For master soba chef Shuichi Kotani, soba, or buckwheat noodles in English, is not just a food he serves.
“Soba saved my life.”
Growing up in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, highly athletic Kotani once was a junior Olympic sprinter, trained by Carl Lewis’ former coach. Things started to turn south, however, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She started to suffer physically, and also mentally from the serious side effects of medications. The family faced financial challenges as well due to his mother’s mounting medical costs.
His sporting dream was gone. After graduating from high school, Kotani started working for a local restaurant where he saw an architectural magazine and decided to become a designer. Following his acquaintance’s advice, he moved to Tokyo to pursue his new dream and visited a famous architectural designer’s office with no connection or appointment, asking for a job.
“Of course, he said no but I kept going back there for the next several days,” says Kotani. Eventually, the designer said yes to a no-pay internship position; he also suggested Kotani work at his friend’s soba restaurant to earn some money.
The owner of the soba kaiseki restaurant Kyorinbo was an architectural designer but also an accomplished soba maker. “He asked me if there was anything I could be proud of and I could not answer it,” says Kotani. The owner offered to teach him soba-making to help him gain confidence.
“I accepted his offer without knowing the training would start at 4 a.m. every day,” Kotani laughs.
It was 25 years ago.
Since that day, soba has captivated Kotani. “Simple buckwheat flour and water make the beautiful texture and flavor of soba noodles. Their quality entirely depends on your focus and attention to these two ingredients.”
The spiritual aspects of soba-making shifted his mind away from his mother’s health issues. Kotani trained himself further at notable soba restaurants in Tokyo, including Edosoba Hosokawa and Gonpachi, where he made over 1,000 servings of noodles a day by hand.
Sadly, his mother passed away while he worked in Tokyo but her illness made Kotani painfully aware of the importance of a healthy diet. “I wish I had known healthy food could have prevented her disease. Now I am committed to offering the most nourishing food to the world,” says Kotani.
And that food is soba.
“Soba is high in protein, soluble fiber, vitamin B1, B2 as well as choline which can prevent cancer and liver diseases. Also, soba is the richest source of rutin, which has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects,” he says. “By consuming buckwheat, you can avoid various health issues, such as high blood pressure, hypertension and fatty liver.“
Soba For A Healthy Body And Planet
Kotani was headhunted and moved to New York in 2007 to become the executive chef at Soba Totto. There he established a great reputation before starting his consulting business in 1999.
In addition to supporting other soba restaurant operations, Kotani has been actively educating others about the powerful health benefits of buckwheat as well as its sustainable nature in farming.
“Soba can grow literally on any soil in 72 days, including in Africa where no other plants can be cultivated. Not only that, soba can nurture unproductive soil itself. For example, in traditional Amish farming, soba is grown on sterile soil to make it fertile,” Kotani argues passionately.
Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of the two-Michelin-starred Blue Hill Stone Barns in New York, works with Kotani. His team grows buckwheat in the restaurant’s garden for nurturing healthy soil as well as serving buckwheat in various forms in his dishes.
But Kotani’s vision goes literally far beyond.
“Now we are talking about what plants can be grown on Mars and buckwheat is a perfect candidate.” He has lectured on the potential of buckwheat at Harvard University and other institutions.
Uzuki Restaurant: A Place For Meditation
In September 2023, Kotani opened his first restaurant Uzuki in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
At Uzuki, he serves only the Towari-style soba, which is 100% made of buckwheat. “The standard soba noodles contain 20% wheat to add some gluten, which makes it easier to handle the dough. Without wheat, it is much harder to shape the noodles to produce evenly silky, fully flavorful noodles.”
Towari is a proof of master soba chef and making it requires spiritual focus, which became the essence of Kotani’s life at this point.
“I saw my life taking a sudden dive from a star Olympian athlete to a troubled kid at a sensitive young age—I had a very hard time dealing with my mother’s suffering and my family’s financial circumstances. If I had not been introduced to soba-making, I would probably have long been dead by now,” he says.
For Kotani, Uzuki is a place to maintain his spiritual health.
At Uzuki, he incorporates time to meditate in his schedule: a moment of tea ceremony with buckwheat tea; making the ceramics he uses at the restaurant. “Pottery-making is very similar to making soba noodles with my whole attention drawn to my fingers. Both purify my mind.”
Uzuki offers a concise, original menu, all gluten-free, thanks to the 100% buckwheat noodles.
A signature dish is Duck Shio Soba, which is based on classic Japanese kamonanban soba. Instead of simply using Japanese-style roast duck, Kotani adds French-style duck confit and Peking duck to showcase the great chemistry between the earthiness and subtle sweetness of buckwheat and the richness of duck meat.
Soba is known as noodles in America, but he introduces the traditional buckwheat dishes in non-noodle formats too.
Honkuzu Soba Neri Tofu is a rich custard of delicate kuzu starch, sesame cream and soy milk, flavored with originally blended dashi and wasabi. Grilled Soba Miso is a sake lovers’ snack made with homemade miso, roasted buckwheat seeds and flavored with wasabi and scallions.
Kotani leads Uzuki’s kitchen but minimally steps into actual cooking. He also organizes special dinner events periodically to develop his team’s skills further.
“I want soba to be a part of a healthy American diet. To make it happen, I want my cooks to be great soba ambassadors one day.”
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