Shuko Oda is head chef and co-founder of Japanese Udon noodle restaurant Koya, which has two sites in Soho and the City of London, which has opened a second site in the city of London. She tells Emma Lake what it takes to create Koya’s signature noodles
How did you get into hospitality?
I used to work as a waitress in an Italian restaurant in Japan while studying. I was there for quite a long time and I just ended up working in the kitchen. I used to ask the head chef how he did things all the time and I think he just thought “OK, you might as well come into the kitchen”. I actually went on to work in retail, but after five years I went back to Japan and for a year worked in a restaurant. When I came back to London a friend of mine was talking to a guy about opening an udon restaurant.
What do you enjoy about your job?
Working in a kitchen is a special feeling. You get adrenaline when it’s busy and when things are going well and when you get a really nice dish coming out, it’s really special.
How do you develop dishes?
Sometimes it’s an adaptation or a dish I’ve done in the past. Sometimes I see an ingredient and I think “oh I really want to use that”, or it might be just something that’s in season. I like developing menus with the whole team and I’ve started pairing them up to suggest a dish which we will all taste and comment on.
What was your vision for Koya?
We had to get the noodles right and once that was set it was all about adding different flavours, so the food part was straightforward. We wanted to create a menu that was original to us and not just what you would find in a noodle place.
How do you create Koya’s signature noodles?
It takes a little while. We have a noodle factory downstairs and make our noodles fresh every day. We try not to import too much but flour is something we still have to import from Japan. We also have to be careful of the water; in London we have hard water and in Japan it’s soft. We use a water softener otherwise a lot would go wrong, including the texture and colour.
What’s your favourite Koya dish?
I think our breakfast dishes are important and one of my favourites is the cod roe. I think the idea of cod roe with noodles scares some people but it’s actually really good. It’s pretty addictive.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome at Koya?
Opening Koya City. Maybe because the City feels unknown, compared to Soho. It seemed like we had to be grown up about it. We had to make sure everything was proper. We’ve learned a lot already, we have to change how we operate a little bit because lunch is really intense for two hours and then it’s dead. So how I have to staff is different and the kind of prep we do is different.
What’s been the most rewarding thing about Koya?
Everything, I’m really happy with how it has turned out. At one point I thought “oh I don’t know how this is going to turn out” and then when it finished it looked amazing. I was almost surprised and super-relieved.
What does the future hold
We’re not sure, maybe another one, but at the moment we’re too busy with two.