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Sonoko Sakai at work in her kitchen. Wonho Frank Lee

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The Joy of Communal Cooking

In her first in-person classes since the pandemic, the beloved cooking teacher Sonoko Sakai is using noodles to ‘tighten the social unit’

On a recent Sunday morning, Sonoko Sakai, the Los Angeles-based cooking teacher, gathered up her 12 students in the front room of her home and dropped a gallon-sized Ziploc bag of dough onto the floor. She slipped off her shoes — she had gotten a pedicure for the occasion — and started to stomp on the bag. Sakai is an expert on Japanese noodle-making, and she explained that a common way to knead dough is to step on it. Her specialty is soba-making, which she called “a restorative art,” but today the class focused on ramen, which would form the base of a cold noodle dish called hiyashi chuka. “Ramen is fun,” Sakai said.

After the demonstration, the students kicked off their own shoes, revealing at least one pair of dinosaur socks, and began their own more tentative stomping. Working noodle dough with your feet is a unique textural experience. The bag is a little slippery, and the dough is soft but also unyielding. Giddiness welled in the room, along with a feeling of catharsis. “This would have been really great a few weeks into the pandemic,” one student observed. “If I could have gotten flour,” another replied. But clearly a large part of the fun was the one thing no one would have done during the early pandemic — gathering in a room to stomp on the dough together.

Sakai circulated to assess whose dough had been adequately kneaded, and then sent the students back to the two large wooden tables crammed into her small, two-bedroom Highland Park bungalow. Pasta-making machines sourced on eBay were set up in various corners, and Sakai had students work in groups of two or three at each pasta station to flatten their dough into sheets, and then cut them into noodles.

The hiyashi chuka class was the first Sakai had hosted in person since March 2020 — three students were, in fact, using credit from the final class she’d had to cancel. Calling off classes and a book tour had been a painful experience, but Sakai had had a productive pandemic. Her soba, which she occasionally showcased in pop-ups, was praised by Jonathan Gold as the best in the city, and her reputation as a cooking teacher and food advocate now stretches far beyond Los Angeles. Over Zoom, she could reach students around the world. “I was doing two classes a week and sometimes I had 70 people, 80 people,” she said. “It was wonderful to know that there were that many people wanting to make dumplings with me.”

And she didn’t find Zoom classes to be impersonal. Students would email her for advice on problems like moldy miso, and she would happily correspond with them and follow their progress. Big projects also attracted groups looking for a shared endeavor while they were separated by the pandemic. “I had one family of four to five people across the country all coming together to [make hoshigaki, a Japanese-style dried persimmon], and I got to peek into their lives and see their happy faces,” Sakai said.

Three students gather around a pasta machine, making ramen dough. Meghan McCarron

An in-person class is a lot more hassle, mess, and work. But as students got flour on her floor and grappled with her pasta machines, Sakai described her main goal as a cooking teacher as “tightening the social unit.” She has students work in groups of two or three, even if their skill levels are totally different, to foster new connections. “When you have a common goal of making noodles, you’re part of a collective, even if it might not make a perfect noodle,” she said, looking around at students rolling their dough with wildly varying levels of comfort.

After the noodles were done, the class moved outside to prepare toppings for the hiyashi chuka. Sakai used every inch of her backyard — an egg crepe station with four burners sat on one outdoor table, while another table held more burners for boiling the noodles. Vegetable prep happened at the dining table. Sakai grew up in a family of five children, and her first exposure to cooking was as a little kid assigned a helping task by the adults. When a few participants hung back to watch as others julienned carrots and cucumbers, it didn’t escape her notice. “If you’re just standing there, start chopping!” she told them.

The final dishes were assembled family-style, with a smorgasbord of toppings — thinly sliced egg crepe, shrimp, teriyaki chicken thighs, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes — that students eagerly piled into their noodle bowls and topped with ginger-soy dressing. When Sakai published her first book on Japanese cooking in 1986, her American audience was unfamiliar with Japanese food beyond sushi. While promoting the book, “I saw people not finding the smell of dashi very pleasant,” she says. “[Now], my students walk into my class to make a seafood broth from scratch and they love the fragrance.”

Josh Horita, who was attending the class with his mom, Andrea, had recently graduated from high school after two years of what he called “Zoom school.” He said it was a relief to be in person doing something with his hands. “I wouldn’t do Zoom with my mom,” he said. “Talking and bumping into people were the biggest highs we missed out on,” noted Stephanie Dapper, who said that over the pandemic she went from a passable cook to a truly invested one. Another attendee, Minhdzuy Khorami, said that during the pandemic he approached meals with an “Oh, I have to feed myself again” attitude, and signed up for the class because he “wanted to find more happiness in cooking so it doesn’t feel like that.”

Ramen noodles are cranked out of a pasta machine into a pair of waiting hands. Meghan McCarron

The hoariest cliche in food writing (in a genre full of some groaners) is the idea that the best way to learn to cook is at your mother or grandmother’s apron strings. As an enthusiastic home cook who grew up sans strings, I always resented this image. But now I wonder if it’s less about some domestic ideal than a longing for the pleasure of cooking with someone you love. Making dinner alone night after night is as distant from how humanity cooked for most of our history as the nuclear family is from traditional forms of child rearing. The students at Sakai’s class uniformly said they had gotten much more skilled at cooking meals on their own during the pandemic. But perhaps they had also felt most keenly that something was missing.

After lunch, Sakai invited her students to visit her “store,” which had once been her second bedroom and was now stocked with custom pantry supplies she had developed, like a custom furikake, and baking mixes for treats, like sesame butter cookies designed to incorporate her blend of curry powder. She sells these items at the Hollywood farmers market twice a month, another logistically challenging endeavor she undertakes because it lets her connect in person with customers and farmers, rather than relying on a website. The second round of dough that students had mixed was also now ready to be turned into noodles at home, and Sakai invited anyone without their own pasta machine to linger and make use of hers. Only a few students took her up on this offer, leaving plenty of pasta stations open. But a group of three opted instead to keep using a single pasta machine together, laughing with delight as they worked the dough into flatter and flatter sheets, and then, as if by magic, into ramen.

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