This article is part of a new series by Wicked Leeks, Sustainable Cities, exploring what sustainable food means to those living in the city.
A delicious meal at a restaurant is an excellent remedy for an average day. I actively seek out new restaurant experiences as a means of seeing beyond the predictability of my own life – a chance to encounter something new and seemingly unique.
For me, Koya Bar is one of those places, no matter how many times I return to it. While enjoying a bowl of its udon, the norms of everyday city life appear to suspend in time – the surrounding world becomes separated from logic and rationality.
I had been working in food marketing for several years and had minimal experience in professional kitchens, nor did I know much about Japanese cooking. Yet eventually, I started to work at Koya Bar as a chef.
My experiences at the restaurant made me crave a shift in my career in food, one that provided a greater connection to it by working directly with it instead of selling its appeal from the comfort of an office.
As a customer, I was disconnected from the proper workings of the kitchen. My perceptions of Koya Bar were purely based on aesthetics such as decor and taste. Yet, my experience working on the other side of the counter provided specific insights into how Koya gives diners a chance to encounter something ambiguously special – something different.
Although Koya may seem like an ordinary Japanese restaurant, it’s places like these that could be just what’s needed to reclaim diversity in our fields and on our plates. The restaurant is situated in a large city, but sourcing produce locally is vital for executive chef and co-founder Shuko Oda.
Koya sources many of its ingredients directly from NamaYasai farm based in Lewes. It specialises in growing Japanese fruits and vegetables. The efforts of this farm use no machinery, pesticides, or herbicides.
Instead, it works with the potential of the soil nature has given us, along with its natural biodiversity, encouraging the complexity of living organisms. They refer to themselves as ‘natural agriculture’ growers, a method that stems from a Japanese ecological approach to natural farming. It is adapted and applied locally to meet London’s consumer demands while dramatically shortening the supply chain.
Koya Bar specialises in traditional Japanese udon noodles. Yet as former head chef, Edgar Wallace, explains, its offering has two levels: the macro and the micro. The macro is founded upon two staple foods: ‘dashi,’ a rich broth made from ‘niboshi’ (dried sardine) and ‘bonito’ (dried tuna), and udon noodles, made with wheat flour, water, and salt. There is the noodle bar and the blackboard, where small plates fit together in an informal ‘IzaKoya’ way.
Adding seasonal ingredients when they are available gives Koya’s menu its second dimension, which allows for change as and when it happens. For example, when the chef buys from NamaYasai, the salad leaves could be huge on one day compared to the next. Thus, when developing new dishes for the specials board, the chefs work with what the farm offers.
Founder Oda considers it to be a great thing as it fosters a lot of creativity: “Every week, they send you a list of ingredients, and then you base your pickles on what they have. You base your specials on what they have. It’s almost like a little inspiration book – a nice way to start off a dish, or it’s a nice way to finish a dish. That’s how I like to think of NamaYasai.”
She explains: “When you have these two core products that are strong and delicious, whatever you put on top of it kind of works as well. And that’s kind of, I think, how Koya became what it is now. We had these basic starting points as a good foundation. And so whatever we put on top, our creativity kind of was able to be more flexible.”
Koya’s interest in NamaYasai’s vegetables isn’t exclusively Japanese. While many seeds and cultivation methods are from Japan, NamaYasai also uses local seeds and borrows from local cultivation methods. Koya’s interest extends to native crops, such as alexanders, lovage, and blackcurrant leaves, and incorporates them into their dishes.
Former head chef Wallace eventually moved on to work at NamaYasai because he wanted to experience what it was like to grow these ingredients. What stood out to him was how chefs received NamaYasai’s produce within hours of being picked. Since it only takes an hour to drive to a hyper city like London from the farm, this short distance facilitates the taste of place and freshness.
The value of this type of freshness has also been recognised by many other restaurants based in London. Places like Ikoyi, The Clove Club, Ottolenghi’s Rovi, Planque, and local breweries in Lewes have all benefited from the unique taste of place and proximity that NamaYasai has to offer.
Wallace explains that neither Robin Williams nor Ikuko Suzuki, the founders of NamaYasai, came from an agricultural background. They built things up incredibly slowly by learning from their environment through their mistakes. At first, they spent a lot of time researching scientific studies regarding regenerative growing methods. And then came a lot of trial and error through hands-on labour.
NamaYasai has since developed its own unique growing system, including a rainwater collection system and even a compost toilet. They practice regenerative methods through a wealth of alternative perspectives of the environment that complement the nature of this local environment. This knowledge is continuously under negotiation due to the changing nature of the current climate.
The collaboration between restaurants and a farm like NamaYasai demonstrates the formation of an alternative urban food system that encourages living beings to find new ways to live together harmoniously and continuously; ways to create meals that look to the future while still acknowledging the past.