One week. That’s all the time Shuichi Kotani and his wife had to gather up their lives, pack what they needed, discard what they didn’t and make the move from Tokyo to New York in 2008.
But then Kotani likes to do things fast. One of his first big trips away from his hometown of Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture was when he represented his junior high school in a national athletics meeting in Tokyo. Back then, he ran the 100 meters in just 10.9 seconds. That trip also gave the young Kotani one of his first glimpses of life beyond Himeji.
After high school, Kotani returned to Kanto — first to Yokohama and then Tokyo — working his way in and out of kitchens for nearly a decade and opening up his own catering company Worldwide-Soba, Inc. in the capital in 2005.
The short answer to why Kotani left Japan for New York, he says, is the same reason why he left Himeji for Tokyo: He is always looking for and taking advantage of opportunities.
Though now a renowned soba expert, Kotani’s first experience of working in a kitchen was at a McDonald’s in Himeji. He also worked a few part-time jobs, always in restaurants, during high school and after graduating, but at the age of 19 he says he felt ready for adventure.
“I could have found work in Osaka, but it’s too close to Himeji,” he says. “I would have been able to move back home at any time — the risk (and challenge) would have been too small.”
Instead, Kotani, remembering being impressed by his junior high school trip to the capital, says he decided he “had to go to Tokyo.” His first job, however, turned out to be in Yokohama, where he worked for Kyourinbou, a soba and kaiseki (traditional multicourse) restaurant owned by Sumio Oguchi, a chef who, Kotani says, “changed my life.”
A soba teacher and restaurateur, Oguchi also owned a construction company and was business savvy. Kotani stayed at Kyourinbou for three years learning not only how to make and cook soba, but also how to run a business. “He was my everything teacher,” Kotani says, crediting Oguchi, who has since passed away, for the planting the seeds in his mind to become a soba consultant in the future.
After Kyourinbou, Kotani bounced around a few kitchens in Tokyo, including Gonpachi in Nishiazabu, which was used in the 2003 movie “Kill Bill: Volume 1.” He also gained more experience at soba restaurants, including the now shuttered Kudan Issa-an and the Michelin-starred Hosokawa.
In 2005, Kotani branched out on his own, opening a catering business and soba food truck that he drove around to different locations in Tokyo.
“It was a business beset by failures,” he recalls. “It was difficult to make a profit, and it was hard making the soba in difficult weather conditions. It’s very hard to make money from a passion.”
His three-year attempt at trying to keep the business afloat, however, he says, taught him a lot. Then things took a turn for the better when Bobby Munekata, a Japanese-American restaurateur and founder of the U.S.-based Totto catering group, came to Japan looking for a soba chef, and found Kotani.
Munekata presented Kotani with the opportunity to move to New York to run Soba Totto, a restaurant he was setting up.
Though moving to another country usually would seem a big deal, for Kotani, the decision didn’t take long to make. He outlined the New York offer to his wife, who simply asked him, “Do you want to do this?”
“I remember answering ‘yes,'” he says. “And then she said, ‘Let’s go tomorrow.'”
Once in New York, Kotani went straight to work making soba in the kitchen of Munekata’s Soba Totto. Making soba turned out to be the easy part of moving. Kotani confesses that at the time his English consisted of little more than “yes” and “no.” Yet Kotani found himself overseeing a large kitchen crew who he was tasked with teaching how to make soba and tempura.
“It was one year of stress,” Kotani says, though he describes the experience as one where he learned as much as he taught. While teaching staff everything he knew — from how long to fry tempura dishes (“they started off thinking it was like fried chicken”) to the delicate balance of dashi and the meaning of umami — his English improved and he became a better communicator. So much so, it set him up for a future in teaching soba production techniques and consulting on details of Japanese cuisine.
During those first years in Manhattan, Kotani would finish in the kitchen at around 1 a.m. and head to a sports bar next door to unwind. Besides home and the restaurant, he says, there was little else he knew of New York.
“I always sat at the same seat watching the games, everyday a different sport. I’d have a few beers and then head home,” he says. “The bartender was very kind and that bar became my culture school.”
Kotani remembers that before he left Soba Totto to start his own business, the barman stopped by the restaurant. “It was his first time to ever eat soba,” Kotani says. “In a way we were both sharing each other’s cultures.”
Even non-business hours were an opportunity for Kotani, who used Soba Totto before it opened on Sunday mornings to offer soba-making classes. From the get-go, there was interest in the venture. “People really get to connect with food through making soba,” he says.
The classes also attracted industry celebrities, including food writer and cookbook author Gail Simmons and writer-chef Candice Kumai. As his reputation grew, Kotani found himself helping to introduce soba into the kitchens of Italian and French restaurants across America.
Kotani is still based in New York, where he is a co-owner of Jin, a group that runs several Japanese restaurants, and has founded his own ramen bar — Samurai Papa — but he now travels widely across America, Europe and Asia to consult on soba and other areas of Japanese cuisine.
He admits his journey hasn’t been plain sailing and included countless hours of sweat and hard work, but the struggle and busy environment of facing challenges, is what drives him on.
“In Japan everyone speaks Japanese and everything is convenient, especially for Japanese cooking,” he says, more of an observation than a criticism.
“For me though,” he continues with a laugh, “that’s not enough of a challenge. It’s too comfortable.”
Name: Shuichi Kotani
Profession: Soba noodle chef and Japanese food consultant
Hometown: Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1999 — Moves to Yokohama and starts working at Kyourinbou, a kaiseki (multicourse) and soba restaurant
2002 — Begins working at Gonpachi Nishiazabu in Tokyo
2005 — Opens Worldwide,-Soba, a catering company in Tokyo
2008 — Moves to New York and starts working at Soba Totto in Manhattan
2014 — Establishes Worldwide-Soba, Inc. and becomes a co-owner of Jin
2015 — Founds Samurai Papa in New
York and becomes an officer of the All Japan Food Association
Things I miss about Japan: “Breakfast and yakizakana teishoku (grilled fish set).”
Best advice I ever received: “‘Try and maintain a balance in everything you do,’ as told to me by my soba master.”