The Japanese word “shokunin” is a good way to sum up the country’s culture. Translating to “craftsman” or “craftsman,” shokunin is more about the pursuit of mastery than being a master of your craft. In Japan, chefs and vendors are so specialized that some of Tsukiji’s famous fish market focus solely on eel or shrimp. In restaurants, apprentices can devote a decade to the art of the knife and the preparation of rice before being promoted to a prestigious position at the sushi bar. For executive chef and owner of Namba Ramen & Sushi, Pitak Hermkunthod, who goes by the name Koko, his introduction to the art of sushi began in 1999, when he went to work in family restaurants in Japan. Born in Korat province, northeast Thailand, Koko started helping out at his parents’ Thai restaurant when he was 8 years old. As an adult, he studied electrical engineering and worked for three years in the field before traveling to Japan with Tiger, a friend and chief from Toyama, a coastal town on the main island of Honshu. There he fell in love with the art behind Japanese cuisine and decided to move to the country to study.
The young apprentice went to work in Tiger’s kitchen and spent the next five years bouncing around Toyama and Osaka, studying cooking styles from yakitori to ramen to sushi. “I was fascinated by the beauty and artistry of Japanese cuisine,” says Koko. “Sushi requires a lot of detail and is like a personal art because you shape it with your hands.”
In Japan, restaurants focus on a specific cooking style anchored by carefully guarded recipes. Often only family members are introduced to the fold, and many owners will not train or hire outsiders. But that didn’t stop Koko from setting out to learn from what he considered to be one of Japan’s best sushi chefs, Kaita of Osaka’s Sushi Jin Kaita.
After asking and being rejected five times, Kaita agreed to hire him. Koko began her training by chopping vegetables. He bought boxes of cucumbers, carrots and daikon to practice his knife skills at home every night after work. Often, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to visit a particular fishmonger and buy the necessary groceries from the restaurant, as well as a few extras to practice slicing fresh fish in his spare time. During his shifts, he carried a tape recorder to capture every word Kaita said, which he immediately transcribed into a notebook after work.
Practice and repetition helped Koko earn the respect of his mentor, and it was a philosophy he took with him when he moved to South Florida in 2004. Koko spent the next 11 years working in various Asian restaurants, such as Zuma Miami, before moving to Naples and opening the 36-seat Namba, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this spring.
At Namba Ramen & Sushi, Koko only works with fresh fish that he buys from a Miami supplier who sources it directly from Japan, then cleans and cuts it himself. For dishes that sell out quickly, he’ll often walk through Alligator Alley in the morning to stock up on seafood for dinner service.
It honors what it calls “old-fashioned Japanese food philosophy,” meaning it aims to enhance the properties of its ingredients, without distracting from the natural flavor of fish or sushi rice. Namba limits its menu of maki (rolls with toppings) to nine options. Even then, most only have a few added ingredients, like scallions, nori, or sesame seeds. The nigiri and sashimi (raw fish on a bunch of rice or on its own) menu is larger, with hamachi amberjack, walleye snapper, toro (the buttery belly of tuna) and other choice fish that are cut with precision at an angle to create slender, diamond-shaped pieces, which are presented in all their sheer glory.
The commitment to simplicity and integrity is found in every element. For example, instead of serving green-tinted horseradish as a substitute for wasabi like many restaurants do, Koko grates its paste by hand from the authentic item, which is harvested in Japan. “It tastes completely different when grated,” he says. “Cleaner and mineral, not searing heat like fake wasabi.”
Koko sees rice as the thing that sets a sushi restaurant apart. He makes it fresh by taking the time to ensure the beans are thoroughly rinsed and prepped before being cooked. The single grain, served perfectly vinegared and at body temperature, has the culinary world cracking up for three-star Michelin sushi chef Jiro Ono (you might recognize him from the cult documentary, Jiro dreams of sushi). Koko aims for the same level of precision in Namba. He pays particular attention to every detail: temperature, seasoning, texture, consistency, humidity and proportion of rice to fish.
Four sushi chefs run Namba’s kitchen, and Koko will openly share his techniques, if the student is willing to put in the time and effort to become a shokunin. A young chef who began training under him recently left after six months because he was frustrated. He complained that all he was doing was slicing vegetables, but Koko wasn’t just testing his knife skills; he was also testing his patience. “In my five years in Japan, the main lesson I’ve learned is that a dish is not just about knowing a recipe; it’s all about technique,” he says. “A technique can be learned and eventually mastered – with discipline and practice.”
Read our 2018 Opening Review of Namba Ramen & Sushi.