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Women in food: Chef Lisa Nakamura

Lisa Nakamura, chef and owner of Gnocchi Bar, a casual Italian restaurant in Seattle, is known for serving – what else? – the ultimate Italian comfort food, gnocchi (potato dumplings), married with Northwest ingredients. 

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    Chef Lisa Nakamura, in a playful mood, goofs around with a dish of tiramisu at her Italian restaurant, Gnocchi Bar in Seattle.
    Jackie Donnelly/Courtesy of Pickles and Tea
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Lisa Nakamura’s life has been/is far from boring. After traveling the world for eight years as a flight attendant, she grounded herself (in more ways than one) and went to culinary school. Since then, Lisa has lived on both coasts of the United States, in Europe, and in Korea. She’s worked at Michelin-starred restaurants stateside (including Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry) and across the Atlantic. Now, she calls Seattle home, the city where she discovered her culinary calling, met her husband, and birthed her restaurant.  

I talked to Lisa about starting over, pursuing your dreams, taking chances, and surviving in a male-dominated environment.

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Q: You grew up on Hawaii’s Big Island. Describe your childhood for us.

Basically, I spent most of my life looking forward to getting off the rock; it was island fever. When you’re growing up in it you don’t realize how lucky you are. People think it’s this magical place.

Well, when you’re growing up you have nothing to compare it to so you think it’s just normal. I used to think that having large family get-togethers with lots and lots of food was just normal. That it was normal to get up and see the ocean. These are things you don’t realize how special they are and how lucky you are until you step out of it. Now I think, “Oh wow, that was really cool!”  

I grew up on a macadamia nut farm and there was a lot of physical labor involved. I had to work on the farm and my parents firmly believed that you should work. So a very strong work ethic was built in me pretty much as soon as I could walk. That’s served me well I think, I hope! And (now) physical labor doesn’t really scare me. Because that’s what you grow up doing. You have to weed, you have to water, you have to harvest.… You have to do all these things and it’s just part of (life). For that I am very, very grateful for. Not many people can say that.

I remember being forced to eat half a papaya every morning – my uncle was a papaya farmer – and I hated it, hated it! Now when I find papayas at the store, I’ll think, “These are not as good as the ones from my childhood!” Like I said, you don’t realize how lucky you are until you leave.

Q: What was your dream job when you were a kid?

I wanted to be a pilot actually and I never thought that I was smart enough to be a pilot. I was told that you have to be good at math to be a pilot. And I kind of sucked at it, so that wasn’t happening.

It was different then – you know, I’m going to be 51 – and opportunities for women were really different. Boy do I know how to make myself sound ancient! But it’s true. A lot of the barriers were not yet broken.  

When I entered the cooking world (20 years ago), it was very, very rare to have women cooking in fine dining restaurants. I know that I was the first woman on the hot line at Thomas (Keller)’s kitchen. I didn’t realize it at the time but someone told me after I had been doing it for awhile. I worked at The French Laundry from 1997 to 2000.

It’s recent, yet it’s not. I see how quickly things have changed and that’s great. And yet in some ways, change can’t happen fast.

Q: So what led you on the path to becoming a chef?

Well, I got my degree in botany because I thought I wanted to become a botanist. When I was getting close to graduating, I decided that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I got a job as a flight attendant because I wanted to see the world. I got hired by Delta Airline and off I went.

I think it was my eighth year of flying, and I just knew that if I didn’t leave now, I would never leave. I had to leave while I still had some guts to do it, for lack of a better term.

I used to work only 12 days a month and during my off time I used to do a lot of cooking. Somehow, I ended up deciding that I wanted to be a chef and I took a three-year leave of absence. Here I am, 20 years later and I have no idea how that happened.

Q: Why did you take a leave of absence instead of full out quit?

(I think) if you’re meant to be an in a restaurant, no matter what you try to do to avoid it, you cannot outrun it, it will claim you. I decided if I couldn’t make it in three years I would go back. Three years was a fair shot, it was enough time. If I was not making it, and I just really sucked at it, it was like a fall-back. 

Q: Did your mom or grandmother have an influence on your career decision?

My grandmother was a big influence on me. Like the (Grandma Miyoshi’s Dango-Jiru) recipe says, she would feel the dough, she didn’t cook with a recipe. She cooked out of necessity. They were poor and she had to figure out how to feed a large family and how to make things taste good.

I think she had that natural ability to cook. I think she was a good cook. So I would say that she was probably a really big influence on how and what I do now.

One of my biggest accomplishments is to be able to make sushi that actually tastes like hers. I can do it, not consistently, but every now and then it gets pretty close. But it’s still not there. And I don’t know if that’s how she really cooked it or if it’s my memory of what she cooked. Anyway, whenever I cook something like that she’s with me in the kitchen.

Q: Was it hard to make a career transition later in life? 

Yes, it was, because you’re more aware of what you’re giving up, more aware of the risks. And yet in some ways, it was a lot easier. I don’t know that I took college as seriously as I should have in my teens and 20s. But when you’re almost 30, you get serious, there’s no time for screwing around, you know, you gotta go so you gotta go.

I was a very determined individual, let’s just put it that way. I was on a mission. I had a mission, I felt like I was running out of time and I wanted to get this (culinary school) done.

Q: You worked at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. It’s a Michelin 3-starred restaurant and every culinary grad probably dreams of working there. You left after three years, why?

I left because two to three years under that kind of pressure is a long time. (The pressure) was constant. When I left, I really thought I wanted to stop cooking. I was just burnt out. I don’t know what I wanted to do but I just I didn’t want to cook anymore. I was just tired of it, tired of the pressure.

You get to a point where you lose vision. You lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing. It was just so intense. And you can only be that intense for so long, something’s got to give. For me, I needed to step away and figure out what it was that makes me happy.

I’m the kind of person that if I’m going to do something, I’m going to throw my whole body, everything I’ve got, into it. It’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older, to moderate a little bit more.

Q: So what re-ignited your love for cooking?   

I took a little a job at a little cafe on the California coast doing nothing but making sandwiches and pasta. And then I went to work for (restaurateur) David Kinch. And there was just something about cooking at that level again that was so great. He already had a good reputation and he was just starting Manresa (a celebrated California Bay Area restaurant). And it was really exciting to see someone’s vision become a reality.

Then one day, I got a call from someone looking for a chef in Europe. I always wanted to live overseas and I also wanted to live in Europe. And I just knew I had to go. That’s what started it again. Just getting back into the groove and seeing that there was life, just seeing what else is out there besides work.

Q: At what I what point did you realize that you wanted to open your own restaurant instead of working for someone else?

My husband is to blame for that one! I would come home from work and I’d be all frustrated like, “Oh my god, you won’t believe blah blah blah …” It didn’t matter where I worked, I was always forever complaining. And he finally said to me, “You know, you’re never going to be happy unless it’s your own place.”

I think it might have been very much self-interest on his part, “Oh please, shut her up!” That’s what started it. Every chef wants their own restaurant and then there’s the reality of it, like how do you actually make that happen.

Q: What’s it like being a chef/owner of a restaurant?

There are days when I don’t even get to talk to my husband because he’s asleep when I get home. (In the morning) we say, “Good morning” and we go our separate ways. There are some really long days involved here, I work 15 to 17 hours a day. Well, it’s motherhood! Some women have babies and I have a restaurant.

Q: Does being a chef require creativity?

Yes and no. I think what I’m doing now is probably less creative than anything I’ve ever done, (it’s) so much more pedestrian. What I’m trying to create is something that appeals to a greater audience. I’m not doing fine dining and not doing things that are more exclusive. I have a broader, a larger common denominator. So I keep things a lot simpler. In that respect, no.

On the other hand, because of the volume that we do, how much we’re producing and because of the changing nature of the ingredients, we’ve had to get creative in how we handle the potatoes. (It’s) being in touch with more of the nuances, what you need to do to get a consistent product that someone making gnocchi once a week wouldn’t get. We just turned 400 pounds of potatoes into gnocchi three days.

It’s not just creative cooking any more, but being creative like, “How do I get people in?” I’ve also had to be creative about how we expand our reach, and part of it was going to retail. Every night, right here (in the restaurant), I’m trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, how I stay in business, what formulas work. It changes so quickly so (I keep asking) how do you adapt?

Q: Are people surprised that you’re an Asian-American woman making gnocchi?

All the time, all the time. Literally, I have watched people’s heads almost explode when they look back into the kitchen and see me. I’m like, “Really I’m the person behind it all.” Yes, she happens to be an Asian-American. And she happens to do this. It’s hilarious. It’s frustrating. It’s subtle racism. But it’s just another step in our whole enlightened future. 

Q: Do you think you’ve achieved your lifelong goals? Are you happy with where you are now? 

I don’t know that I’m happy. I don’t know because I don’t really know what that’s supposed to look like. I look at it more like, “I’m really grateful that I’ve had this chance, that I’ve had the opportunity to do so many things, because not everyone gets that chance. And I realize that luck is 99 percent hard work. There’s a point where you make your own luck and there’s a point when you’re dependent on other people to help you along. I don’t want to lose sight of that.

So am I happy? I think happiness is a very temporal thing. It can come and go very quickly and if you based your life on whether or not you’re happy, I don’t know that you’ll ever really be happy. 

I want to base my life more on looking forward, looking back, and looking at where I am right now.  And in spite of the good things and the bad things that are happening, realize that it’s temporary.  It will always get better, it will always get worse. It doesn’t really matter where you are right now, just be grateful for that moment.

Q: What are some life lessons you’ve learned?

The older I get, the more aware I am how hard it is for a woman. And it’s something that I never really thought about when I was younger. I just did what needed to be done. But as we evolve as a society, evolve as a nation, as people, you realize it’s really still hard for women in all aspects.

(For instance), because I work my crazy hours, and someone might say, “She’s so selfish!” For a guy, people would be like, “Oh, he’s such a hard worker.” Somehow, if women are go-getters, people would think she was a bitch, right? I don’t want to lose that humanness (there’s a certain amount that people just need to be kind) but I also want to make sure things get done all the same. I’ve been fortunate that I encountered that very rarely. I’m really lucky I married someone who seems to understand that it’s what I need to do right now.

I’m becoming more aware of how we base success on different things. For me, I’m not trying to change the playing field. That’s not my goal. My goal is to be successful with the parameters that I have. Okay, so this is what it takes.

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to pursue their dream, no matter what stage of life they’re in? 

If you never ask the question, the answer always be, "no."

I searched for over a year for the spot that we’re in now and I took it over a year ago today. I don’t know how many people said to me: “No, your idea won’t work.” “No, it’s crazy.” “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I was getting very frustrated.

Then I decided maybe someone would share a space with me. I had nothing to lose. So I e-mailed Marco (the previous owner of the space) out of the blue and I said, “I don’t know who you are, you don’t know who I am, can I ask you something?” The answer was not "no," and one thing led to another and here I am today.

To make a long story short, if I hadn’t asked the question, the answer would’ve been "no." And you are going to hear a lot of no’s. You’ll hear more no’s" than yesses. Someone told me you need to get 10 no’s before you get one yes. That’s pretty dismal odds but it’s also reality.

So maybe I am (crazy), maybe I’m not. I don’t really care, but the answer is "no" so I’m moving on. I’m going to find someone who’s going to say, "yes."

~~~

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing your wisdom!

Related post on Pickles and Tea: Inspiring APA Women in Food: The Food Writer, Monica Bhide

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