Photography by Ye Rin Mok
Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese cooking teacher, food industry advocate, and food writer based in Los Angeles. With an ever-growing roster of diverse accomplishments, these days she has been busy promoting her much anticipated cookbook while working on the development of an organic curry brick that reconsiders our perceptions of health and convenience.
Raised around the world in Tokyo, Kamakura, Mexico City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Sonoko's journey into the world of food began when she was seeking reinvention after having worked in the film industry for more than two decades. After a trip back to Tokyo, she discovered her passion for soba making and since then, has turned this into a personal pursuit to make soba as accessible in the US as ramen or pasta.
We visit Sonoko in her Highland Park home on the day after she returned from a month-long trip to India, Singapore, and Japan. Full of energy and with her usual warm smile, she makes us tea and tells us how growing older is necessary for sharing precious life experiences.
Before being a part of the food world, you worked for years in the film industry, can you tell us about how you transitioned from film to food?
I was always passionate about cooking and eating. I wrote my first cookbook while I was a graduate student at UCLA. The book got published when I was doing entry level work as a production assistant for a film studio. I ended up working in the film industry for nearly 20 years as a film buyer but I always had this idea of someday coming back to the food world. I started freelancing for Los Angeles Times Food Section in the early 2000 writing stories and recipes while I working the film market as a buyer in search for the next box office hit. I produced a film that sadly opened on the day the market crashed. That was enough to make me think that it was time to do something I always wanted to do. So I began making the transition to food by studying noodle making in Japan. I put my hands in flour and that was enough to convince me that making food is a highly restorative practice. From there, I went into teaching not only noodle making but a wide spectrum of Japanese dishes for the home cook.
Can you describe your typical day?
Feed my cats, make a Japanese breakfast for my husband, yoga, walk, read and write, and cook. If I am at our ranch in Tehachapi, I like to take long walks with my dog and feed the horses.
What's a new recipe or ingredient you have been obsessing over lately?
Japanese curry. Everyone in my family loves curry. For decades, I was making Japanese-style curry using the commercial curry roux. I was relying on the roux because it was a convenient fast food that we grew up with in Japan. But I dislike the artificial and unsustainable ingredients that are used in the commercial roux, especially palm oil. There is a growing demand to burn and clear the forests in Southeast Asia to make room for palms to produce palm oil, destroying the habitat for wildlife and causing air pollution. I decided I could not go on using a roux that was full of artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers and not environmentally sustainable. During the writing of my cookbook, I came up with a roux that is made with organic and sustainable ingredients, and it tastes delicious. My curry brick (that's what I call my roux) was featured in the New York Times as the "new curry" My curry workshop has become one of my most popular Japanese cooking workshops that I offer.
Personally, we tend to carry things in our bags that hold some balance between creature comforts and necessity. What do you carry with you everyday in your Building Block pouch?
Wallet, Glasses, I-phone, Lip gloss, coin purse, pen and notepad and keys
What's your favorite thing about being your age right now?
As I grow older, I find that I can share some of my life experiences with others. That is why I teach cooking. I always learn more when I teach. I also appreciate the discoveries I make in life everyday. There are good teachers all around us in all forms of life. The beginner's spirit resides in me.