Sachie Nomura left Japan for New Zealand straight out of high school at the tender age of 18, with the relatively modest ambition of improving her English. In the process, however, she found something else she could really sink her teeth into.
She has steadily carved out a reputation in New Zealand — not just in the food industry as a leading chef of Asian fusion cuisine, but also as an entrepreneur across multiple platforms.
Nomura began helping out in the kitchen from elementary school age, but it was more out of necessity than by choice.
“My parents both worked full time so my mom trained me to help,” she recalls. “I was basically doing the prepping work and I hated it! I just wanted to play, but I got stuck helping as I was the oldest.”
Even if she wasn’t always thrilled about her early experiences in the kitchen, Nomura says that enjoying food was an important aspect of family life while she was growing up.
“Neither of my parents worked in the restaurant industry, but my mom was from Toyama Prefecture and her family were foodies,” she says. “We often went to the mountains to get wild vegetables and then we’d all cook them together.”
A good student, Nomura went to an academic high school, but unlike the majority of her peers, the idea of going to university in Japan did not appeal to her. Her mother suggested going abroad for language study instead. After her teacher facilitated a meeting with a former student who had recently come back from New Zealand, Nomura decided to follow suit and left Japan in 1998.
Settling in Auckland, she attended language school before going on to earn a degree in linguistics and Chinese at the University of Auckland. Life in New Zealand’s biggest city “felt right” to Nomura and she has been based there ever since.
She started out her career in the hospitality sector, with jobs in the travel and hotel industries, but in hindsight Nomura says that food was a central theme in her life even then.
“In those days I didn’t have any ambition to run a business or anything, but I happened to be friends with some Japanese chefs,” she says. “We’d cook together and hang out after work or on the weekends, and I ended up learning more about food through them.”
Life was going well for Nomura, who was married and building her career in hotel sales when she received some tragic news that, she says, served as a wake-up call.
“Two people I knew, friends of friends and both men in their early 40s, passed away on the same day from heart attacks,” she recalls. “That really made me think, ‘What if I died tomorrow?’
“My mom always said, ‘Don’t leave any regrets. If there is something you want to do, try it!'”
Those words of wisdom still come back to Nomura at “milestone moments” in her life. “There’s always a voice in my head — things that mom said,” she says.
Nomura sat down and thought hard about her skills and ambitions.
“I realized I often had friends over for dinner who would ask how to make various things, so I came up with the idea of cooking classes,” she says, adding that her husband, a successful businessman, also offered advice and support. “He said to give it a year and see what happens, so I quit my job and started preparing.”
In 2010, Sachie’s Kitchen was born. The classes were popular, quickly outgrowing the couple’s apartment, where she originally held the classes. After just three months, Nomura moved her cooking school to its current premises in the Auckland suburb of Parnell. Students range from their 20s to 60s, and a good proportion of the business now comes from corporate clients for team-building events and functions.
Nomura initially started offering lessons in Japanese cooking, but has since branched out to Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean and Chinese, for a total of seven types of cuisine. “I can teach all of them, and I don’t really have a favorite — it depends on my mood,” she says.
“We can get things like the seasonings from supermarkets here, which keeps the authenticity,” she says when asked about the Japanese food scene in New Zealand. “But something I found interesting was all the sushi lovers in New Zealand! Kiwis who love sushi eat it two or three times a week as a takeout food. And kids often love it more than a Big Mac!”
New Zealanders, Nomura adds, have branched out from the traditional fish fillings: “Kiwi-style sushi is creative and innovative. It isn’t what Japanese think of as ‘sushi’ but it works.”
In 2013, an exciting opportunity landed in Nomura’s lap, when she was offered the chance to turn her lessons into a TV series about Japanese cooking. Also named “Sachie’s Kitchen,” the 11-episode series was followed by a cook book and shown on national TV in New Zealand, subsequently airing in over 40 markets around the world. Japan, though, was not one of them.
“If I was to appear on TV in Japan, I’d want to do it speaking in Japanese,” she says.
One highlight of the TV experience, however, was the chance to film in Japan.
“I actually went back to Toyama and they filmed me and my family picking wild herbs and planting rice. I think my parents, my uncles, aunts and cousins were all on the show,” she says with a grin.
In 2016, Nomura launched a nationwide line of Asian meal kits bearing her name, and took on the role of executive chef at a leading vineyard restaurant in Blenheim in the South Island.
“I’m going into my fourth year with them. It’s only for the high season, December to April,” she explains. “I’ve created the menus, trained and hired staff, and I go back and forth.”
The birth of her son, Zachariah, two years ago, has also brought new experiences.
“When he was a baby, the moment I would bring him into the kitchen, either at home or in the studio, he would calm down,” she muses. “It’s like the cooking noises soothed and comforted him … maybe from (hearing it while) being in the womb?”
As you would expect from having a foodie mother, Zachariah’s palate is considerably more sophisticated than the average toddler.
“His current favorites are whitebait and borscht,” she says with a smile. “He also loves chawanmushi (savory egg custard) and takikomi gohan (seasoned rice steamed with meat and vegetables).
“He’s quite spoiled in terms of food!”
Name: Sachie Nomura
Profession: Chef and food entrepreneur
Birthplace: Hekinan, Aichi Prefecture Age: 40
Key moments in career:
1998 — Arrives in New Zealand
2002 — Graduates from the University of Auckland
2010 — Opens Sachie’s Kitchen cooking school from her home kitchen, before moving it to Parnell
2013 — Launches the TV show “Sachie’s Kitchen” and publishes an accompanying cookbook
2016 — Introduces meal kits in New Zealand supermarkets, takes on the role of executive chef at Cloudy Bay vineyard restaurant and is named a finalist in the 2016 national “Women of Influence” awards
Favorite foods: “In Japan, eel donburi (rice bowl) made by my parents; in New Zealand, Sunday roast lamb.
What I miss most about Japan: “Picking wild herbs and vegetables in the mountains in spring, and the food!”
What I like most about New Zealand: “The people and the nature.”