Unfiltered: Nobuko Okamura

Over glasses of Kannan Winery Riesling from Ningxia, deeply hued, biodynamic Moon Apogé Tavel Rosé and Franco-Moroccan collaboration, Tandem Syrah, Douglas Blyde hears the story of Nobuko Okamura, the Dublin-raised, Japanese head sommelier of Singaporean restaurant, Straits Kitchen at Europe’s inaugural Pan Pacific hotel.

Describe the sheer tower that is Pan Pacific, Bishopsgate
This is the first European opening from Singaporean hotelier, Pan Pacific, encapsulating, within its 43 storeys, 237 bedrooms in addition to 20 floors of private residences. One floor is dedicated entirely to wellbeing including a gym with a body recognition ‘D-Wall’ offering personal training with virtual functionality, although I prefer my double-sided wine wall at Straits Kitchen, along with its two private dining rooms. Named after the national flower of Singapore, the Ginger Lily bar and cigar terrace is overseen by my colleague, Francesco Putignano (formerly of Seabird). We also have the largest ballroom in the square mile.

Where did you work before?
Until it became clear I was missing my family in Europe too much, I worked at Sofitel, Australia, returning to London where I followed restaurateur Arjun Waney to La Petit Maison, Zuma and both Coya sites. Before it closed owing to lockdown, I worked at English-owned Basque cookery school, Mimo, Borough Market where I could take time to encourage guests to truly savour wines, an approach which they subsequently took away with them even applying it to supermarket finds. Wine is about people, and while it feels like everyone in the hospitality industry is running around at the moment, I really want to get away from this cusp, back to a place where sommeliers can spend time with guests to talk about the people behind a bottle.

What is the best and worst advice you’ve been given?
I wouldn’t take bad advice, though the best advice I’ve received, which I’ve passed on to my team, is, ‘be yourself.’ Also, there’s never a silly question. I certainly don’t know all the answers and often learn from my guests, some of whom have more wine in their home cellars than I’ll ever see in my lifetime.

Is the guest always right?
Owning a mistake is one thing, though if we haven’t made a mistake, we’ll show the guest that we’ve heard them, in the right way.

Who do you recruit?
I seek friendly people with a good work ethic and a willingness to learn who are prepared to help me. People are physically tired in this industry right now, especially at a senior level – and I hope more don’t leave it. We need to be doing more to attract people locally.

What grape do you find it hard to get along with?
Although I am mindful of the market, with very few exceptions such as Didier Dagueneau’s Silex, I will never personally order Sauvignon Blanc.

How did your focus on English come about?
Together with our Executive Chef, Lorraine Sinclair who comes from Sussex, we wanted to promote something other than Champagne, hence Breaky Bottom is a particular favourite. Its maker, Peter Hall, is an artist, craftsman and great orator and his great-great uncle, the writer, Lafcadio Hearn, lived and worked in Japan near where my grandmother lived, where he remains hugely respected.

What other drinks are important to you?
The ‘kids’ as I affectionately call them who work on the floor are still building their knowledge so we are starting off slowly, getting to grips with wine and Champagne. I am also a huge fan of sherry, Cognacs and Armagnacs. Sometimes it’s harder but more rewarding to have a smaller collection of drinks which is frequently refreshed than a huge, static list.

What has been a standout wine and food match at Pan Pacific?
Going against the trend for lighter, brighter, Provençal rosés, I like matching our very dark, yet dry, smooth Tavel Rosé, Moon Apogé with our very popular chilli crab, and also the more complex laksa.

How does the décor influence mood?
The design by Yabu Pushelberg is deliberately understated, with Straits Kitchen intended to be a haven free from glitz or loud music, providing respite from busy day-to-day London.

What did you do during the lockdowns?
It was the first time I had time off ever and I was jumping out of my skin for the first three months. Fortunately, I love baking and came across the ‘Guittard Chocolate Cookbook’ which offers a story behind each of the recipes from this San Francisco based family of French chocolatiers. The best thing: their recipes work. Having been through hundreds of recipes for chocolate chip cookies, theirs was the best.

Tell us something surprising about you?
Not many people know it, but I am actually a DJ, having played at Baby Box as well as doing sessions at TRADE, Soho (now Black Book).

Straits Kitchen – 80 Houndsditch, London EC3A 7AB; 020 7118 6888; panpacific.com

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