LA Chef Jacob Kear’s great adventure to Noma Japan (extended version)

(Originally published January 7, 2015 on Examiner.com)

“Although our entire staff will move to Tokyo, we’ll leave our ingredients at home. Rather we’ll bring our mindset and sensibilities to the best of pristine winter produce from all over Japan.” Rene Redzepi

In two days on the 9th of January, Noma Japan’s first meal will be served in the Signature Restaurant on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo. Since just after the start of the New Year, Noma‘s entire staff of forty-six chefs and twenty front of house personal arrived from Copenhagen and have taken over the production kitchen on the entire basement 3 level of the hotel. Here the staff is prepping ingredients like wild cherry blossom, citrus,Koji, kelp, sansho, and kinome for the multi-course seafood centric meal. Months previously these and many other foraged ingredients were shipped in bulk to Copenhagen where Chef Rene Redzepi and his team experimented with them in Noma’s lab to develop the dishes that will be served on Noma Japan’s menu. Though Noma Japan’s staff has tasted these dishes (that are still being tweaked) prior to the opening, what exactly will be served is being kept a secret until opening day. As noted in the prior overview, LA Chef Jacob Kear has started an online diary of his participation in this culinary event. So in a few days you may be able to see pictures of some of the Noma’s plates on his instagram account “dinnerbykear.”

Kear is no stranger to foraging ingredients in Japan. After his family moved to Japan when he was only six months old, as a small child Kear use to forage with his grandmother (on his mom’s side) every time his family went to their cabin in Nagano right next to Lake Nojiriko. Here with his grandmother he foraged for a bunch of different Japanese vegetables not available in the United States. His grandmother was and still is a great cook. Jacob always spent time with her in her kitchen and in his great grandmother’s kitchen as well. What Jacob learned from his Grandmother in the kitchen as a young child helped later to form Jacob’s culinary foundation. Jacob’s grandmother was educated as a nutritionist, and she along with her husband, worked in R & D for Halls, the cough drop company that was based in Japan. This in part was why she was so good at flavor combinations as well as traditional Japanese cooking.

After Jacob came back to the US, his Japanese grandparents continued to affect his decisions. To take advantage of being bilingual, Jacob went to community college to study international business. He wasn’t into it, and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. During his exams, he talked to his mom’s parents. His grandfather joked that Jacob always liked to cook. After that conversation, Jacob thought about it, and continued to think about it all during his exam the next day. He couldn’t imagine himself at a desk job behind a desk at a computer for the rest of his life. So he packed his stuff up after his exam, and shortly thereafter dropped out. Needless to say, his mother was really upset. Jacob then moved from San Jose to Southern California where he enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. After his very first day in the school’s kitchen, he knew he had made the right decision. This was where he wanted to be.

Jacob had to work while he was in school. He first worked at the now closed Asian fusion Mako Restaurant in Beverly Hills under a Wolfgang Puck alum who had been the E.C. at Chinois on Main. He then did his internship at the Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles on Figueroa. He continued working here after completing school under a chef from France who spoke only French, so Jacob felt like he was working in France during his time in this kitchen. Next to shorten his commute from Huntington Beach where he was living at the time, he walked into the kitchen at the Ritz Carlton in Dana Point with his resume and was hired on the spot. Here he worked for four years starting in garde manger in the banquet section and finishing as a sous chef in the restaurant under the direction of Chef Joel Harrington, a Marcus Samuelson protégé and Aquivit alumni. In 2003 while still working at the Ritz Carlton, Kear visited his old school in Pasadena. He saw a competition for sushi rice flyer posted on a bulletin board. He entered. He didn’t hear back that year.

In 2004 while his parents were going through a divorce and his mother moved back to Japan, he had just gotten off the phone with his dad after talking to his dad about quitting his job at the Ritz Carlton where he wasn’t making much money. As soon as he put down the phone, the phone rang again. On the other end was a NYC production company. They called to ask if Jacob was interested in resubmitting his recipes he had submitted a year earlier for the sushi rice competition. Kear re-entered. Shortly thereafter the production company flew him up to San Francisco where he competed against five other chefs in front of a camera crew. A month later the production company called and told him that the judge, Chef Mark Miller, picked him as the winner. They then invited him to NYC to compete against two other chefs in the final. So he went to CBS Studios in NYC and made three dishes for the three judges Chefs Mark Miller, Ming Tsai and Daniel Boulud. Despite being a lot younger than his competitors, the twenty four year old Kear was declared the winner. The show was broadcast on the Food Network. There were two versions of the broadcast: one in English broadcast in the States and the other in Japanese broadcast in Asia. As soon as Kear got back from NYC, he started getting calls from Japan where he flew next and was interviewed for a couple magazines and three televisions shows. When he returned to work at the Ritz, he then got a call from Korea from restaurant owners who had seen him on television. They asked him to come to their restaurant and be the executive chef. Though he wasn’t quite ready, Kear admits he was quite cocky, so off he went to Korea where he attempted to do a “California bistro fusion” menu. Food culture, at that time in Korea, wasn’t exactly very high and he had a hard time executing the menu he envisioned. Then after only eight months, Kear had visa issues and couldn’t continue with this position.

While still in Korea, Jacob’s mother now living in Japan sent him information about a television show featuring Chef Jeff Ramsey who back then was the CDC at the Tapas Molecular Bar in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the 38th floor (one floor above Noma Japan’s current location). Jeff worked previously as a Chef de partie at MiniBar in DC under Chef Jose Andres. Like Kear, Ramsey is also half Japanese. At the Tapas Molecular Bar Ramsey did the same kind of cuisine he did previously for Chef Andres. After seeing the show, Kear booked a flight to Tokyo, ate at the Tapas Molecular Bar, talked to Jeff and got a job within a month. Working at the Tapas Molecular Bar didn’t leave much time for anything else. Kear was in at 10 AM and worked until 1 AM doing both prep and the two dinner services for the twenty-six course menu. There were only three people on staff. During service one was back of house and the other two were out in front of the customers. Jacob was out front. Because of the Michelin recognition that this restaurant received, Tapas Molecular Bar attracted a lot of foreigners especially from England, Australia, and the United States. So Jacob put his bilingual skills to use explaining to the guests each dish including how to eat it, and the dish’s story.

In 2010, Chef Kear came back to Southern California. He lived in Orange County and initially did a consulting gig for the An Family and their restaurant the Crustacean in South Coast Plaza. A friend then contacted him about an opportunity in Culver City, where Chef Sang Yoon was opening Lukshon. Kear joined Chef Yoon’s team on the R & D side six months before the restaurant opened. Kear helped develop the menu. Kear continued to work at Lukshon for another six months after the restaurant opened. Chef Yoon taught Kear the business side of a restaurant including how to build a “sixth sigma” system plus hire and manage a staff. A sixth sigma system always provides a back-up plan so, for example, if one refrigeration unit fails, there is a second one as back-up to kick in so the kitchen never fails.

Kear left Lukson when one of the customers slipped him a business card and asked him to become the executive chef for an Asian gastro pub concept in Orange County. After several months, the restaurant failed to materialize and Jacob was left looking for work. He was out with friends and met Ash, whose father is a developer in Boston who at that time was working on a large resort project. This, in turn, led to a visit to Boston as well as one to London where Kear did some pop-ups and a week-long stage at The Ledbury under Chef Brett Graham. When Jacob came back from England he received an email from Matthew Orlando at Noma telling him they had a spot for him tostage in March of 2012. Orlando is now the executive chef at AMASS also in Copenhagen.

Jacob remembers exactly what he did his first day staging at Noma. Everyone starts working in production. He walked in and there were four pots of lemon thyme. He picked the tips and put them in one pile and put the leaves in another pile. He did this for three hours. Then he picked the leaves off chervil stems putting the leaves in one pile and the stems in ice water. He did that for another three hours. Next up was watercress again leaves in one pile and stems in ice water for a few more hours, and then finally he was one of ten people who helped break down twenty-five hundred razor clams.

The week Jacob arrived was the also last week of LA Chef C.J. Jacobson’sstage. C.J. gave Kear a rundown of what to expect. Almost all the stages are under thirty. Kear was only one of the two stages over thirty. The other was Australian Chef Jock Zonfrillo who has since gone on to become a “rock star” in Jacob’s words appearing on the cover of “Fool” magazine and having his own television show called “Nomad Chef” on TLC Asia. The two of them use to forage and eat together. Some stages, the greenest ones, did production the entire time that they were at Noma. Jacob got to work on the snack section, the pastry section, on the line for a little bit and in the test kitchen (not the Nordic lab) with Rene and Torston Vildgaard. Vildgaard is now the executive chef at Studio in Copenhagen.

The three months went by so fast. Kear noted that if Rene was in Copenhagen, he was in the kitchen every single day. Every day when he makes the rounds, he walks in and shakes everyone’s hand. It didn’t matter whether you were a stage, he called everyone chef. There was no ego. Everyone kept his or her head down and just worked. Jacob stated “it was a beautiful thing.” Jacob also noted if he wasn’t married and didn’t have a kid at this time, he would have stayed and taken a job at Noma. A job there requires a two year commitment.

When Jacob got back to Southern California, he went through a month or so period of “Noma withdrawal.” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. There wasn’t a kitchen he wanted to work in, so he spent a lot of time foraging in the woods. Ultimately he took a job as the executive chef at Eva working for Mark Gold. Since Mark was never there at the restaurant, Kear basically was in charge of the kitchen and changed the menu. The menu became Kear’s reinterpretation of what he learned at Noma. As Kear reflects back, he wasn’t proud of this food because it wasn’t a real reflection of him. He basically copied the style of cuisine he just experienced in Copenhagen. He noted he was lost. After working at one of the top restaurants in the world, he got back and wasn’t sure what kind of food he wanted to cook at that time. He hadn’t had sufficient time to process what he had learned at Noma. Needless to say there were numerous other issues at Eva (like bounced paychecks) that ultimately led to his quitting this job after only six months.

Shortly after leaving Eva, Kear met Chef Sergio Perera. Kear saw KevinEats review of the Amalur Project and was intrigued. He sent Perera an email, and the next day they connected at a pop-up in downtown Los Angeles. Dishes for subsequent Amalur Project pop-ups were a collaboration of theAmalur Project chefs. Kear brought a lot of Japanese influence to the team whereas Perera brought a lot of Spanish influences. Kear considers Pereara as one of the most talented chefs he has encountered in the industry. During his time doing dishes for this project Kear also worked with many of the ingredients that Noma Tokyo is now using. Kear used sansho and kinome as part of the Amalur project as well as kelp all the time for dashi and curing fish. When another chef who participated in one of Amalur Project’s pop-ups, Steve Monnier, moved from Los Angeles to Baltimore, Kear inherited a number of Monnier’s private clients and became a private chef for a number A-List celebrities including Ryan Seacrest, Max Mutchnick, Alicia Keys, Leonardo DiCaprio and Miranda Kerr. Though restricted by many of his clients’ dietary preferences, here too Kear has explored different Japanese ingredients.

When Kear read that Noma was doing a project in Tokyo last summer, Kear sent an email to Chef Rene Redzepi. Redzepi wrote back in October stating if Kear had Japanese citizenship he was part of Noma’s team. Kear is a dual US and Japanese citizen, so Kear was on-board. However since Kear was the only person who wasn’t part of Noma’s Copenhagen staff, Kear wasn’t allowed to say anything about his participation until more recently. Redzepi received a large number of other requests to participate, but Kear was the only one accepted.

According to Kear, Noma has been working on the project since the beginning of the 2014. They shipped ingredients and product to Noma in Copenhagen and the R&D chef and Rene worked on the menu. Three R&D chefs have also been in Tokyo since the beginning of November prepping for this event. When the rest of the staff arrived on the fifth if January most of the prep was already done for the first week. Though markets being closed for the New Year did makes things more difficult. Kear arrived on the first and got to spend time with the “brains of Noma” for four days before the rest of the staff arrived. Kear has also been part of the team doing prep. When service starts on January 9th, Kear will be the translator for the staff and Rene. Kear will also be explaining the dishes to the guests so he’ll see and know the stories for all of the dishes being served. On the third, Kear already got to taste six of the dishes being served, and was totally blown away. Dishes included items like pickled Okinawa peppers and wild cherry blossom wood oil as well as the most expensive kombu available Rishiri Kombu. Ingredients like the wild cherry blossom oil are new to Japanese cooking and reaffirm what Redzepi previously has stated, “We’re not going to go there and copy our food or copy Japanese food. We want to try something. We want a challenge. We want to learn something from it.”

Kear on his Instagram dinnerbykear noted on January 6th that Noma’s team got a rundown of the entire menu with an explanation of each dish and from where all the ingredients were sourced. Kear will continue to do a daily diary of Noma Tokyo on his Instagram account.

Kear believes Noma is the number one ranked restaurant in the world because all of the chefs that work at Noma are passionate, don’t have large egos and have worked at other restaurants with very high standards. Kear feels extraordinarily lucky to be in the presence and part of this historic culinary event which is being filmed (and directed by the creator of Jiro Dream of Sushi) and will become an original Netflix documentary. With only a lunch service and two dinner services for fifty-six guests at each service per day, most people will only get to experience this event thanks to this film. There is currently a wait list of over fifty thousand people for this event.

Immediately after this event, Kear will be doing a two week stage at the Three Star Michelin kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto, Japan. As for what Kear intends to do after his most recent time in Japan, he is still evaluating several options. Hopefully he’ll return to Los Angeles for at least a few pop-ups so people here in LA may experience some of what Kear has learned from his most recent travels.

 

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