Richie Nakano – the new-wave Bourdain
By GraceAnn Walden
Richie Nakano, 29, is one of the most articulate and insightful chefs in San Francisco. I only talked to him once for this interview, but I have been reading his blog and Twitter tweets for months. And that’s how I got to dig his thinking and his point of view as a line cook at Nopa working 13 hours a day.
Nakano is bicultural; his dad is Japanese-American and his mom is Jewish-American from Long Island. He grew up in Virginia and later in Martinez. “I grew up around fresh, good food, but I thought that was just the way it is,” says Nakano.
Community college wasn’t his thing
“The day I graduated high school, my mom said, ‘You ought to think of culinary school’ – she throws that up to me now,” he says with a chuckle.
After high school he waited tables and thought it was cool to leave with money in his pocket while the cooks were still cleaning up.
We’re having our conversation over lunch at Nopalito, the little sister restaurant to Nopa.
While the chef-owner of Nopa was getting ready to open Nopalito, Nakano and the other chefs at Nopa were tasting many versions of the dishes.
At Nopalito, they grind their own corn for the tortillas and make just about everything from scratch. “Yeah, the chef took a trip to Mexico last year and sourced organic corn and bought this huge grinder, a molino. They’re grinding hundreds of pounds a day,” he explains. Nakano told me that they are also using 700 pounds of pork a week.
The two chefs at Nopalito, Gonzalo and Jose, are Hispanic. Curiously, neither is listed on the restaurant’s Web site.
The food at Nopalito and the California Culinary Academy (CCA)
I have the panucho de pollo al pibil, a Yucatan dish of blackbean-stuffed tortilla, citrus-achiote chicken, pickled red onion, and a searing habanero salsa ($4). It’s a wonderful starter made even better by the pickled onions.
Nakano started cooking with friends instead of going out. A woman friend told him she was going to the CCA and he says, “I committed to it. I think a lot of people come out of the CCA and say it wasn’t worth all the money, but I think I got a lot out of it, “ Nakano explains.
We split a very greasy quesadilla filled with pork belly and chicharron. The guajillo salsa sets it off well, but I worry that I should be downing another Lipitor to deal with all the luscious pig fat. His fish taco is better than the best of San Diego’s.
Nakano’s carnitas are up next, and they come in a piece of brown paper, soaked with pork fat. It says on the menu that the pork is braised in orange, bay leaf and beer, but leaves out that the way to make carnitas is to braise it in real lard plus flavorings.
Nopalito’s carnitas are excellent, served with a piquant cabbage salad, jalapeno and a sharp tomatillo salsa, which cuts the fat.
The only dish I didn’t like was the enchiladas with chicken in mole. The mole was waaaay too sweet and the refried beans were a lifeless lump.
Two different kitchens
After cooking around in Contra Costa, Nakano got a job as a line cook at Va de Vi in Walnut Creek.
In Catholicism, there are several ways to get to heaven; Va di Vi was Nakano’s baptism of fire. He learned a lot from chef Kelly Degala and suffered his share of chewing out. He worked there several years becoming a sous chef, then helped to open sister restaurant Pres a Vi in San Francisco, also as a sous.
From Pres a Vi he went to Nopa under Chef Laurence Jossel. That kitchen was a sea change. “Working in Degala’s kitchens was like boot camp; Laurence’s is like graduate school,” he opines.
“Working with Kelly, I started to acquire a nasty style with the cooks under me. Stepping into the kitchen with Laurence was so different. He said to me, ‘We don’t yell – that’s not how we work here.’”
Popsicles and Tweet
We ended our meal with the fabulous Nopalito popsicles – his the spicy-cinnamony chocolate and mine a refreshing lime.
So, I had to ask him how he came to do the blog and Twitter. He says in high school no one was texting yet, but everyone had beepers. “Growing up, technology was a really big deal to me; I liked toys, video games and photography,” says Nakano.
In addition to Twitter and his blog, he does a podcast, which is on iTunes.
“I started the blog 18 months ago. I was reading a lot of food blogs, but none were by a cook,” Nakano says. At first he wrote about how they put a dish together but then it started to evolve into things that happened in the restaurant.
Then he started to get noticed. “At first it was 30 people a week, then 80 … and now it is hovering around 600 people.” (Read an entry from Nakano’s blog if you think you want to be a cook: http://linecook415.blogspot.com
He said he started writing more and more and the focus changed after he came to Nopa – it was more about the philosophy of the kitchen. The cool part is that Jossel encouraged him to write more.
On Twitter he has 774 followers. “What’s great about it is that chefs from all over the country can talk to each other, show pictures of their food, recipes …”
I ask him if he tweets at work. “No, ’cause I would feel guilty breaking away, but I will write something on my iPhone and tweet later,” he says with a chuckle.
Nopalito: 306 Broderick Street (at Oak), daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m., 415-437-0303, www.nopalitosf.com