People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

From hot bands to hot pots, Naoko Takei Moore's time in California pays off

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

The one thing Naoko Takei Moore has never settled for is the status quo.

She has gone from working with major bands such as Blur and Radiohead on their Japan tours to teaching culinary students in Los Angeles about new and old-world wines to where she is currently, running her own shop in West Hollywood where she sells donabe, versatile and simple earthenware pots used for cooking everything from soups to stews.

After graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University, which included two study-abroad stints in the United States, Moore landed her “dream job” at music conglomerate Toshiba EMI in 1996. With her background in international relations and English-language fluency she was assigned to the label’s international artists and repertoire division.

In the late 1990s, the CD was still king of recorded music formats. Artists such as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey could still shift millions of copies of their albums in Japan, and Moore was thrown right into the mix working with performers like Radiohead, Blur, Robbie Williams and “some odd ones like Chumbawamba,” Moore says with a laugh.

She recalls landing the Chumbawamba file because, well, no one else in the office wanted to. Besides, she was also the youngest and newest recruit at the time. Moore’s fortunes changed, though, when the lead single of the band’s eighth album, a song called “Tubthumping” (the one that goes, “I get knocked down, but I get up again”), became a smash hit. “They became huge and we invited them multiple times to Japan,” Moore recalls.

It was an amazing time to work in the music industry; Moore’s bosses and colleagues were “party people” and because of the nature of the job she was out entertaining nearly every night. “I was really exposed to the world of fine food and dining,” she says.

Ultimately, those experiences pushed Moore in a different career direction.

Growing up she had always taken a strong interest in food — her mother loved baking and encouraged young Naoko to get involved in little things such as rolling out the dough.

“On the other hand, my grandmother was all about old-school Japanese cooking,” Moore says. “Every time I went there, I loved every dish she made and I always wanted to learn from her.”

From her father, Moore says she came to love eating out and developing an interest in wine, so during her tenure at Toshiba EMI she also attended Academy du Vin in Tokyo for two years where she studied old world wines.

In 2000, after four years in the music industry, she decided to call it quits. While Moore acknowledges it was hard to leave a job she loved, intuitively she knew she was making the right decision.

“But, back then everybody thought I was crazy,” she says. “Everybody thought it was a really nice job, and the pay was good — and I wasn’t married.”

On top of all that, Moore was not only quitting but emigrating. Moreover she was moving from music to making food as she had signed on to attend the Cordon Bleu culinary school in LA.

Moore says she chose America over Japan because of a long-held desire to live overseas.

“My goal was to live in an international environment,” she says. “Also, I wanted to explore more of my potential and English was the only language other than Japanese that I could comfortably speak. That’s why I picked Le Cordon Bleu in America and not Paris.”

So in 2001, just as she was turning 29, Moore decamped to start her new life in LA, which took some serious readjusting.

“Back then I thought Tokyo was so much more advanced when it came to culture and trends,” she says. “It just felt like LA was so far behind.”

The gap between Tokyo and LA was especially evident when it came to food culture and eating out, something that Moore was keenly aware of from growing up.

However, on the plus side, Moore says she quickly made ” really wonderful friends,” many of whom she is still close to.

Things started happening quickly for Moore after graduating from her one-year full-time culinary course. She got married, though she’s now separated, and decided to settle down in LA. She was also offered a teaching position at Le Cordon Bleu, becoming the school’s first full-time wine instructor.

Fast forward a few more years and Moore was once again ready to start a new chapter. “I’ve always wanted to evolve myself,” she says of this constant pursuit of change.

Moore segued back into the entertainment industry and, for a few years, she worked in international licensing and with production crews. In the back of her head, though, she remained on a “real mission” to help introduce Japanese culinary culture to more people in the United States. This is how she became a champion for the donabe.

The world had already been introduced to sushi and ramen, what Moore wanted to do was allow people to make Japanese food in their own homes, which is why she focused on introducing them to the tools to do so.

During a trip back to Japan in 2007, Moore had tasted rice cooked in a donabe rice cooker made by the centuries-old firm Nagatani-en in Iga, Mie Prefecture. She then set up a partnership with the Japanese company and has been their sole distributor in the U.S. since 2008. She worked out of her home in Echo Park for about 10 years before opening her own shop in West Hollywood in 2017.

Moore has quietly and tenaciously made the pot a success via countless donabe parties and cooking classes that helped spread the word. She also published a cookbook of donabe recipes in 2015, which put her in an even greater position to introduce Japanese food to Western homes.

“I always tell people, the donabe is not just a cooking vessel, it’s a way of dining,” Moore says. “And because when you do donabe cooking it’s not just the dish it’s the process, everyone surrounding the donabe at the dining table — it’s about communal dining, bonding family and friends together.”

Though Moore has pushed against the status quo in her own journey, what she’s pitching in a time of frenetic lifestyles could be interpreted as a return to it: the centuries-old tradition of getting together with family, friends or “the tribe” to eat and share from the same pot.

Profile

Name: Naoko Takei Moore
Profession: Proprietor of Torio Kitchen
Hometown: Tokyo
Age: 48
Key moments in career:
1991 — Enters Aoyama Gakuin University. During her time at the school, she takes a year to study overseas at Indiana State University
1996 — Starts work in the international labels department at Toshiba EMI. Assumes the role of product manager in Japan for artists such as Radiohead and Robbie Williams
2001 — Moves to the United States and enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Los Angeles
2002 — Graduates from Le Cordon Bleu and is recruited to faculty to teach the school’s wine program
2008 — Establishes Toiro Inc. and starts importing donabe pots from Iga, Mie Prefecture
2015 — Publishes “Donabe: Traditional and Modern Japanese Clay Pot Cooking” via Ten Speed Press
2017 — Opens first brick-and-mortar shop in West Hollywood
Things I miss about Japan: “Sensitivity to everything.”
Best advice I ever got: “You don’t need to listen to every piece of advice. Follow your gut.”

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5