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Shuko Oda: "We don’t take racism, sexism – it’s not something we’ve ever accepted"

The chef and co-owner of Koya, Shuko Oda talks to Molly Codyre about triggering London's love for udon, her gratitude to Wagamama and changing the industry for the better

Shuko Oda is grateful to Wagamama. While her three Koya restaurants don’t have much in common with the prolific, pan-Asian chain, she credits it with opening up British diners to Japanese cuisine outside of simply sushi. “I was recently asked by a magazine if Wagamama changed how people eat in London,” Oda tells me. “I think we came around after Wagamama had set up a baseline in everyone’s mind that Japanese food is actually not just about sushi. So I think I’ve got a lot to thank Wagamama for.”

While Japanese restaurants in London will often serve everything from katsu curry and yaki udon to sushi and sashimi, Oda says that in Japan it doesn’t function in this way – you would never see six different things on a menu. Instead, you find restaurants that specialise in specific dishes. “You would have a tonkatsu restaurant, you would have a curry restaurant, you would have a sushi restaurant, you would have an udon restaurant, you would have a soba restaurant, a ramen restaurant, and they’re all separate things,” she says. “I think what we wanted to do is specialise in one particular cuisine, to do quality, thoughtful Japanese food – and it was udon noodle for us.”

And that’s exactly what Koya does. It opened Londoners eyes to the power of quality noodles and quality dashi broth, centering everything they do within this simple culinary concept, with the exception of the blackboards – rotating daily specials that allow the team to flex a more creative, seasonal muscle. “We have been doing the blackboards for ten years,” Oda tells me. “We have a list – I guess a formula – that chefs can refer to, but at the same time I’m really happiest if I can get a taste of something of theirs. So we have an American head chef in Soho right now, a Portuguese head chef in City and an English in Hackney, and I really enjoy tasting the flavours that they come up with.”

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“I think the noodles are a big part of what we do,” she continues. “And we must never forget that, but the blackboards are the fun bit. I also quite like thinking in colours. I would think about okay, next month, let’s do a white salad, for example, or something along those lines. For me that’s the fun way of thinking about dishes.” They work closely with a Namayasai Farm in Sussex and allow their product lists to guide upcoming dishes, building ideas around seasonal ingredients and letting the other elements come second.

With three locations and a ten year long history, Koya is a firm London restaurant favourite, especially when you consider that, even a decade on, it’s not dealing with many competitors attempting to emulate its very successful format. It’s a dream come true for Oda, but it’s not necessarily always been the plan. “I didn’t really study cooking professionally,” she tells me. “After I finished my MA, I started working in retail. So I was doing that for a good four and a half years and then I moved back to Japan for a couple of years and thought it was a good chance for me to do something else. Cooking is something that I always enjoyed, and it was something that I think was always in the back of my head and somewhere in my heart. I wanted to try and see if I could do something out of it.”

It does seem though, that for Oda, cooking is about so much more than just what’s on the plate. It’s interesting finding out people’s journeys into food – for some, it seems it was truly what they were destined to do, like they’ve been pulled into it by some larger force. I get this impression when I speak to Oda. “I think cooking for me was always a really, I think, a nice way to show, for example, your appreciation for someone or to communicate something. I thought it was kind of the most direct and quite emotional way to try and explain something to someone. And I think I really liked the fact that it was so tactile and so physical,” she says. “When I was doing my MA I was trying to explain to my grandma what I did, and she didn’t really understand. I wanted to do something that I could explain to my grandma and she would understand and appreciate. And I could say, here’s what I do, and thank you.”

I think cooking, for me, was the most direct and emotional way to show your appreciation or try and explain something to someone

“I think cooking is a really nice way to trigger a memory or a feeling,” she continues. “It’s almost like when you look at a painting or something and you don’t know what you like about it, but there’s some kind of feeling that gets triggered in you and it might be the colours, it might be the brushstroke. Who knows. With food it might be the way a dish is plated, it might be like a subtle nuance of a flavour that might tickle a feeling. And that’s kind of what I really love about it.”

She took the leap and worked in a restaurant in Japan for a couple of years, describing the experience as “really intense and a lot of hard work”, largely due to the work ethic in Japan. With this experience and education under her belt she returned to London at a crossroads: continue with cooking or pursue something else? It turns out that the decision almost made itself. “I met up with my friend Junya, who was talking about a project to open up a new restaurant, and it seemed really interesting but also quite challenging because there wasn’t anything like it in London at the time. I just thought it was a really good chance for me to give it a go.”

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We talk about her learning experience, through both maturity and experience, that being a woman doesn’t mean she needs to prove herself. She talks about the simple task of carrying something heavy, saying “I used to try and do everything and now I really don't mind asking ‘ok, can you lift this thing up please?’”

When I ask what it’s like to be a female leader in the hospitality industry, Oda admits that she doesn’t often acknowledge being a female chef, but that she does hear a lot of stories about “male, egoistic” chefs who still shout and create a culture of bullying and fear in their kitchens. “So maybe not even just as a female leader and chef, but more as a company who is trying to create a comfortable environment to work in. I feel quite proud that we work with people who are equally as proud to belong to a company that values these things,” she says. “We don’t take, you know, any racism, sexism, it’s just not something that we’ve ever accepted. So if we ever saw that then you’re just out the door.”

“I think I'm always surprised at how many other companies still bear these things,” she continues. “It’s really sad. I think it’s really important that more people like us communicate it and spread the word into the industry that it’s just not acceptable.”

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