The chef, obsessed: Nobuyoshi Kuraoka established his own local buckwheat farm to achieve the perfect soba noodle
4:45 pm Mar. 29, 2012
In the age of farm-to-table dining, countless barnyard-chic restaurants across the city loudly tout their Greenmarket shopping credentials. But leave it to a decades-old Japanese restaurant to claim a farm of its very own, designed to produce the single crop that fuels owner Nobuyoshi Kuraoka’s obsession: buckwheat.
Kuraoka is the owner of Restaurant Nippon, a 50-year old vanguard of upscale Japanese dining in Midtown East. A Tokyo native who declined to give his age but is likely in his 70s, Kuraoka has a long history of introducing New Yorkers to the best spoils of his native country: in 1989, after five years of negotiations with the Food and Drug Administration, his restaurants received a license to import fugu, or poisonous blowfish; and in 2006, he received another permit to import a particular strain of fresh wasabi root from the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. He built a machine that expels ideally drained tofu with cotton cloth, and developed a patent to keep his food fresh for use on Japanese airlines. But his biggest undertaking has been in the pursuit of the perfect soba noodle.
To create it, Kuraoka hired a prize-winning farmer from Japan to plant 55 acres of buckwheat seeds in a farm outside Montreal. He cherry-picked chefs from a soba master in Tokyo who trains his disciples for 10 years. In 1999, he opened a more casual, buckwheat-centric restaurant in Midtown West called, appropriately, Soba Nippon. And when you taste a bite of that soba, made just hours earlier in a kitchen beneath Restaurant Nippon, you’ll understand why Kuraoka cares so much: richly nutty in flavor with a pleasantly toothsome texture, Nippon’s noodles are deeply satisfying, a reminder of the power of simple, pure raw ingredients.
Kuraoka’s soba journey began in 1988, when he traveled to Japan hoping to import buckwheat to satisfy the demands of his Japanese clientele at Restaurant Nippon, who, he told me, pleaded for “real soba” in their adopted home. But as soon as Kuraoka arrived, he was slapped with stratospheric wholesale prices, hovering around $70 a pound. Japanese restaurant owners complained to Kuraoka about inconsistencies, suspecting that wholesalers were mixing cheaper flour or coloring additives in with the flour. Many had resorted to buying cheaper, lower-quality buckwheat from China.
“It was a shame to me," Kuraoka said, "that soba, which was cherished by generations of Japanese people as a causal and healthy food as early as the 18th century, turned into something far out of reach."
Spurred on by the desire for quality ingredients and possessed by a deeply rooted entrepreneurial spirit, Kuraoka decided the only solution was to grow his own buckwheat. Undaunted by the fact that he had no agricultural experience, Kuraoka tracked down Japan’s preeminent soba scientist, Dr. Dai Nagatomo, renowned for his buckwheat cultivation techniques. Nagatomo introduced Kuraoka to Yoshiharu Haba, a buckwheat farmer in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, whose dry soil is ideal for growing the hardy crop. Haba had been growing buckwheat for 45 years, his prize-winning seeds legendary across the country.
Kuraoka presented him with a challenge, and an opportunity: come to Canada to cultivate buckwheat to be used exclusively by the Nippon restaurants. Haba accepted, and thus began a years-long trial-and-error phase, adjusting the sensitive seeds to their new soil conditions and cross-breeding them with a Canadian seed to produce a flavor more palatable to Western tastebuds. After five seasons of a fruitless harvest, Haba finally succeeded.
Today, the buckwheat seeds arrive to New York in 80-pound bags from the farm. Unprocessed, they look like little chocolate chips. But they don’t stay that way for long, once Akira Adzuma gets his hands on them.
Adzuma is the soba master, a quiet man whose youthful appearance belies his 32 years working for Kuraoka. Adzuma and his small staff are responsible for the daily production of all soba for Restaurant Nippon and Soba Nippon, a process that begins at 8 a.m. every day and takes four to five hours, winding down just in time for the lunch rush. Adzuma and Kuraoka designed a soba machine to help knead and cut the dough for large batches, but Adzuma still regularly makes noodles by hand. He speaks almost no English, preferring instead to let his fingers do the talking as they deftly work with the buckwheat, turning the flour into dough and the dough into pristine noodles.
Unlike many restaurants, who buy preground buckwheat flour, the Nippon restaurants grind their seeds fresh, every day.
“The soba starts to lose its freshness as soon as you open the bag,” explained Kuraoka. He built a machine that grinds 40-pound batches of the rock-hard seeds into pure, fine flour, ash-gray in color and strongly nutty-smelling. Adzuma mixed eight parts of buckwheat flour with two parts wheat flour, a ratio called ni-hachi that’s widely understood as the perfect balance of flavors. Working in a burnished ceramic bowl, Adzuma began mixing the flours together before adding thin streams of water to turn the mixture into a rough, crumbly dough. He kneaded the dough hard, muscles flexing in his forearms, eventually forming a disc that he dusted with more buckwheat flour to prevent sticking. Then he began the careful flattening process, first with the palm of his hand, then with a long, thin rolling pin called a noshi-bo.
“If you can see the dough [when you pull the block back], the noodles will be too thick,” he said. Within minutes, the entire sheet had been dispatched into matchstick-thick strips, delicate and dusty. The soba noodles were ready.When the delicate, chalky dough had been rolled out to a perfectly rectangular sheet, one eighth of an inch thick, Adzuma folded it into quarters, making a neat log about two feet long and six inches tall. He placed a wooden block on top of the dough, called a koma ita, to press out any air and keep the folds in the place. Then, using a special soba-only knife with an oversized square blade that lends it a vaguely battle-axe-esque appearance, Adzuma started slicing tiny slivers, moving the wood block back ever so slightly with each chop.
Soba noodles take 40-50 seconds to cook in boiling water, and must be plunged immediately after into an ice bath to keep them from overcooking. Soba Nippon serves their noodles, perfectly chewy and dense, in a few ways: Kuraoka’s personal favorite is the soba salad, a sort of East-West hybrid involving lettuce, seaweed and noodles doused in a sesame dressing. Purists may prefer the chilled zaru option, a tangle of unadorned noodles served alongside a small cup of dashi both, freshly shaved wasabi root, and finely sliced nori. There’s a heavier option, yakisoba, in which the noodles are fried with a tangy sauce and bits of cabbage and meat, and served on a cast-iron skillet. Kuraoka likes to top his with shaved Parmesan cheese, a decidedly newfangled touch that’s surprisingly delicious.
Culinary innovation aside, Kuraoka remains deeply committed to keeping his soba high-quality, using traditional methods.
“When I first opened," he said, New York Times food critic "Craig Claiborne gave me some advice that I remember to this day. He told me the only things that mattered were authenticity, quality, and fair pricing. I try to remember that to this day.” And with a slight bow, he excused himself, disappearing into the kitchen.