason. I chickened out at the last minute and Thomas told me to come back to be a sous. So, by the time I left it had been 3 years and it was awesome. It was a chance that I know a lot of cooks would kill for, and yet there was a part of me that was becoming so aggressive and competitive that I really didn’t believe I was a likable person. I just didn’t even like myself.
I can imagine the amount of pressure that people in that kitchen are under. Where did you go to decompress?
I took a job cooking in a little café in Mendocino and the most stressful part of my day was figuring out what pasta special we’d put on the menu. I had almost lost my desire to cook and was considering leaving the profession. Don’t get me wrong – I love Thomas and what he taught me and how he shaped who I am as a cook and a person. But it was so intense. And I thought – what kind of stress and demands did he have on himself?
So how long did your respite in Mendo last?
That was 2000 and I worked for David Kinch for about 6 months. He was in the process of opening Manresa but it kept getting pushed back and I just couldn’t live in Cali anymore. I got a call from a headhunter that had this job in Munich. I’d always wanted to live in Europe so I went over (and didn’t tell David I was going) and what do you know – Air France loses my luggage. So here I am in the kitchen in Munich wearing high heels, borrowed chef pants, coat, knives – you put together the worst case scenario for how to get a job but somehow I did it.
I stayed for 3 years and then had to choose between Berlin and Korea so I went to the latter. I did that for over a year and got to a point that I was ready to come back. I tossed my hat into the ring for a job in New Orleans and started it on August 25th, 2005 – four days before Katrina hit.
Wow – it must have been a life-changing experience to live through that.
It was something. I was like – holy crap what have I done? I was hired on as an executive sous and the Executive Chef came back only to inform me that he was evacuating and I was in charge of this hotel kitchen with 600 people and 9 cooks. I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I still have a hard time processing everything that happened.
One of our sister properties – when we finally got a supply convoy –ordered like 20 cases of hamburger and hot dog buns. I got really creative with them. The ice cream maker was still hooked to an outlet that got power and so we made ice cream. It was crazy.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
That it changes so quickly. Just when you think you like something, you remember to not fall too much in love with it because it will inevitably change. On the other hand when you think something totally sucks – that changes too. It’s a very fluid environment and you make the same thing every day but every day it’s under different circumstances. I like that. Even on the days when it’s super stressful and you’re like ‘what the fuck?’ you wake up the next day and are like – let’s go.
It’s also super competitive and I like that. When push comes to shove – most chefs I know will bend over backwards to help you. It’s a profession of extremes and you are never going to get bored.
I also like washing dishes because it’s taking a disorderly array and cleaning it up. It’s odd because I’m just not an organized person but there’s something about taking chaos and turning it into order. Believe it or not – we’re kind of control freaks.
What do you like least about it?
The sniping and unrealistic expectations, both high and low, from the general public. I think it’s one of the few professions where people feel entitled to rip you apart publicly and do so with impunity. And it keeps getting more and more public. For better or worse, there are some things that are great about it and others that bother me a lot.
I’m ok with someone being unhappy and caring enough to let me know. And we do ask to make sure everything is ok – within the first two minutes of when they have their meal. When they don’t say anything, and then go back and say something in a public forum – it’s just disrespectful.
I truly wonder if some of the people who comment were to understand the impact, and not even a business impact, on an emotional and psychological level. What would they do if they were on the receiving end? That’s the most frustrating thing.
So why a Gnocchi Bar and focusing on one primary item?
The gnocchi was the best seller when I had Allium. It kind of surprised me because I never set out to be a gnocchi maker. I love that its hand formed and every batch is different. Every batch of potatoes is different and there are a lot of variables: the weather, time of year, temperature, who’s making it. You really have to feel it and be in touch with it. It seems like such a simple thing but it’s not.
For me, it’s exhausting to stay in ‘fine dining’. There are some tremendous chefs out there that do some really spectacular things. I’m not one of them and I don’t think I ever was or will be – I just want to cook. And I think that because of where I worked there was an expectation that I would do that same type of thing but I don’t want to. For me, it’s about taking something and trying to present it in its truest form. I don’t know, maybe I’m just old (smiling).
So how does this play into the current food culture?
We are changing the way we eat. Who would have thought 15 years ago that you could have a store based solely on cupcakes or ramen? The romance of going to the theater and going out to dine – it’s becoming lost. It’s not what people do 99% of the time when they go out to eat.
For me, I think it’s a reflection of me personally trying to be more comfortable with who I am. I’ve never felt more confident about myself. I really feel like this is a good place for my life. Even though I just opened a restaurant and it’s terrifying – it also reflects how I’m feeling. Yes, we’re serving a single thing but it’s many faceted. It’s comfortable, we know what we do is good, and we try to make connections to people. There’s a part of me that doesn’t care about my naysayers – that doesn’t matter.
How do you feel about the new minimum wage laws in Seattle and $15/hr?
The other thing people don’t understand about food is that it’s expensive. You can look at a plate of gnocchi and say the ingredients are cheap but most people forget the most expensive thing – the labor. Having lived on the edge for 5 years as a cook – I totally agree that there needs to be a living wage paid. I try to control everything but the labor cost is the part of the equation that you cannot change.
It’s a pretty awesome responsibility to be responsible for someone else’s paycheck. It can be very intimidating and there are nights where it’s paralyzing. But it’s also really great and it’s part of the reason local communities work. You are directly contributing, or not, to the health of the local economy. That’s important.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
For any business it’s financial success – that would be really great! Ultimately, my goal would be to have several of these places. To get to a point where it’s not such a weird thing to have a restaurant based on gnocchi. Where people are like ‘that’s great!’ To get to a point where we can sell it retail in grocery stores. To retire in a villa in Italy. You know – dream big.
I think the thing that most people never see is what goes on behind the scenes. I’m a huge Madonna fan – there’s this song Iconic where she sings about this stuff that no one ever sees behind the scenes. Yet all that stuff that goes on is what makes the restaurant, the person and what makes it come together for lack of a better term.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
To quote Gerard – “to not fuck it up”. To be simple.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
In 1994, when I was looking to become a chef, I wrote to every ‘Best New Chef’ on Food and Wine’s cover. I didn’t hear from most of them but Charles Wiley actually called me. He spoke to me for 45 minutes and told me, “to get into the best restaurant you can even if it’s just washing dishes or lettuce. And get ready – because eventually someone will get sick, not show up, something will happen and you will step up.”
Having a restaurant job first before spending thousands of dollars in school is not a foolish choice. It’s a very wise thing to do. That’s when you see what it’s really like. You’ll either realize it’s not for you or you’ll be blown away on how fantastic it is.
The other thing is, and I always tell young cooks this and they look at me like I’m crazy, is to figure out what pisses the chef off and don’t do it. If you figure out what not to do you learn the process of how to be a better chef.
If you can start working and not put food on the floor and make a mess then you are working cleaner and neater. You are on your way to cooking right. It’s the whole attitude of taking care of something. Why am I getting pissed off? Because you aren’t taking care of something.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I am very happy. I go back and forth sometimes about having left the French Laundry and thinking what my life would be like. For some reason for a long period I felt like after leaving there I had failed. I felt like I didn’t measure up and I couldn’t cut it. I just felt like I failed. I wonder what would have happened if I’d stayed? I don’t know but I think that the path that I took, as circuitous as it was, was the right path. I just feel now like I’m in a really good spot. And that’s a hard fought battle.
I think what I would have done differently, and it’s a double-edged sword, because my competitiveness is what drives me – but I would have been a less psychotic chef in the kitchen. You really think that you’re the shit and you’re really not. And it’s a really eye opening experience to have your ass handed to you. I wish I’d been more humble and more in touch – not just with how other people were feeling but how I was feeling. And I’m sure I was not an easy person to be around.
Tell me about someone or something that influenced who you are today as a chef
There’s a couple of people. Thomas, obviously, and my grandmother. She was a very good cook and was old school – no recipes. She didn’t cook because she wanted to but because she needed to feed people. There was not a lot of money spent on ingredients but everything tasted good. The secret ingredient for her homemade soup was Spam (we’re from Hawaii).
I feel like I’ve done really fancy cooking but I keep going back to that. Simple things like fresh boiled peanuts. My grandfather grew soybeans and peanuts, and Grandma boiled them. They are so delicious and there’s nothing to it. What makes it so fantastic is the peanuts being pulled out of the ground a few hours before. There’s something very magical about that. I wonder how many kids get that these days.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
Hopefully gnocchi – that would be really cool! I don’t know if it’s just a wish but for more people – we seem to be going to a more single item culture. I’d love to see more people paying attention to food that is actually made by humans and not just by a machine in a package.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
I’m not picky. Chefs are some of the least picky diners around. We’re just happy that someone else is cooking. Put a good steak in front of me and I’m happy.
One of the things that impressed me about my husband when I first met him, and he doesn’t really cook, was that he made this awesome salad and seemed really calm and collected. I was like, “this has potential!”
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
I love Michael Easton’s food. It’s just very pure. I think that the pizza at Delancey that Brandon Petit does with bacon and onion is so good. I had dinner at Momiji last night and it was really delicious. And I always go back to Seven Stars Pepper Szechuan – Dan Dan noodles, won ton in hot oil, cucumbers – so good.
What is your last meal?
I’d go eat at the French Laundry again. I’d have whatever the chef put in front of me.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
‘It’s My Life’ by Bon Jovi. When I was in Korea, and they are big on karaoke, you have to drink but I’m not a drinker. So I’d have my one shot of soju – and that was it. I’d murder the song (which would be a gentle way of putting it) – but it didn’t matter.
Do one thing – do it well
There’s something to be said for simplicity and focus in food – or any career for that matter. We’ve seen restaurants be wildly successful while focusing on a single, primary dish. Take Il Corvo, for example. It’s the darling of the restaurant scene in Seattle and Easton only serves 3 different pasta dishes each day. There’s a line out the door and the place is open and shut after only 4 hours of business on weekdays. It’s also the envy of many chefs in town who crave a simpler, more manageable lifestyle.
With Gnocchi Bar, Lisa Nakamura hopes to replicate the success of Il Corvo and others like it. By making the best gnocchi in town with quality ingredients at an affordable price; she can potentially capture a market segment in Seattle that is under-served. I mean – how many other places on Capitol Hill can you get dinner for two for under $100 these days? The beauty of it – simplicity. Here’s to hoping that people will behold the beauty in eating a delicious pillow of potato-ey pleasure.
If you enjoyed this interview with Lisa Nakamura then please check out my other articles in the Chef Interviews series and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs on The Hungry Dog Blog!
* photo credit to Jackie Donnelly for all images used in this piece
Interesting journey life has taken you Lisa.