CHEF TOMOAKI KOGA FOUNDED COM COKA: 19may2011
Blogger’s note: When I first came to Kobe, Japan for a 6-month stint of work and travel back in September 2011, I was coming with the life experience of having lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for four years (2006-2010.) In addition to living in “Saigon,” I also traveled extensively throughout the country (Tet 2009 ~ rode my Honda motorbike from HCM to Danang, stopping all along the way to sample the cuisine Vietnam has to offer.) I spent significant time in Nha Trang, stayed in off-the-beaten path locales like Tam Coc and Ninh Binh…and also tasted the ‘differences’ from Saigon-style…in Hanoi, the country’s capital. I am not exaggerating when I say that Com Coka’s Vietnamese food is AS GOOD as anything I ever ate in Vietnam! My biggest questions were “How?” and “Why?” This is a Japanese guy. Why isn’t he making sushi?
After leaving Kobe in February 2012, I once again returned in April 2014 for another extended stint, this one lasting nine months. Obviously, one of the main attractions for returning, was to once again, eat some delicious, authentic Vietnamese grub. When did Koga-san first become interested in Vietnamese cooking? Where does his passion stem from? Answers to those questions and more, below:
TOKIDOKI: At what age did you first become interested in cooking?
Tomoaki Koga: 13.
KOGA: Both of my parents were very busy when I was growing up and my paternal grandmother lived with us. She was relied upon to do most of the cooking for our family and I became interested in first, watching her, and then eventually, helping her.
TD: So, this obviously made you close to your grandmother? A bond.
Don’t blame the chef. This bowl of pho is a special request by me. I love vegetarian pho, but not with all of the green and herbs. I prefer tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, onions, and potatoes. Koga-san desperately tries to encourage my green vegetable consumption, but alas, I resist. At least, for this dish. He generally makes a delicious, authentic beef or chicken pho, from his menu.Mango che. If you’ve been to Vietnam, you know “Ba Ba Ba.” Singha is Thai, yes, as he does try to include a variety of Southeast Asia beers for his customers.
TOKIDOKI: What were some of the dishes you first learnt to make with your grandmother?
KOGA: She made a lot of traditional Fukuoka-style Japanese dishes, so I learnt how to make ‘easy food’ like fried rice and fish with stewed pumpkin and minced pork.
TD: What did your parents think of your cooking initially?
KOGA: They thought “no good,” (laughing) at first! (laughing) Then they liked it more and more.
TD: So, at what age did you know that you wanted to actually become a chef, to make it your career?
KOGA: 17. I watched the Japanese cooking show, “Iron Chef,” and loved it!
KOGA: After high school, I went to two years of cooking school in Fukuoka where I studied Chinese, French, Italian, and Japanese cooking. Then I moved to Kyoto and studied and worked in the oldest Italian restaurant in the old capital. I was there for a year and learned a lot, but it was too traditional, lacking spontaneity and creativity. I needed to do more.
TOKIDOKI: So, when did you become interested in Vietnamese cooking?
KOGA: I went on holiday to Osaka while I was still working in Kyoto, and discovered Vietnamese food there. I then went to Vietnam for the first time and studied in Ho Chi Minh City for about two weeks. I learnt to make proper beef pho, the standard dish, right? (smiling) and chicken wings and spring rolls. By the time I was 25, I was the head chef at a Vietnamese restaurant in Tokyo. This is of course, after establishing trust with the owners. At first, they refused to allow a Japanese chef to make Vietnamese food. I had to be a waiter for a year! Eventually, they tested my abilities as a chef, and I won the spot over their regular Vietnamese chef!
TOKIDOKI: So, what made you so passionate about Vietnamese food?
KOGA: I moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to study Vietnamese cooking for a year and a half and I soon realized that the “Vietnamese heart” is similar to the “Japanese heart” and I just fell in love with the people and the culture.
TD: First dish you learnt how to make in Hanoi?
KOGA: Thit xao ca chua (stewed tomato, basil, tofu, and mushrooms)
TD: What’s your favorite dish to make?
KOGA: Banh cuon (steamed spring roll)
TD: Where do you see yourself in five years?
KOGA: I really don’t know. I’m going back to Vietnam next year to research and study more. Every year, Com Coka is building a stronger customer base, so I have to think about staying here or looking for a new location.
Blogger’s note 2: If you happen to visit Kobe and find yourself in the Kitano area, I highly recommend Com Coka as your restaurant to try. Com Coka’s email address and Facebook page information are provided on the business card image that is imbedded in the post up above.
Every day except Wednesday: 1130am-330pm, 530-1030pm
*On Wednesdays, Com Coka is closed, but his staff runs “Iris Cafe” from 12pm-7pm, where they offer tea and homemade Japanese cakes and sweets.
18dec14. Kobe, Japan.