NEW YORK -- When, at 18 years, Shuichi Kotani left his small Japanese village in Hyogo to head to Tokyo, he set out to find work as an architect. After countless rejections, he decided to apply for a job at the modestly appointed Kyorinbo restaurant owned by the late chef Oguchi Sumio. As a part of the workplace induction, Kotani was presented with the house special -- a steaming bowl of fresh soba noodles. He recalls their taste and texture as the turning point of his career.
"Every time I make noodles, I'm trying to recapture that moment," 34-year-old Kotani said, as he commences his live soba-making session at Treehaus, a restaurant in New York, the city in which he has resided since 1997.
The Japanese chef is now a noodle master who lends his expertise to chefs and restaurant owners to help boost their Michelin or Zagat ratings. He does this through education and training, and is often the "behind-the-scene" talent and contributor to dishes at respected restaurants in New York and Chicago in the U.S. (occasionally working in Tokyo and Bogota as well). His client list is continually expanding, and at last count was just over 100 and includes top chef Takashi Yagihashi (Chicago), Jin Ramen, Treehaus, Dassara and Soba Totto.
A noodle consultant who often works as part of a team, comprising of Michelin-rated chefs; Kotani focuses on noodles while his colleagues specialize in other Japanese cuisines such as sushi, shashimi and okazu (side dishes). This Japanese culinary dream team is responsible for U.N. dinners and other special events.
During the soba-making session, Kotani works with quiet confidence, looking up on occasion to smile shyly at the awed onlookers who are crowded around the table -- two are filming the spectacle with their smartphone cameras. His approach is hands-on, fast, and systematic; step one is "kone" (kneading), step two is "tatami" (rolling), and the last, is "kiri" (cutting).
With no measuring cups in sight, some oversized rolling pins and a bowl, Kotani works mainly on feel -- a well-honed skill he has accumulated over 14 years of experience.
Working in chef Sumio's kitchen for three years, Kotani was expected to make noodles in all types of conditions -- wet, dry, hot and cold. He quickly learned to adjust his technique and ingredients to the environmental variables.
Assistant chef Yuki Minakawa, who has worked with and trained under Kotani, claims him the undisputed expert in noodle-making. "The temperature and humidity affects the noodle, but he is such an expert that you put him in any environment and he'll still make an excellent noodle," she said.
She explained that there is no other "noodle" consultant like Kotani in New York. "Kotani is the only noodle chef I know," Minakawa said. "He specializes in it -- he can make a noodle out of any grain."
"Normally, with soba noodles when you put them in the soup they expand, but with Kotani's noodles, they do not expand. The richness and the flavor doesn't escape in the broth, it stays in the soba ... I don't know what his secret is -- he is amazing," she said.
Taking a break from his hour-long demonstration (the time it takes him to make two pounds of soba), Kotani explained in his broken but good English that the mark of a quality soba is that it brings out the true flavor of the buckwheat and maintains its freshness, and is balanced (the buckwheat to water ratio).
The Japanese chef explains that soba-making is a challenge. Because there is no gluten in buckwheat, the soba must absorb the moisture equally and then be kneaded in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower -- the most challenging part of the process. But Kotani believes that everyone can make soba once they know the method. He often shares his knowledge with the general public through courses on soba making.
Kotani who runs a noodle production company, Worldwide-Soba Inc., has three small noodle factories in New York and one in Chicago -- with a fifth one underway. He explains that American wheat mills spin too fast which means that that a lot of valuable nutrients are lost. He has built special stone mills that slowly process the buckwheat to preserve all their goodness.
Proficient in making all types of noodles, Kotani says that his "specialization" is in gluten-free buckwheat noodles -- a fast-growing dietary requirement. According to global nonprofit medical center Mayo Clinic, celiac disease (in which your body is unable to process gluten) is four times more common now than it was 60 years ago.
From Queens to SoHo, East Village to Chinatown, today, the options are endless for eating any kind of noodle in New York -- noodles are as ubiquitous as a pizza slice. With the ramen, "the Japanese pizza," popping up around the city, it won't be too long before demand for quality becomes a priority.
According to Serious Eats, a community food blog, the ramen craze hit New York in 2004 when Korean-American chef David Chang opened up his restaurant Momofuku. Today the city is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, with restaurants clamouring to be the best in a competitive dining landscape.
Jamie Feldmar, managing editor of Serious Eats, says, "Ramen has seen a huge surge in popularity in the past five to seven years. Part of it, I think, stems from our simultaneous obsession with pork and animal-centric cooking in general. Ramen perfectly encapsulates our hedonistic pleasure in eating -- it's comforting, casual and open to creative interpretation at the hands of talented chefs."
As the "everyman" begin to realize that a good bowl of ramen is only as good as the sum of its ingredients, restaurants will be looking to consultants like Kotani to educate them on noodle making.
Kotani explains there is no official Japanese culinary school in the U.S. but he has a plan which will change this. As the Director of the All Japan Food Association and as member of the Japanese Culinary Academy of America, Kotani will work in partnership with the U.S. Government and other cultural bodies to open up his own school and restaurant in two years with a clear goal -- to not only share his passion for noodles with the country, but to also recreate and honor his late master's teachings.
Images: Kenji Takigami and Shinpei Takeda.