A TV-Famous Chef on How San Francisco Is Killing Its Restaurants

Richie Nakano was a ramen star. But that wasn’t enough for Silicon Valley.

Photo illustration; Source: Caroline Hatchett

RRichie Nakano’s Hapa Ramen was launched in 2010 on folding tables at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It didn’t take long for his local pop-up to grow into a Bay Area staple. As people lined up for a taste of his gorgeous bowls of fragrant homemade broth — full of noodles, pickles, kimchi, sous vide eggs, pork leg confit — Nakano quickly earned the reputation as one of the area’s most innovative (and hardest-working) chefs. His fame grew not only through Hapa Ramen, but also thanks to Line Cook, his crackling, salacious blog about restaurant life, sustainability, craft, and the politics and culture of food. It’s a presence he’d later expand to Instagram and Twitter. The late Anthony Bourdain was a big fan; he told me once that Nakano was the best chef writing.

Nakano is divorced, with two young sons and two dogs. In a 2013 StarChefs interview, he defined what success meant to him: “Getting my place open. Getting to a place where I feel like I can give my kids a really secure future.”

The big chance came when Silicon Valley investor Owen Van Natta staked Hapa Ramen in a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Mission District, which opened in November 2014. But almost immediately, the new partners clashed in a highly public spat over issues of control, costs, and profits; the restaurant closed just five months later. The Hapa Ramen story is an emblem of the frequent collisions, in the Bay Area especially, between Silicon Valley tycoons and the entrepreneurs and artists tempted by their sometimes-poisoned chalice.

“With the money came expectations,” Bourdain observed dryly, in a July 2016 Parts Unknown segment featuring Nakano. “Only four months in, the shit hit the fan… It really is the perfect story of evil triumphs over good.”

It’s been nearly five years since the end of Hapa Ramen. GEN caught up with Nakano to learn what happened next and where he thinks the restaurant world is headed.

GEN: Do you miss the kitchen?

Richie Nakano: Yes and no. That first year was really hard, like I didn’t know what to do with myself. And it was hard to clock out at a certain time. I do miss the general vibe and energy of cooking, but I don’t miss the six-day workweeks or not seeing my kids — that all sucked. It’s a trade-off, like everything, but I do think I’m happier now. I was in the kitchen for 19 years, so it was my identity, just being a chef.

I still get to cook, but without having to be in the kitchen grinding it out day after day. I was in Nashville a couple weeks ago doing an event, and before that, I was in Toronto doing a ramen pop-up.

Catch us up since the big blowup at Hapa Ramen.

God, a lot has happened. I started doing restaurant consulting pretty much right afterward; the first person who gave me work was Daniel Patterson from Coi. He was like, “What are you doing? You need to come help out with this restaurant and get them back on track” — not only with cost, but with culture; the culture in the kitchen is really important with him. I went over there and worked for him for a few months. Delfina Restaurant Group hired me to basically do the same thing: bounce around, help out at different locations, which I did for about a year. I’d been writing for ChefsFeed, just freelancing, and then they hired me to do social media and editorial, stuff like that. I’ve been with them for the past three years.

There’s been a growing political consciousness of what it means to feed people, and it seems to me your whole career has been at the forefront of that: a synthesis of ecological and business developments — taking care of the soil and farmers, taking care of the communities you’re serving.

Food culture right now is like, “Oh, we have to do organic, and we have to pay a living wage to our workers, and we have to be local and take care of our community.” That is the template for a business plan or a mission statement that a restaurant would have now. Almost it’s expected, I would say. But we’re starting to get to a point where people throw out these terms without really knowing or caring what they mean.

I was eating at a restaurant on Sunday, and they gave this whole spiel: “We’re local and organic, and we only serve what’s in season.” And they weren’t. They were serving summer produce, and so all this shit — they just use the right words so people will say, “Oh, yeah, great, you guys are doing the right thing.”

People in this business are trying to redouble their efforts to make life for everyone working in the kitchen more livable. But at the same time, the cost of operating is so high for a restaurant now, which is butting up against those efforts. Operating here in San Francisco, you have [the] highest rent in the country, and then you have $15 minimum wage, which means to hire a cook, you have to pay $25. Just making your rent and labor cost every month is near impossible.

We’re trying to make things right and fix kitchen culture, and make things not toxic, and refocus our efforts into organics and sustainability and things like that, but the costs of actually doing the business aren’t gonna be making sense for a lot of restaurants anymore.

Just yesterday, a chef told me, “We’re just going to have fast-casual restaurants and super-high-end restaurants at some point. The middle’s going to fall out completely unless there’s some kind of change.” And the only change we could see that would work would be for dining out to become prohibitively expensive, which would suck.

Nearly every business in this part of the world is a victim of rent-seeking.

Especially here, just in the Bay Area… Shit’s gonna go down in the next few years just because restaurants aren’t going be able to operate here. A restaurant that signed a lease in 2010 is going to be up for renegotiation in 2020, right? And what’s gonna happen to those restaurants that have been there for 10 years and maybe are doing well but are now going to see a 30% rent increase?

It’s funny, because people are fine paying $14 for a cocktail that’s like 10 ounces. Or they’re fine paying $4 for a coffee, but they don’t want to pay $12 for a sandwich. You know? So I think people are going to have to come to terms with this. Yeah, we do want things to be equitable for workers and for them to make enough money to live — and that is inevitably connected to how much it costs to be eating out.

Meanwhile, Amazon is blaring nonstop in your ear: “Cheaper, cheaper, cheaper!” As if the best option, always, is for you to “save” money. But cheaper and cheaper has meant worse and worse for everybody except Jeff Bezos.

I find that in the restaurant industry especially, a lot of people don’t care. There’s a ton of chefs out there who just don’t give a fuck, don’t raise their voice about anything.

Why not?

I think they’re afraid of alienating potential guests, possibly. They don’t want to get too political. They’re worried about—like in the days of [food critic] Michael Bauer, no one wanted to say shit about him, because they didn’t want to get a bad review, right?

That’s been one thing that’s really fucked me up. Especially in the past year, with all the #MeToo stuff that happened. You hear from chefs, they’re like, “It’s not like how it used to be. Cooks today are too soft. They’re too sensitive,” and all this shit. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean things were better when it was all, like, towel-whipping each other in the kitchen and dick jokes all the time. That wasn’t a better world we were living in.

In the food world, there are those who care a lot and really give a fuck and really want to implement lasting change. And then there are others who talk like they care a lot, but they don’t actually care; they just want to project the right image. And then there are those who don’t care at all and just try to stay out of everything.

There’s a vulnerability to taking a stand, no matter what it is.

Totally. And it’s really hard to bring everyone together and think the same way. Like when I was just in Nashville, there were chefs from all over the country — 24 chefs total. And it was interesting to see how differently everyone thinks and acts in the kitchen. An interesting mixing of personalities. You know, the chef from Lexington, Kentucky, operates very differently from the chef who came from L.A.

How so?

Something funny that happened: I had all my waste in my station, and I went to go throw everything away, and I asked, “Do you guys compost?” And everyone laughed. They’re like, “What?”

I said, “Do you have, like, a compost bin? What about recycling?”

They said, “Everything just goes in the trash.”

The one thing everyone could agree on was having a drink at the end of the night.

You’re writing now, mostly. You write about food and kitchens, and you write about business, but all these things come from a place of social justice, it seems. I see you mainly as a political writer.

If a chef says something political, people will often respond, “Just stick to food.” Food is political, from seed to table, all the way. I think it’s funny people don’t see that. They just see a plate of food that they’re going to consume.

If you’re going to be a chef, especially in this modern age, you have to understand: Where are your cooks coming from? What was their journey like, if they’re coming from Central America or Mexico? What are their lives like? And what are they trying to accomplish?

Having empathy for immigration policies is important. The single mother of two who’s a server at the restaurant: What’s her life like? Having general empathy for other human beings… I think that gets missed a lot, taking in the humanity of what it’s like to work in a restaurant every day. And to feed people. Even down to the homeless guy that comes by every day. Do you shoo him away? Are you an asshole to that guy, or do you try to take care of that guy, too?

When I was running Hapa, we would talk to farmers and ask for this or that, and they would come to us and be like, “Listen, we have these pigs that we slaughtered and can’t sell. Will you guys take them?” Or, “We have all these extra collard greens that weren’t picked up. We’ll be screwed if you guys can’t help us out.”

So, I think that even more than being overtly political, building your own little community and maintaining and nourishing it is really important. I don’t think the legacy of Hapa was that we made great ramen. It’s that we built a really good community of people—not only the people who worked there, but the guests who came to our pop-ups and things like that — I’ve seen people who connected there become lifelong friends. And that’s like my favorite shit to see, all the people we brought together.

That completely came across. And then the idea that there was an attempt to commodify it and sort of make it luxurious was fascinating to me. As if you could just buy it and make a fancy place from all that you’ve just said — it’s totally off-key. And it seems like the microcosm of a larger story, like what we’re seeing with the cloud kitchens: an attempt to create a community and a way of life, and of eating, and respect for seed-to-table ideas. And then how do I get that and put VCs in charge of it and run it into a wall?

Many Silicon Valley investors get a ton of money and decide they want to have a vanity restaurant. So many dudes [are] like, “I just want a place so I can go hang out.” And you’re like, “Fuck off,” you know. But I do think after the whole Hapa thing happened and Bourdain calling that guy [“a steaming asshole”], possibly a lot of those guys were like, “Uh, maybe I won’t get into restaurants.”

Also, what a great way to throw away a giant pile of money. Like, just throw it out on the street.

When I got into business with that guy, it turned out he didn’t want to open restaurants. He had another project planned—a food mall–type thing in a huge building on the corner of 18th and Mission that’s been vacant forever. I came to learn that his real plan was to buy up everything on that block so he could basically run out the leases on everything and then put in condos. And that would have been us, too. We would have been right in there.

Wow.

Our third month in, we had a meeting, and I was like, “Okay, so what’s the deal? How long are we going to be in this space for? I hear you’re buying up all these buildings.” And he was like, “Oh, we’ll move you out of here into another location.” And, I was like, “What the fuck?”

I had just spent a year getting this thing up and running, and now we’re going to be open for what? A couple years? And then we’re going to move?

The other weird thing is why you? When your business was so homegrown, local, specifically community-based?

Well, that was the weirdest thing. I’m not good at keeping my mouth shut about stuff I don’t like.

When all that shit went down, we had a meeting, and they said, “We want you to take all this stuff off the menu. We want you to start ordering from these purveyors and not going to the market.” And I was like, “I don’t want to do any of that.” They wanted me to lay off a bunch of my cooks, and we were three months in.

Why?

Because we hadn’t made a profit yet. But that’s the funny thing: In the third month, we broke even. That doesn’t really happen in restaurants until maybe six, nine months, a year.

Anyway, I didn’t want to do any of that, and the investor had this real tough-guy meeting with me where he was like, “I’ll fucking ruin your career,” and all this stuff. “You’re going to sign this NDA and blah blah blah.” One of my biggest regrets is not recording that conversation, because it would have been amazing.

So, I said, “Yeah, I’m not doing any of that.” And that’s when I contacted Paolo from the Chronicle and said, “Hey, you want to know what’s going on?

Where I fucked up was not having our, I don’t know, I guess, morals in line with each other.

A larger question: Silicon Valley moguls have paid untold fortunes to publicists so people would form the impression that they have society’s best interests at heart. The message was “everyone will do well and be happy, and we’ll have a thriving and good situation if these people prosper,” so everyone buys into the prosperity of Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or whatever. But now it’s become evident—the tide goes out, and you could see what was under there all along.

Yeah.

Where does that leave us, as writers, as food professionals, as people who live here?

The funniest thing that all these dudes say is, like, “I’m going to change the world for the better,” through whatever bullshit they have. No one’s buying that shit anymore. No one looks at Zuckerberg anymore and says, “Oh, what a good guy.” Everyone gets it. Bezos is a fuckin’ piece of shit; Zuckerberg’s a piece of shit; Jack Dorsey is a piece of shit. All they care about is their stock and their money, right?

So, it’s nice that people get it now, and the idea of regulating these companies, and even dissolving these companies. So many people now are like, “Yeah, I’m for that.”

When I deleted Facebook, it was the most freeing thing. Everyone can take a step back now and look at all of this and say, “Well, I don’t need to connect with someone from high school I haven’t talked to in 18 years. I have no interest in doing that. I want to connect with the people who are in my life, and in my community, and who I actually care about.”

Everything else is just noise. We don’t need some app to tell us how to communicate with each other.

There was a moment in the early days of the internet when everyone felt like we had unlimited bandwidth and everyone was free. There’s still something good about it, but we don’t have access to the internet that could or should be. Now that we’re consciously facing the deep pollution in social media, a really harmful and extractive and exploitative situation, how should people address that?

I think people’s trust is generally frayed.

Some of my best days are when I don’t look at Twitter or anything at all. When I’m just busy with my kids and doing stuff. I get to the end of the day and think, “That was great.” And you realize you didn’t miss anything.

At the same time, I’ve made lifelong friends on Twitter, connected with people I would never have connected with through social media. I just don’t know exactly how it becomes like a less toxic place. Like I think about: Do I want my kids to go on there? Can I even keep them from being on there?

That’s the bigger question, too, for parents: Do I want my kids to be in the world? Do I want to let them out of my sight? Like, ever?

Just recently, my kid’s like, “Hey, I’m going on a bike ride.” And instead of saying, “Okay, well, I have to go with you,” I said, “Okay, 20 minutes, and then come back and check in.”

Me and his mom had a huge argument about it. She’s like, “It’s not safe. He’s going to get fucking kidnapped!” And I’m like, “When’s the last time a kid got kidnapped?”

I get that in your mind you’re really protecting your children, but I’m trying to give him a little more freedom to go out and do stuff and have alone time.

There’s harm, too, in making them so fearful. With us, it was like, “Okay, come back before dinner.”

Yeah. When I was growing up, we lived in Virginia, when I was a little, little kid. There was basically a forest right behind our house, and we would just go play in this forest all day. That’s some serial killer shit right there. If anyone was ever going to get killed, that’s where it would have happened. But riding around my neighborhood, it feels pretty safe. But he’s getting to the age where—so, for Christmas, he said, “I want a phone.” I was like, “You’re fucking nine. You don’t need a phone. Who are you going to call?!”

Nine, right. So it’s because one of his friends —

Right.

And I’m 100% certain it’s because there’s a paranoid mom who wants to be able to call this kid. “Where are you?!” You know.

Yeah. I’m going to have to deal with that pretty soon, his life in social media, and how do I give him his privacy while also making sure he’s not being a fucking piece of shit to people?

I mean, you just say what you actually think, and that is a gigantic benefit, that you are honest and close with them.

Yeah, yeah, they definitely aren’t shy. They speak up and ask tough questions. They were asking about Colin Kaepernick the other day.

What did you say?

We had a whole discussion about it. I told them everything, and then I asked, “What do you guys think about that question?”

And?

They’re on his side. My oldest was like, “Well, people should be respectful to the police. But the police kill people.” He’s kind of working it out in his head. I liked that he connected the dots himself, you know.

In some ways, the Kaepernick story connects to what we’ve been talking about. It’s like The Man is seeing a challenge and trying to respond to it, but the old tricks aren’t working anymore.

Yeah. I mean, circling back to people in the restaurant world, having those tough conversations: “What are we going to be doing in five years, in 10 years? If they close the restaurant, what do we do then?”

A friend of mine, he’s 43 and owns a restaurant, and it’s a great restaurant, but it’s not very busy, and he’s been asking himself, “I’ve only ever cooked my whole life. What do I do if I don’t cook anymore?” I was talking with a chef yesterday, a Michelin-star guy who was saying he’s looking for a job not running a restaurant. He said, “I don’t even know what that looks like for me, what industry I’m in, or what I’m doing.”

And every time I see that one of my friends’ restaurants is on Caviar or DoorDash, all of them are like, “We have to do it. We have to be on there, because otherwise we’re losing the business.” But then they have to pay 30% commission on each order.

That’s not business. It’s sharecropping.

They’re losing money every time. I tell them, these are people who are never going to come in your restaurant. But what I wonder is, the 25-year-old tech dude who just moved to San Francisco and is making 200 grand a year, do they even know the difference between the shitty cloud kitchen they order their burrito from and the taqueria down the street that just closed down because they can’t afford to operate? And do they care?

At least we can tell your $200,000-a-year tech bro that the taqueria is better. It’s much nicer outside. Go talk to some actual people. There’s a tree. You know, go be in the world—it’s fun. Like where we are right now! This is cool. There’s life here.

Yeah. It’s nice to get out. But in the city, you know, these dudes go to work, and there’s a cafeteria there, so they eat at work. They don’t go out in the community and walk around, and they think homeless people are disgusting and this big nuisance, and they go home at the end of the day and sit on their computer and order delivery. What a fucking way to live.

And those are still the people who are changing the culture and affecting the restaurant culture in this city and in the Bay Area at large.

But I think people don’t want to just order a gross burrito from the cloud kitchen and eat it alone. I don’t want to live in that world, and I don’t think the tech bros do, either.

Yeah.

I want to live in a better world. What does that mean? Does it mean I go to my local restaurant and help clean the floor? Because, fine. Does it mean I bring produce from my garden, bring lemons? Yes. Great. Maybe we just have to completely rethink everything.

Yeah. I mean, that’s what fucks me about San Francisco: It’s a really cool city, and it’s filled with fucking dorks now and people who don’t go out and enjoy how great it is to go out and eat in restaurants. It’s a really nice experience. It’s good to sit in a dining room and be waited on.

At some point, you have to say to your guests, “Do you still want us to be here? Do you still want us to be doing this?”

is a journalist and editor of Popula.com, an alt-global news and culture publication experimenting with blockchain-based publishing innovations.

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