A Conversation with Chef Richie Nakano

Photo by Jesse Friedman

The chef-owner of Hapa Ramen talks about his approach to cooking, how he stays motivated, and how to hone your skills.


How did you get into cooking?

My grandfather’s a chef on my dad’s side and my grandparents had a garden at their house. We we’re always eating good, fresh food, but we didn’t come from a family where I was in the kitchen cooking with mom or anything like super important Sunday supper, but we did eat dinner together as a family every night.

As I got older, I started working in restaurants and got more interested in cooking. I was working as a waiter and a bartender. And then I started cooking more on my own. My mom taught me all the stuff that she knew, and my dad would teach me what he knew. And then I would try to cook stuff out of books.

And then, it’s really an unromantic story. A friend of mine told me she was going to culinary school. And I got really annoyed, because I knew I was a better cook than she was. And I thought that culinary school was really hard to get into like Harvard or something. So I was like, well, if she can get in, I can get in too, so I’m going to go take a tour. I ended up going to school there, loved it, and then started cooking professionally.

I guess it just comes from my family. Food wasn’t the most important thing, but it was an everyday thing. They didn’t make a big deal about it, but it was a big part of our family.

So it was kind of competitive at that point?

Yeah, which actually set me up well to go to school and be competitive with students. I just remember, she told me she was going, and I was like, you don’t even cook. You don’t even like to cook. I didn’t get it, which I think is what a lot of kids do. They just go to culinary school, because they don’t know what else to do.

I was cooking for my friends once a week. I want to say it was on Monday nights, we would all get together and I would cook something. They would come over at six or seven, and we wouldn’t eat until ten, because I had no idea what I was doing. I would cook way outside of my skill level. Really, I think the reason I was cooking so much then was just because I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants and I was sick of eating take-out food. My friend was working at Whole Foods, so we got a discount on groceries, so that’s how it started out.

Do you feel like cooking school was helpful for you?

Yeah, I do. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go; I would tell people not to go and try to give them a path to succeed in the industry anyway, but for me it was really good. It doesn’t teach you how to cook; it teaches you vocabulary words, basically. And it teaches you how to conduct yourself in a kitchen. But you don’t learn anything about actually cooking.

But for me, it was really helpful. And I think that many kids that I went to school with that ended up succeeding in the industry feel that way also. But I think they’re all also kind of anti-culinary school, because they see the other end of it, like kids that go and don’t get anything out of it and wind up suffering within the industry and making the industry suffer because of that also.

What is the alternate path you were suggesting?

If you want to get into cooking and you don’t want to go to school, there are certain books you should read. Go pick up all the textbooks you would get if you were going to go to culinary school. Read all of them. And try to cook out of them.

And then go to a restaurant you like and be prepared to work three months for free, and say: “I’ll come in here. I’ll wash dishes. I’ll sweep the floors. I’ll peel garlic. I’ll peel onions. Whatever you want me to do, just tell me, and I’ll do it. For free. And I’ll come in as much as you want.” And you have to be super willing to sacrifice time and be treated like shit.

If a cook can do that—learn the basics on your own, and be motivated enough to do that—and then go in a restaurant and show them you’re committed to the craft, to learning, and you’re willing to do anything, chefs will recognize that. And then they’ll be willing to teach, and say, “Okay, why don’t we try you on prep,” and you’ll get to move up. And then, just don’t stay at that restaurant once you get comfortable. Challenge yourself and move on to another place. Do it all over again. That’s generally what I tell young cooks to do.

What inspired you to start Hapa Ramen?

I was cooking a lot of Asian food when I worked for Va de Vi and Pres a Vi. And before that, I was at Sushi Ran, so it was all Asian there too. When I left to go to Nopa, I was over it. I didn’t want to see soy sauce ever again.

At Nopa, I learned about ingredients, seasonality, and simplicity. And about the importance of feeding people instead of trying to blow their mind with some new technique or something like that. And then as I was coming to the end of my run at Nopa, I was eating a lot of ramen. People talk shit on ramen in San Francisco, but I think there’s a lot of good places to go. Even the kind of bad MSG places, I sort of like in a weird way. But I felt like if I wanted to go out and eat it on a regular basis, I would want to have something that has better ingredients and a different approach to the food. So I started cooking a lot of ramen at home. And it turned out well.

I got offered a job in NYC and it paid an insane amount of money, and I would have had a rad apartment in Manhattan and all this stuff. But my wife was pregnant then—like just became pregnant—and we decided that it would be too crazy to move out there and do that, and if we were going to stay here, we should start our own business. Looking back on it now, I’m really glad I made the decision, but it was so dumb that we did that. And so that’s how it happened.

I got really focused on getting the recipe down and talked to my friends who were down here at the market and had their own thing going on like Ryan at 4505, or the Namu guys, and got advice from them. I didn’t have the money to open a restaurant. I didn’t have a product that I could even show anyone, and I didn’t have enough background to open a restaurant. I just decided to try to do it this way. So I’d say the inspiration came from eating a lot of ramen and wanting to give that to people, but incorporate the good intention and the good ingredients.

Do you have any advice for home cooks?

I think it’s like becoming a professional cook. You have to pick out foods that you really like to cook. For home cooks, sometimes they’ll do some crazy shit and pick out some weird Thai or Vietnamese recipe, because they saw it on a show or they saw it on the web. And they’ll try to cook something without even thinking, do I even like that kind of food? You have to start with food that you like to eat.

If you pick one style, like Italian, Mexican, or whatever it is, there’s such a vast world of recipes to draw from. And you should just cook that stuff. And when you get sick of it, by then you’ve probably built up enough skill, knowledge, know-how, and comfort in the kitchen to move onto something else.

So I think it’s just cooking the food you want to cook and being confident in yourself. Anytime I’ve seen a cook struggle it’s because they don’t believe in themselves in terms of the skill and they freak out about it, or they think the world’s going to end if they mess up their pie dough or something. You have to be willing to make mistakes and learn from that, and just come back and keep going at it.

What is your favorite meal to make at home?

Any breakfast thing is my favorite thing to make, because I don’t actually cook at home very much. The thing I probably eat at home the most is cereal, because I get home from work and I’m tired. But I always make breakfast on Sundays. So, anything with eggs, meat, or really good bread is my thing.

But I wouldn’t say I have one dish that’s really a go-to thing. It used to be beef bourguignon. I got really obsessed with trying to make the best beef bourguignon in the whole world. And I tried it from so many different approaches, like classical French technique, and then I tried doing sous vide beef bourguignon. But it’s kind of the same thing no matter what you do; it’s all beef braised in red wine.

Breakfast is the big thing. I want to open a breakfast restaurant one day, so that’s probably my favorite meal.

What keeps you inspired in and out of the kitchen?

My son is a big part of it. I’d say he’s the biggest part. My son and my friends, really. It’s not cookbooks and it’s not really famous chefs. There’s such a good community of chefs here in San Francisco, and more than anything, going and eating their food, talking to them, and seeing what they’re doing with the same ingredients that you picked up is really inspiring. And then, my kid, because he makes you want to work that much harder. You never want to complain about anything. He’s a great motivator.

How old is your son?

He’s turning two. And then we have another one coming.

Awesome! Congratulations.

Thanks.

I know you’re working on a restaurant. Where do you see Hapa in five years?

The restaurant will be open this year. We were saying April, and then May, and now we’re saying June, so it probably means July we’ll be open. I’d like to expand it and open other locations.

The way the food’s been going at Hapa: we started out and it was just about the ramen. When we expanded, we added really simple stuff like chicken wings or a sandwich. And then the food got super technical and kind of out there, and now it’s sort of coming back, and we’re just making things more simple. Trying to just put clarity of flavor in the food and really listen to our guests and what they want. In the beginning, I was like, oh, we’ll tell them what they want. And now we’re just trying to cook the stuff they like and pay attention to that.

I don’t know in five years if that means that we’re opening another Hapa Ramen, or if we’re trying to expand on that concept, or if we’re trying to do something different. I have two full-time employees and I’d like to see them open their own places, because they’re both so talented, so maybe we’re doing that. But I don’t know. I get that question a lot, and I have my bullshit answer that I give people. But the real answer is I have no idea.

I hope we’re still doing the market. I don’t ever want to lose the connection to that. The restaurant will still be open; we have a lease for five years and an option to extend it for five more years. And I’d like to be there the full ten years that we can do it, if not longer. I’d like to do some crazy shit like open in the airport or get a stand in the ballpark. Try to reach as many people as possible, because for as many people as come by and see us every week, all these people come by and say, “Ramen? What is it?” And your best comparison is Top Ramen. “Have you ever had that?” And then they’re like, “Ewww.”

Yeah, just keep reaching people with the food and doing well-intentioned, good, tasty food. And then I think it doesn’t matter if we’re doing ramen or if we’re doing other stuff.

I’m curious: have you ever seen Tampopo?

Yeah, that’s hilarious. That movie’s awesome. The very, very first pop-up we did was at Coffee Bar and it was mayhem. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, and ten other things went wrong on top of that. It was horrible.

The owners had asked us (they were going to project something on the wall): “Do you want to play something particular? Do you want music or whatever?” I think I said don’t play any anime or any Japanese movies. And don’t play weird, loungey electronic music. And they played Tampopo and weird, loungey electronic music. And so the first Yelps we got were like, “And they were playing Tampopo. And they must think that they’re so great.” Ugh, but yeah, I like that movie a lot.