A couple of weeks back, writer Chi San Wan and photographer Jess MacCormick made their way to Shuko’s beautiful south London home to find out more about what surrounds, inspires and excites the Koya boss.
Shuko can you describe the journey you took that lead to starting Koya?
I loved cooking when growing up, and it was always my choice of part time jobs when I was a student. I worked in retail for some years before I realized I wanted to pursue cooking professionally, and went on to work as a chef in Japan for a couple of years. When I came back to London, I met up with my friend Junya who introduced me to John. We started talking about doing a udon place in London, and a year later open Koya in Soho.
Tell me how you decided on the name Koya?
Deciding names is so difficult, we had numerous choices for the restaurant name. During our preparation period, the three of us went to Kempton Market looking for visual and interior inspiration, and when driving back to London, John asked us what ‘shed’ or ‘little house’ was in Japanese, and we said ‘koya’. It felt right to us all there and then, it fit our ethos and concept without it being too elaborate, and that was a decision made.
From where do you draw inspiration for the dishes you create?
From flavours I grew up with, from some of the amazing selection of restaurants we have here in London, and the people I work with.
Do you have days where you don’t feel inspired, and if so, how do you overcome this?
Yes, I like to go for a walk around Soho to clear my head.
What does a 'typical day' at Koya look like?
Breakfast service can be quite busy in Soho, so the kitchen team starts early. Each chef has a section to prep and we get straight to work after a quick meeting. The front of house team starts a bit later to set up the restaurant ready for opening. We'll grab a quick breakfast before lunch service begins at noon, and from noon till close it can be non-stop. There's a change of staff around 4pm when we do hand overs and catch ups, along with taking breaks and meals.
Do you have a ‘uniform’ for work? Perhaps your wardrobe is for both work and play and there is no separation?
We all have a uniform of shirts and aprons at work. The shirt is white for chefs and white with black stitches for the front of house. It’s a cotton shirt that people wear for summer festivals in Japan and sometimes by construction workers as well. I’ve found that it’s perfect for wearing in our hot steamy kitchens. The apron was designed by us, made and dyed in a small family-run dye house in Kyoto. It starts out as a strong indigo and then gradually fades into a worn out denim colour - it’s beautiful at every stage. We send them back to be re-dyed every couple of years, and have often stitched them up when torn.
Is there an item in your wardrobe you could not live without?
What are your top three ingredients in your home kitchen?
Umeboshi (pickled plums)
Natto (fermented soya beans)
What is your favourite dish to prepare for friends and family?
Hainanese chicken and rice with Thai tomato salad.
Describe yourself in three words.
When you’re not working, how do you like to relax?
What are your favourite places for…
St David Coffee
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Malin and Goetz
What are you currently…
Soul music and Akiko Yano
A Japanese novel called 'Plain Song’ by Kazushi Hosaka
I used to press flowers when I was little but had forgotten all about it. Last Christmas, my father in law made me a flower press and I have started again.
…most looking forward to?
My second baby joining us at the end of the year.
Name three women who inspire you.
Tell me your top three restaurants or cafes.
In London it would be Rochelle Canteen, Hunan and Ciao Bella
Are there any upcoming exciting projects or collaborations you can share with us?
I might be doing a casual night at Som Saa towards the end of the year - should be fun!
Finally, if you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I'd start an English B&B in Japan (make my own sausage, smoke my own bacon, make sure my chickens are happy and producing good eggs…)
Editorial by Chi San Wan
Photos by Jessica MacCormick