Japanese chef Seita Nakahara knows a thing or two about tenacity. At 18, he knocked on the door of an Italian restaurant situated within the swanky Hotel New Otani in Tokyo, asking if he could work in its kitchen. The staff turned him away, explaining that all positions were filled, save for one — a dishwashing job. Nakahara agreed, and for a whole year, spent his days washing dirty utensils.
His next job at a Shinjuku restaurant wasn’t any more glamorous, as he was tasked to cook the daily staff meals. Its head chef criticised his food throughout his three years there, and refused to eat any of it. The following years, which saw Nakahara working in Italy, also posed their share of challenges because he didn’t speak a word of its language. Nevertheless, he persevered and even managed to pick up skills in making condiments like tomato sauce from scratch.
Now the chef-owner of Terra, a one-Michelin-starred restaurant specialising in Italian cuisine incorporated with Japanese ingredients, Nakahara, 37, has clearly come a long way from his dishwashing days. “It’s not important where you begin and how long you stay there, because you can always improve yourself,” he said, when we recently joined him for lunch at Ola Cocina del Mar, a casual Spanish restaurant at Marina Bay Financial Centre.
Born in Yokohama, Japan, Nakahara made his foray into the kitchen at four years old, when his mother taught him basic skills such as cooking sunny side up eggs, and peeling apples with a knife. He enjoyed watching her whip up traditional Japanese dishes such as miso soup, nimono (a stew containing vegetables, tofu and seafood) and sashimi.
The young Nakahara’s fascination with the kitchen didn’t end there. When his family went to restaurants, he often insisted on sitting by the counter, where he could see the chefs in action. “I thought chefs were so cool. They had such good knife skills, and could cook with big pans and fire. I thought of them as magicians, and loved to watch.” At 12, he moved to Singapore with his family, because of his father’s job posting. He lived here for five years and attended a Japanese international school.
But it was one particular childhood memory that left an indelible impression on him, and set the stage for what he would later do in life — a creamy chicken dish that his mother named ‘Italian’ and cooked for his fifth birthday. “I don’t remember much about it, except that it was super nice. And it was very new to me, because I usually ate Japanese food. At that time, I didn’t know what ‘Italian’ was, I thought it was just the name of the food,” said Nakahara.
Celebrity pancake chef
Upon completing his high school education, Nakahara thought of travelling to Italy to visit the “birthplace” of his favourite childhood dish, and to learn to cook Italian cuisine. But the then 18-year-old had never ventured beyond the shores of Tokyo or Singapore on his own before. “I was scared to go alone,” he said. “I was also scared to become a chef, because I knew kitchen life would be hard.”
After mulling over his options, Nakahara settled on a compromise. He would travel to Taiwan independently, and work at a restaurant there for three months. The country wasn’t too far away from Japan, and if the cooking stint didn’t work out, he could always return home.
With that, he packed his bags for Taiwan. In his first week, he chanced upon a small shop selling imagawayaki, a traditional Japanese pancake stuffed with filings such as red bean paste. He struck up a conversation with its boss, who was Taiwanese but spoke a smattering of Japanese. “The boss asked if I wanted to work at his shop. He couldn’t pay me a salary, but he could give me food and lodging every day,” said Nakahara. “So I said yes, and started work that same day.”
Within a month, he had mastered the craft of making imagawayaki with the perfect shape and balance of flavours. The shop owner was so pleased, he put Nakahara in charge of cooking all the pancakes and running the shop in his absence.
As soon as customers got wind that an actual Japanese chef was helming the shop, it wasn’t too long before they were turning up in droves. “The shop suddenly had a long queue, because it was the only one in the area with a Japanese chef. It became famous there, and the boss was so happy,” said Nakahara.
Nakahara went back to Tokyo in 1998 when his four-month stint drew to a close. Emboldened by his experience in Taiwan, he decided to try working in a full service restaurant next. This led him to his dishwashing job at the Hotel New Otani, where he spent the bulk of his time scrubbing pots and pans.
Despite the monotony this entailed, Nakahara took it in his stride and was determined to pick up some proper cooking skills. He showed up early at 6am every day, so he could finish all of the previous night’s washing before the other chefs came in. The moment he was done, he’d ask the head chef if there was anything he could assist with.
One day, the head chef tasked him to cut an onion. “I did as I was told, but didn’t know the professional way to cut it. And I was very slow,” said Nakahara. Annoyed, the chef rebuked him as “useless”, and asked someone else to do it.
That incident motivated Nakahara to improve his cutting technique. So he stopped by the local grocer, purchased 300 onions and brought them home. He spent an entire Sunday cutting them. “I was thinking to myself about how long I needed to stay in that restaurant, to learn how to cut an onion properly. My [rationale] was that if he gave me one onion to cut each day, I’d be cutting 300 a year. I figured why not practise cutting all 300 at a go?” he said, adding that he later implemented the same strategy for other types of vegetables and fish.
He redeemed himself a couple weeks later, when the same chef asked for help in cutting an onion. He volunteered, and impressed the chef with his improvement. This led to him being assigned more responsibilities in the kitchen.
A year later, at the recommendation of the restaurant’s sous chef, he moved to al Faro, another Italian establishment in the heart of Shinjuku. This eatery was more well-known, but working there proved to be a stressful experience. Nakahara had only done dishwashing and menial chores at his previous workplace, so he panicked when he was assigned to the hot station. “It was very pressurising. I couldn’t do anything, and the chefs scolded me from morning to night, every single day,” he said.
Nakahara was also put in charge of cooking the staff meals, thrice a day for 30 people. “I had to know what dish each person couldn’t eat. But every time they’d scold me and say my food wasn’t nice,” he said. “The head chef didn’t touch my food for three years. The rest would say it was horrible, and ask other junior chefs to cook something else for them.”
Tough as it was, Nakahara soldiered on for three years and tried to learn as much as he could. It was only towards the end of his stint there that he finally saw a breakthrough — the head chef ate the staff meal he had cooked, for the first time. The dish was a simple chicken and vegetable soup, made using leftover chicken bones and vegetables from the various kitchen stations. But Nakahara gave his all in cooking it, as he wanted to leave the restaurant on a good note.
“I put in my one hundred percent focus, and tried to think that this soup would be on our restaurant menu, going to the customers. Maybe the chef was watching me,” he said. “The chef ate it in front of everybody and said in Japanese, ‘Good skill.’ That was a memorable day, and it made me understand that I needed to cook all dishes that way, like it was for my customers.”
The Italian job
Equipped with more confidence and experience, Nakahara felt it was time to fulfil his childhood dream of exploring Italy. In 2002, he set off for Florence and applied to work at Santo Bevitore, a homey eatery decked out in wood-toned interiors and dim lighting. The restaurant served up a variety of pasta, seafood and meats, and remains an iconic spot in the city today.
Settling in was difficult at first. Nakahara didn’t speak a word of Italian, so it was almost impossible to communicate with the other chefs. “I gestured a lot, and learnt all my Italian in the kitchen. Even if they talked to me, I couldn’t understand anything,” he said.
He stayed on for eight months before joining Castello Grinzane Cavour in Piedmont as a commis chef. Set in a castle, the restaurant was known for its Alba white truffles, and used the prized fungi in its pasta and main courses. “I learnt how to find good truffles, and which truffles to use for different dishes. Such things can’t be learnt from a book. One needs to touch, taste and feel the truffles,” he said.
Language barrier aside, Nakahara got on well with the head chef there, and was once even invited to a truffle foraging trip. They scoured a forest together, and brought along a dog to sniff out the truffles. “We found five or six pieces in only half an hour in the morning, which was good enough for the day,” he recalled.
Going au naturel
He stayed there for three years before making his next stop at Dulcis Vitis in Alba, a fine dining restaurant that offered traditional Italian fare incorporated with natural ingredients and condiments made from scratch. The head chef was known for his homemade tomato sauce comprising freshly harvested tomatoes from his garden, and often created enough to last a whole year.
Under his tutelage, Nakahara learnt how to cook tomato sauce, cure anchovies, and make his own vinegar, yeast and olive oil. “It’s easier to just buy these ingredients. But I find it better to use natural produce, and make my own sauces,” said Nakahara, adding that he worked there for over a year. He attended a short Italian course towards the end of his stay in Italy, to fine-tune his near-fluent proficiency of the language, before returning to Tokyo.
Now much more confident at cooking, Nakahara felt it was time to take his skills to the next level — he wanted to acquire a deeper knowledge of what it was like to run a restaurant. So he joined the kitchen of an Italian establishment that featured both “fine dining and casual styles”. He declined to name the eatery, but revealed it’s a famous name in Tokyo that has been open for many years.
Over two years, he continued honing his culinary expertise, as well as observed the restaurant’s operations and began to understand what it took to become a head chef. “The restaurant had no Michelin star, but helped me learn many things about being a head chef, and how to run a business and plan a menu. I watched how its chef managed his team, and how he got them to concentrate and learn,” he said.
Back to Singapore
In 2009, Nakahara decided to move to Singapore — the place where he grew up as a teen. It had always been on his mind to return, he said. “When I was washing dishes at the New Hotel Otani, I was already thinking about it, because I felt there were good opportunities there. I grew up in Singapore, and can speak Japanese, Italian and English. Not everyone here has these skills and experiences, so I can be unique.”
He landed a position at Basilico at Regent Singapore, but due to work pass issues, was unable to take up the job. So its owner introduced him to a friend, Nicolas Joanny, who’s the chef-owner of French establishment Nicolas Le Restaurant. At that time, Joanny had just set up the now-closed Alba Italian Restaurant along Keong Saik Road, and was looking to hire a chef.
“Nicolas called me when I was in Japan, and asked if I wanted to come for an interview. I said yes, and met him two weeks later. He gave me a test — to cook something within two hours, using ingredients in his restaurant,” said Nakahara. “I checked the chiller, and used whatever I could find to create a scallop gratin. It was my first time cooking it. But all the details of this gratin, from the sauce to the cutting techniques, were inspired by my memories of the past restaurants I had worked at.”
He aced the test, of course. His dish, a hearty concoction of scallops, mushrooms, asparagus, cheese and herb butter, impressed Joanny so much that the latter offered him the role of head chef. “I was surprised, because my plan was to just be part of the kitchen staff,” he said. “If he never gave me the opportunity to be head chef, I think I’d still be kitchen staff somewhere today.”
Leading the pack
With Nakahara at its helm, Alba became known for serving traditional Italian cuisine imbued with Japanese ingredients. It offered prix fixe sets and omakase-style menus, with highlights that included slow-cooked Hokkaido scallops, tagliolini bolognese and an improved version of the scallop gratin he had cooked for Joanny.
Nakahara enjoyed having full rein over the menu and concept, but it took some time to get used to his new position. “It was very tough at the start. I didn’t know any suppliers or the culture of the industry in Singapore. Everything was new. If I had been head chef in Japan, the transition would have been smoother, I think. But this was my first time,” he said.
The restaurant did well, though, and saw a steady stream of regular customers. One of them, a Japanese businessman, even approached Nakahara with a job offer. He was planning to open his own restaurant along Boat Quay, and wanted Nakahara to be the head chef there. “I said no. I wanted to stay at Alba, because I had just started for only a few months. I couldn’t move so soon; I’d lose the trust of my customers,” explained Nakahara.
After a year, and many repeated proposals to join that new restaurant, Enoteca L’Operetta, Nakahara suggested a compromise. “The [businessman] asked me about what he could do to make me say yes. I gave him three conditions. First, he had to buy Alba, and make it a sister company to the restaurant. The second thing was to hire my existing team,” he said. “Lastly, I wanted to work in the restaurant as head chef, but didn’t want any other Japanese staff around. I wanted to try to survive in Singapore without any help.”
The man agreed, so it was a deal.
But sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. Enoteca L’Operetta’s owner was unsuccessful in his bid to buy Alba, after Nakahara had already resigned from the restaurant. The latter had also received his new employment pass from the government, so there was no turning back.
Left with no other alternative, Nakahara decided to stay on at Enoteca L’Operetta. He managed to rehire some of his former Alba kitchen staff, and focused on carving out a niche for his new workplace — which was situated in an area saturated with many other eateries.
At Enoteca L’Operetta, he catered to a spectrum of customer preferences with an extensive repertoire spanning pizzas, à la carte dishes, degustation menus, and omakase sets. “These concepts are usually not found all in one restaurant. But I wanted to challenge myself. And it worked,” he said.
A new chapter
Nakahara enjoyed the four years he spent leading the kitchen at the now-defunct Enoteca L’Operetta, but he felt it was time to try something new — opening his own restaurant. His vision was to run a place with no fixed menu, just an omakase option where he would plan dishes based on seasonal produce.
This became a reality when he launched Terra, a stylish space furnished with terracotta tiles and wood finishes. The restaurant officially opened in January 2016, and attracted diners with its ever-changing menu of Italian cuisine prepared with Japanese ingredients. Inspired by his experiences working in Italy, Nakahara creates the condiments and sauces from scratch. For instance, he cures his own bottarga (salted fish roe), pancetta (a bacon made of pork belly meat) and anchovies in-house.
The restaurant is also dedicated to offering customers a different gastronomic experience each time they visit. The staff records down all the dishes that each customer has had before, so that person will never eat the same thing twice — unless there’s a special request for a repeat item.
Signature items at Terra include an addictive appetiser of crisp bruschetta completely covered with melt-in-the-mouth slivers of uni, as well as a decadent sea urchin pasta marinated in a stock of lobster, botan ebi and scampi, before being topped with yuzu, bottarga and — of course — uni. The latter was inspired by a similar dish Nakahara tried while working two short summer stints at Taormina Panasia in Sicily during the early 2000s.
Clearly, uni is one of his favourite ingredients. “Sea urchin is a fruit of the sea. With higher-grade sea urchin, you can taste its sweetness,” he said, adding that he sources Terra’s uni from Hokkaido.
Just six months after opening his restaurant, Nakahara received a cryptic invitation to a gala dinner. He was scheduled for a business trip to Italy on that date, so he simply replied that he would be out of town, and didn’t give it any further thought.
The day arrived, and he was busy packing his bag for his evening flight, when he picked up a phone call from an unknown Hong Kong number. “It was from the Michelin Guide. They wanted to let me know I had one star; and that all the chefs who had gotten stars were coming — except me,” he said. “It was such a surprise. I never expected to get a star.”
Following the good news, he immediately called up his Italy contact and said he’d be delaying his trip by one day. “I still couldn’t believe it. I never thought that Terra would be considered by the [Michelin inspectors] because it had been open for less than a year — I initially thought of trying for a star the following year. But it has happened.”
Not one for complacency, Nakahara is constantly rolling out new dishes at his restaurant, and hopes to keep his one star. A new addition to the omakase menu is agilo olio studded with sakura ebi and garnished with nanohara, a type of Japanese spring vegetable. “There’s the pressure of keeping the star, and making our customers happy, so the responsibility is greater than before. We don’t want to disappoint our guests,” he said. “I see the Michelin star as a ticket to go places. That’s why I want to use it to try new things and improve myself.”
When Nakahara isn’t working, he’s honing his Muay Thai techniques at Evolve. He hits the gym every day right after lunch service for two hours, and has been practising the sport for five years.
If that’s not impressive enough, he also used to do boxing, and has a double black belt in karate, which he learnt for eight years. “[Such martial arts] are very good for physical and mental self-control. Being in the kitchen can get quite stressful, so this helps me to destress,” he said. We’re pretty sure none of his customers will ever attempt a dine and dash.
Where to eat
Nakahara is also an ardent foodie with a penchant for local fare. He loves chicken rice at Wee Nam Kee, and the chilli crab at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant in East Coast. Another favourite spot is Jing Hua Xiao Chi along Neil Road, where he never fails to order xiao long bao (soup dumplings). These three eateries hold a special place in his heart, as he often visited them as a child with his family.
For Japanese cuisine, specifically sushi, he frequents Shiraishi at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore. But a restaurant where one is bound to see him, is Ola Cocina del Mar. He has lost count of how many times he has dined at the place, but estimates it to be at least 10. “I always come here for dinner. Its chef Daniel Chavez is very talented and what he makes for me is always great. The service is good too,” he said. “I love its ceviche, which has a fantastic balance of sourness and spiciness, and I think its paella is the best in Singapore.”
Throughout our lunch, Nakahara was enthusiastic about every dish that arrived. His favourite was a medley of white and green asparagus topped with a sunny side up egg, and speckled with ham chips and smoked Spanish cheese. The result was a flawless harmony of sweet and salty flavours.
He is close buddies with Chavez, whom he first met when the latter dined at Terra last year. They struck up a conversation and, a few meals at each other’s restaurants later, became friends. In March, the two even collaborated on a one-off Sunday brunch titled Terratoria Ola, which showcased some 30 trattoria-style Italian dishes such as soppressata (dry salami), minestrone and arancini (stuffed rice balls covered with bread crumbs). The feast was held at Ola Cocina De Mar’s space, and drew over 100 customers.
“I don’t usually cook such traditional dishes in my restaurant. But these are what I learnt in Italy, so it was good to revisit that,” he said. “If you ask me why I like Italian food, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s its simplicity — it’s all about the ingredients.”
Terra, 54 Tras Street, Singapore 078993, +65 6221 5159/ +65 8523 2194
Ola Cocina del Mar, Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 3, #01-06 12 Marina Boulevard, Singapore 018982, +65 6604 7050