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Shuko Oda

The next few years were busily spent in kitchens, first at Hotel Claska in Tokyo, then at Kunitoraya in Paris. The former grounded her in the Japanese mentality of cooking – treating produce with great respect and creating wholesome, nourishing meals. The latter was, and still is, a beloved Franco-Japanese bistro in the capital’s first arrondissement, and it would become the inspiration for Koya. ‘They (Kunitoraya) helped us a lot at the beginning,’ says Shuko. ‘They were kind of our consultants for the first year. My business partner John used to visit Kunitoraya often – he loved the food and wanted to bring something similar to London. He started talking to myself and Junya (Yamasaki, former head chef of Koya) and we came up with a concept.’

The concept was centred around udon – these fat, chewy noodles were still little-known in the UK at the time, but they’re a central pillar of Japanese cuisine. ‘It’s like rice,’ Shuko explains. ‘You can eat it everyday. Udon is like fast food in Japan – it’s rough and rustic, whereas other noodles like soba are a bit more refined and particular.

‘Ten years ago, there weren’t really any Japanese restaurants – other than sushi restaurants – that specialised in one thing. You’d go to a Japanese restaurant and they would serve soba, udon, ramen, tonkatsu, tempura – everything. It doesn’t do Japanese food justice because that’s not what we are. We wanted to specialise in something and do a really good job of it, so we focused on having great udon and great dashi.’

Koya, then, was a chance for Shuko to shine a light on our idea of Japanese food, and show us what everyday food in Japan is really like. On a foundation of bouncy noodles and aromatic dashi, she built Koya into a beloved Soho institution. London is a notoriously cutthroat restaurant scene – great restaurants come and go in the blink of an eye – but Koya is as busy as it has ever been, with queues regularly snaking out into the street from the door curtain.

The menu features a variety of rice and udon dishes, but it’s the often-changing Koya specials boards that keeps punters coming in every week. This is where Shuko and her team show off a considerable creative streak, using seasonal British ingredients to create a shifting menu of more modern Japanese dishes that venture beyond the udon and dashi. ‘I think increasingly for us, less is more,' she says. 'We are a restaurant in London and the UK – we want to be as local as possible, and that means highlighting the produce we use. Whenever we do tastings of the new specials, I’m always trying to take things off the dish so you can really taste the ingredients. That’s the key thing for us.’

Three things you should know...

The first thing Shuko learned to cook was miso soup.

Shuko loves vinegary flavours, especially pickles. Pickles feature heavily on her menus at Koya.

Shuko's favourite meal of the day is breakfast.