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Meet the Chef That Brings Japanese Roots To Health-Conscious Southern Californians

Tasting Menu at Necco
Tasting Menu at Necco

Necco, a small and stylishly bohemian restaurant in West L.A., offers innovative spins on traditional Japanese dishes that vibrantly showcase SoCal produce with healthful dishes. The intimate dining space on Westwood Blvd. is overseen by chef and co-owner Kenji Koyama who thoughtfully crafts ornately-designed small plates served à la carte with options for nearly all dietary preferences, as well as a newly launched tasting course menu that includes an option for both omnivores and vegans. Necco, which translates to “roots” in Japanese, not only showcases root vegetables such as lotus and taro on the menu, but also celebrates chef Koyama’s Japanese roots while at the same time deepening his foundation here with uniquely L.A. flourishes.

Chef Kenji Koyama at Necco
Chef Kenji Koyama at Necco | Danny Jensen

Seated at the chef’s counter in the cool, minimalist dining room of Necco, you’ll likely see Koyama preparing a few familiar ingredients that you may have had at other Japanese restaurants, but here they’re prepared in creatively unexpected ways. There’s the spicy tuna brown rice taco, a three-tiered tower made with layers of baked brown rice “tortillas” and large cuts of seasoned tuna. While you could certainly opt for small bites like the nori maki of salmon and roe or scallop and uni, non-fish-eaters and curious palates alike should try his vegan sushi such as the artfully prepared bell pepper pickles that resemble tuna or the wasabi-topped tempeh that looks like eel. And, of course, you’ll also find roots prominently featured in dishes like the lotus root and brown rice croquette with asparagus, or the satoimo agedashi made of a crispy ball of mashed taro with edamame and shiitake mushrooms and served in a vegetarian shojin dashi stock. Koyama also makes subtle use of nutrient-rich and healthy ingredients such as fermented koji rice and tensai sugar, an unprocessed option made from beets grown in Hokkaido, Japan.

Koyama grew up in Tokyo where during high school he worked part-time at an izakaya restaurant in the Setagaya Prefecture. But it wasn’t long before he would become inspired by the Southern California lifestyle. He first came to visit Los Angeles during a summer break when he and a friend came to visit his friend’s uncle who owned a Japanese restaurant in Encino, a connection that would soon help shape his career path. After graduating high school, Koyama explains, “I was young, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then in 1993 my friend’s uncle visited Japan, and he said, ‘If you want to, you can come work in my restaurant’. But he explained that if I came to work, I’d have to stay for three years because of the visa. I thought, three years is a long time, but in three years I’d be 22 and still young, so I thought, ‘Why not, I’ll just try it.”

Vegan sushi at Necco
Vegan sushi at Necco | Danny Jensen

Less than a month later, Koyama was on his way to L.A. As the first country he had visited outside of Japan, he admits that he took to the U.S. immediately. “It was big, huge. It meant blue skies and everything bigger than in Japan, so it made me feel more free,” he says. “And it was a challenge for me, a chance to try something new. It was exciting.”

Not long after the move, however, the monotonous reality of working six days a week prepping izakaya skewers at the restaurant began to wear on Koyama. As a 19-year-old, he also felt isolated from his co-workers who were significantly older than him. So he was drawn to a new, and very SoCal, hobby. “I took up surfing because I had no friends,” he explains. “I worked at the restaurant six days a week, all day, and I would just see my coworkers who were all over 30 years old. I had no friends and nothing fun, just work and then go home and nothing else. I wanted to make friends and I thought, ‘I have to do something, find some hobby.’ And there are beaches everywhere, so asked someone if they could teach me to surf, and they did.”

Chef Koyama preparing a dish at Necco
Chef Koyama preparing a dish | Danny Jensen

Koyama’s newfound hobby not only helped him develop a new group of friends and an escape from the grind of work, but it also led him to a new passion for playing music. “I met friends while surfing and they played music, so it was just fun just hanging around them. They were [experiences] of my generation, hanging around, drinking with friends. I didn’t want to stay with my coworkers all the time, it’s not healthy I think. They were older and would play golf…

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