Soup Dreams: Daikaya Chef Katsuya Fukushima Trades High-End Molecular Gastronomy for Traditional Ramen
Chef Katsuya Fukushima made a career in cutting-edge cuisine, experimenting with spherification, foams, smoke—even meat-flavored chewing gum. He helped José Andrés open the original six-seat Minibar, where he was chef de cuisine, and he cooked for eight months at El Bulli in Spain, a former Mecca for molecular gastronomy. Fukushima also had a heavy hand in the openings of almost all Andrés’ other restaurants, from Café Atlántico to Zaytina to Oyamel.
But Fukushima’s parents, who live outside Baltimore, almost never visited the restaurants he worked in. “They weren’t really interested,” Fukushima says of his Japanese seamstress mother and Hawaii-born Army father. “They’d never eaten at Minibar. I don’t think they even know what molecular gastronomy is.”
But when Fukushima and his partners opened Chinatown ramen shop Daikaya in mid-February, his family was there within the first week.
“They know this food. They love this food,” says Fukushima, who, at Daikaya, wears a black-and-white checkered apron his mother made for him. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s oishii, oishii,’ which means delicious.”
After years focused on avant-garde cuisine, Fukushima is going back to his roots. Instead of modernist techniques, he’s learning culinary traditions that span generations. And rather than cooking with science, he’s cooking with soul. “If I’m happy, then my food’s going to be happy,” he says. “Ramen is not a spherified carbonated mojito.”
Since Daikaya opened, Fukushima, 40, has been pulling 17-hour days, coming in at 8 a.m. and leaving after 1 a.m. He didn’t do a single media interview in Daikaya’s first two weeks—unheard of, especially given the buzz and anticipation around the restaurant.
“I wanted to focus on the kitchen,” Fukushima says. “That’s more important than giving interviews.”
Fukushima also claims he’s shy, but it’s hard to believe, especially considering that in high school, he was in a battling breakdancing crew called the East Side Rockers—outfitted in Adidas sweatsuits and studded leather gloves—and went by the nickname “Boogie.” Fukushima went on to the University of Maryland, where he double-majored in math and art. He hated classes, but loved watching Julia Child and Great Chefs and preparing multicourse meals for his five roommates.
In and after college, Fukushima worked as a shooting instructor at the Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Center in Glenn Dale, Md. Strangely, that’s what led him to his first cooking gig in 1994; the mother of a friend from the shooting range worked at Ridgewells Catering and was looking for extra hands for the U.S. Open. Fukushima volunteered. “The sky opened up and the lights shined down on me,” Fukushima jokes. “I knew.”
The week after the catering job, 24-year-old Fukushima enrolled in Gaithersburg’s L’Academie de Cuisine. He worked stints at Vidalia, Cashion’s Eat Place, the National Press Club, and Jaleo. In fact, Fukushima was hired as sous chef at Jaleo by the Spanish restaurant’s original chef Ed Hanson, before Andrés became chef or owner of the restaurant.
Fukushima spent 14 years, off and on, working for Andrés’ Think Food Group, helping open Café Atlántico, Jaleo Bethesda, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Jaleo Crystal City, Minibar, The Bazaar in Los Angeles, and José Andrés Catering. But as he made his way up Andrés’ growing restaurant empire to become culinary director, Fukushima found himself in the office more than the kitchen. He knew it was time to do something else. Initially, his plan was to launch a cross-country food truck serving paella; he’d drive from town to town, stopping at farmers markets getting fresh ingredients to incorporate into the rice.
Then at a friend’s party more than three years ago, Fukushima ran into Sushiko owner Daisuke Utagawa, who’d just begun conceptualizing a ramen shop with 18th Street Lounge co-founder Yama Jewayni. Ramen hadn’t yet become trendy here: Toki Underground wouldn’t open for more than a year. In fact, there were no ramen restaurants in the District at all.
“Lots of people wanted him,” Utagawa says. “It’s not like we can offer him the moon, like some restaurant will offer him a big sum of money to become their corporate chef.” What they did offer him was a partnership stake in the restaurant and a chance to reconnect with his heritage, something Fukushima was eager to do. The name Daikaya means “house of the large cooking pot,” but it’s also a combination of the three owners’ names.
Born in Okinawa, Japan, and raised in Hawaii, California, Germany, and Maryland as an Army brat, Fukushima had eaten ramen growing up. But he’d never cooked Japanese food professionally. Utagawa saw this as an advantage. Instead of bringing in a chef from Japan, Utagawa wanted someone who could add another dimension. “Here’s a guy whose heart is Japanese and really wants to do that ‘getting back to his roots’ kind of cuisine now that he has all these accolades and techniques and experience under his belt,” Utagawa says.
In order to learn more about traditional Japanese ramen, the three Daikaya partners traveled to Tokyo and Hokkaido, known for miso ramen, for about a month in late 2011. Fukushima, who speaks some Japanese, hadn’t visited the country since high school. On the first day, they visited one of Utagawa’s favorite izakayas. “Over beer,” Utagawa recalls, “he said, ‘You know, Daisuke, I now understand why I am the way I am.’ He discovered his Japanese side.”
During that trip, Fukushima spent two weeks cooking alongside “Ramen Master” Sakae Ishida at the Nishiyama Seimen noodle factory that supplies Daikaya with its customized aged noodles. And despite his dislike of school, Fukushima has taken an academic approach to learning the cuisine, reading books, eating everywhere, asking questions. His mom even recorded all the Japanese Iron Chef episodes on VHS.
Fukushima made hoodies for his kitchen crew that say “ramen dojo,” meaning ramen school. “We’re back in school again. We’re all learning again,” he says.
Despite his background in pioneering cooking methods, Fukushima is taking a very traditional approach to his ramen. His respect for tradition, ironically, comes from two men who’ve made careers throwing it out the window: Andrés and El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià. Both taught Fukushima to understand classic flavors and basic techniques before reinventing a dish. “If I don’t know how to make a great broth, if I put parmesan cheese or pesto in it, I’m not paying due respect to the whole ramen-making process and the history of ramen,” Fukushima says. “I really want to be a student and learn as much as I can about ramen before I start to play with it.”
Daikaya serves four types of ramen: vegetarian, shio (salt), shoyu (soy), and mugi-miso (barley-miso). The last three all use a chintan stock (mostly pork-based, with some beef and chicken) with a different tare, or sauce, that gives each a distinct flavor. In the coming weeks, Daikaya will open an izakaya for drinking and snacks upstairs. Fukushima plans to take slightly more creative license there than he does with the ramen, but for the most part, he’s sticking to tradition.
Japanese cooking is about the art of subtraction: Instead of figuring out what a dish needs added to make it better, Fukushima tries to think about what he can take away. “I want to make it really impactful like I did at Minibar, where it’s two bites,” he says. “Here, I have to make that same impact, but they have to eat the whole bowl.”
Part of what gives ramen its complexity is the “mother” broth. Whatever is left over from the night’s stock is added to the next day’s stock and so on and so on—just as a bread starter might be used for years. “Our broth is actually like a month old now,” Fukushima says. “The depth is bigger because of the carryover of the mother.”
Although it may look simple, Fukushima says ramen is just as complex as the cooking he did at Minibar: “It’s broth, noodles, and flavoring, you can’t hide with all these gimmicks or the show that’s involved. You really get judged.”
The judging has already begun. Washingtonians are quick to compare Daikaya to Toki Underground, the first to popularize the Asian noodle soup in D.C. But the two offer very different styles: Daikaya serves traditional Sapporo-style Japanese ramen (like Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton), while Toki Underground brands its bowls as Taiwanese-style. Daikaya has a lighter broth more like a French consommé, whereas Toki Underground’s tonkotsu-style broth, made from emulsified pork fat, is rich and thick.
“People are going to compare, but it’s like apples and oranges,” says Fukushima. He’s also a fan of Toki Underground.
While the ramen met the approval of Fukushima’s discerning parents, there was one more person he wanted to please: the Ramen Master. Ishida flew into D.C. for a weekend three weeks ago with the sole intention of checking out Daikaya’s operation.
“They’re very particular about who they sell their noodles to,” Fukushima says of the Nishiyama company. The only other local shop Nishiyama supplies is Ren’s. “It’s kind of like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobe. Obi-Wan Kenobe wants to make sure he teaches the right people. He doesn’t want to teach the wrong person and then all of a sudden they go to the dark side.”
The Ramen Master asked to try one of each ramen bowl. He started with shio, the most delicate of the soups. If there’s a flaw, it shows. As Utagawa and Fukushima looked on, the Ramen Master took his first sip. “Mmm, mmm,” Utagawa recalls him saying. Next, he went for the noodles. “The noodles are showing very well,” he told them in Japanese. “You’re making Japanese ramen.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery