Late last month, San Francisco’s beloved destination noodle shop, Hapa Ramen, was effectively blown to smithereens when the restaurant’s founder and executive chef Richie Nakano, as well as the restaurant’s 35 servers, cooks, and bartenders, were purged by new ownership. That new ownership—who dispute that account—arrived only four months ago (after Nakano sold his rights to the restaurant) in the form of angel investor Owen Van Natta, a Silicon Valley executive who’d played various roles at Facebook and Myspace. The reverberations in the Bay Area’s restaurant community were huge. Here, food writer and Bay Area native John Birdsall responds.
Hey Owen, it’s been a busy few weeks. How’s it going?
You should know up-front that the point of this letter is to ask you to let Richie have the Hapa Ramen name back. But first, since we’ve never met, I should probably introduce myself.
Like Richie, I forged my identity as a line cook—I started in San Francisco 30 years ago, an entire generation. For the last 12 years, I’ve been writing about food here. They’re similar pursuits. Both require daily acts of creation; both pay shit. The expression part is harder than you’d think. We make ourselves vulnerable. Cooks, by turning their skills and stamina—their points of view, formed little by little, over years of work and observation—into solid expression. Food writers, by turning those things into insights and ideas.
It was at the first Eat Real Festival in Oakland, back in 2009, that Richie Nakano taught me something about respect—or as he’d probably put it, how not to be a little bitch. And we’ll get to that.
But before that, I remember—it must have been early 2009—showing up to one of the Hapa Ramen test events, in the driveway of Richie’s apartment in San Francisco. This was six years ago. I ate ramen with people I didn’t know. Friends or fans who’d brought beer or wine, like a party, filled out questionnaires afterwards to give feedback on taste and timing. I think of all that work now, all that planning and worry and laying the ground, and feel nothing but regret. You probably feel it, too. In this business, striving is something you count not in months, but in years.
It’s made everybody realize that what we value about the restaurant scene in San Francisco is dependent on whether or not a wealthy guy gets pissed off enough to fire somebody.
We endure those years in a culture, in a discipline. It’s not an easy life, believe me, and not just because constant expression takes a psychic toll. As a chef, you learn early to divorce money from effort—if you work 16 hours in a day, your salary doesn’t double. If you keep bitching about money in this business, you end up losing the respect of your peers. And respect is everything in this business, Owen. Nobody does it for the money.
I’m pointing this out because I was appalled—shaken, more like it. It’s not just me, but really, everybody I’ve talked to in the San Francisco restaurant community (which, like it or not, you’re now a big player in) at the way you (and your employee, Deborah Blum) handled this thing with Richie.
The good thing is you have an opportunity to fix it. That’s why I’m writing to you now.
I stress this point about money because I assume that’s probably hard for you, a man of some achievement in the technology sector, with a house on the Peninsula, to understand this (a house, I’ve read, which cost more than Mark Zuckerberg’s). My assumption is that in tech—as in business generally—money is interchangeable with power, the thing that gives a man like you (and let’s face it, you’re all men) his sense of worth. Making a solid deal gives you face in business. I understand that.
The food community works the opposite way.
Here, a chef gets her or his sense of worth by making things and turning those things into a cohesive expression. When she or he is successful, they can support a whole, small universe of bussers and cooks and servers who in turn support their kids or boyfriends, or send money home to their wives in Mexico. That’s why this is a community, Owen, and not merely an industry, despite how cliché the word “community” is now. It’s an intimate, a personal circle that we work in.
As absurd as it sounds, despite the fact that we’re talking about a business where ego and tempers and—I’ll admit it—drinking and drugs all play a part, still, it has a rigorous code of honor. That’s why cooks tattoo themselves, Owen: Your work, the discipline that you steel yourself in, day after day—it becomes you, and everybody can see it. There’s no hiding. We all get to take the measure, eventually, of everybody who cooks or writes about food or manages a bar here. That’s how I know Richie is a person of integrity, a man who trusted you, the way his cooks trusted him. You don’t essentially apprentice yourself to a chef, Owen, by first insisting on a contract. You do it on trust.
Now, you probably knew, when you paid Richie $20,000 for the Hapa name, and then paid him a salary, as Hapa’s executive chef, on par with a public school teacher’s (not even enough for a guy with kids to live in a decent place in the Mission these days), that a chef isn’t motivated by money. I bet you knew that, Owen. I bet you knew you had all the leverage.
But what you’ve done, Owen, by purchasing what a chef built over more than five years, from nothing—built it through skill and personality, talent and perseverance—and then dishonoring the builder? That’s sent a deep tremor through the local chef community, and rattled the national one. You probably just thought you were cutting a guy who seemed like an asshole (I get it, Richie can be abrasive; he says things in public that a lot of us say only privately). You were solving a problem. Swatting a fly. I can see how that could make business sense to a guy who doesn’t understand the culture of food and restaurants here.
But the rest of us? We’re wondering if this is how it’s going to be in San Francisco—if you’re the tech bro kicking the Latino kids off the Mission soccer field, because you have a piece of paper in your hand. It’s made everybody realize that what we value about the restaurant scene in San Francisco is dependent on whether or not a wealthy guy gets pissed off enough to fire somebody.
That plays against this idea we have of chefs as auteurs, building businesses around artistic vision. What the Hapa Ramen story makes us all fear is that it’s really a guy texting from a $9 million Tudor-style mansion in the residential luxury zone of Silicon Valley who decides what plays, determines the real culture of the Mission. Gets to say who stays, who goes home. Who then plies that privilege with lawyers and contracts.
It tells us in the restaurant community that we’re nothing more than a bunch of tattooed, underpaid little serfs. That makes us scared. And it makes us mad enough to want to do something that makes us stop feeling scared. Maybe you’ll open a new restaurant in the Hapa space that’ll be amazing—better than Richie’s, though I was a fan—but, let’s face it, Owen, it’s going to be a hard sell for this little but feverishly engaged community you’re now a part of. I won’t lie to you, it’s going to be a hard sell. I mean, you were a Facebook guy, right? You know how people talk on social media.
I read somewhere that you’ve bought up three properties near Mission and 18th or 19th, besides the Hapa one, and that you have this idea to leave something for your daughters, a community legacy. I don’t have kids, Owen, but if I did, I know I’d try to teach them how to be honorable, the way my dad taught me. I used to work beside a prep cook who had a noble name, Balthazar Bencomo. He lived in that part of the Mission, shared a room with a bunch of guys so he could send all his money to his wife and kids in the Yucatan—that’s a level of integrity you and I will probably never achieve, Owen, despite what we might want to show our children.
That brings me back to where I started, and Eat Real in 2009. That first festival had a series of readings—they invited writers to come to Jack London Square and talk about street food, and me and Richie, who had a blog and had pretty much just started doing Hapa pop-ups, were on the same bill.
There were maybe a dozen of us on the bill that night—I was number nine or ten on the program, a few speakers past Richie. One by one, food writers I know stood up before the patchy crowd and talked about Bangkok or Mexico, then discreetly slipped out of the room, to eat, or head home. I would have done the same thing, believe me, Owen, but I could see, by the time it’d be my turn, there’d be almost nobody left to hear me.
Except Richie was there to hear me—he was the only speaker that night who stayed to hear the rest. He and I barely knew each other, and—I have to tell you—my talk was horrible, me holding a stack of papers I couldn’t get my nerve-shaky hand to stop rustling, my voice all cracked and quavering. Richie had the courtesy—I don’t think I’m hyping it when I call it the good grace—to stay and hear everybody out. I remember thinking: This is a lesson in respect.
That’s how your new community works, Owen—small gestures resonate over years to set your reputation. Yeah, there’s ego and scrabbling after small money in this restaurant world of ours: People say stupid things, they drink and act out, Tweet shit they have to delete next morning. But there’s respect for expression, for owning the things you create through hard work and putting yourself out there, day after day, night after night.
And here’s where I lay out my pitch, the point of all this:
Give Richie back the Hapa Ramen name.
As an expression of Richie’s heritage—part white, part Asian, fused in Hawaii—hell, it doesn’t even fit you. It’s like taking a chef’s skin, ink and all, just because you can. You’re part of a community now where small gestures of respect resonate louder than packed dining rooms.
Do the right thing.