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The Bay Area home cook bringing Japanese food to the masses – SFGATE

Shen Chen (left) and Nami Chen (right) enjoy lunch at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
When it comes to American Japanese restaurants, Nami Chen is hard to impress. 
That’s because the face of popular Japanese food blog Just One Cookbook can usually make something better at home. Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, and with an 11-year career of sharing Japanese recipes with millions of readers, Nami knows what’s good when it comes to her native cuisine.
Still, she and her husband, Shen Chen, like to go out to eat sometimes. When they don’t feel like cooking at home, they go to Redwood City’s Kemuri Japanese Barú.
When I met the couple, who live in nearby Belmont, at the sleek izakaya for lunch, they greeted me warmly and immediately started gushing about the food. 
“Most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. are not operated by Japanese owners or chefs,” Shen said. “And I would say the majority serve very generic food like teriyaki salmon … and so when we find a restaurant that’s run by a Japanese chef, the creativity, the flavor is different.”
The lunchtime spread at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
They loved one of Kemuri Japanese Barú’s dishes so much, a ​​burrata crostini with ikura and yuzu pepper, that Nami re-created it at home and shared the recipe on Just One Cookbook. 
We ordered an absolute mountain of food, from hamachi crudo to garlicky seared edamame and corn tempura. Each time I thought the plates were done coming, a new dish appeared. One, the kemuri ceviche, even came with the dramatic flair of being seared with a blowtorch tableside.
Between bites of crispy tofu tempura and dry-aged salmon, the Chens walked me through the beginnings of Just One Cookbook. 
Tofu and vegetable tempura at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
Dry-aged salmon at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
Hamachi toro tataki at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
Corn tempura at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
Growing up in Japan, Nami would often help her mother cook dinner. But she didn’t realize she had any talent in the kitchen until she moved to California at age 20 by herself for school. 
“When I first came here and I missed Japanese food and I had to cook for myself, I realized, oh, I know all these dishes because I’ve been in the kitchen with my mom,” she said. “… I actually like eating more than cooking. That’s why I actually like to cook — so that I can eat good food.”
After graduating from California State University East Bay, Nami met Shen while working at a digital map company in the Bay Area. They got married, had two children, and when Nami was a stay-at-home mom, she started sharing simple Japanese recipes with friends on Facebook. In 2011, some of her friends suggested she start her own food blog. 
One of the more popular recipes on Just One Cookbook is gyoza, or Japanese potstickers. 
“To me, it was a hobby,” Nami said. “I just wanted to share recipes with my friends, and I realized that my kids need to know my recipes so they can cook eventually when they become adults. So I wanted to transfer all my Japanese recipes to English and store it in just one cookbook, on the website. That’s how we named it Just One Cookbook.”
Back in 2011, food blogs were at peak popularity, but not many Japanese ones were sharing recipes in English. With the help of Shen’s SEO expertise (at the time, he was working at an online shopping comparison service) to optimize their keywords and headlines, they quickly eclipsed the competition. 
“The one thing that I think we did differently than other blogs did was showing step-by-step pictures,” Shen said. “This was 10 years ago, when Japanese food was not as prevalent as it is today. … By having step-by-step pictures and guiding people through this kind of foreign process, we made Japanese food more approachable.”
Soufflé pancakes is one of the many recipes available on Just One Cookbook.
Just One Cookbook recipes are some of the most thorough you can find online. Recently, I made zosui, a cozy Japanese rice soup, from a recipe on the site. Like most Just One Cookbook recipes, it included an explanation of what the dish was, suggestions for vegan and vegetarian substitutions, links to guides to many of the ingredients (including one on how to make three different types of dashi), high-quality photos demonstrating each step of the process, and even a YouTube video. 
I’ve never felt more supported by the author of a recipe in my life. 
“We intentionally tried to make it easy to digest, with a lot of information for the reader,” Nami said. “So we have a really comprehensive pantry page. … We thought a lot about how a non-Japanese food cook would need this information.”
In Just One Cookbook’s first month, they were thrilled to get 100 page views on recipes. But just a few months later, they were already reaching 50,000 views a month. Today, they have 5 million, and Nami and Shen both work on the blog full time. 
Shen Chen (left) and Nami Chen (right) enjoy lunch at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City.
There’s no doubt: It’s become the go-to resource for English speakers who want to cook Japanese food.
Nami and Shen are dedicated to keeping Just One Cookbook as accessible as possible, offering plenty of substitutions for different dietary restrictions and for those who live in areas where it’s difficult to find Japanese ingredients. But they also refuse to compromise on authenticity. 
Maintaining that balance is a constant challenge.
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“We always had discussions like, do you make more generic recipes or recipes that are more tailored to what the general public wants, rather than being authentic?” Shen said. “And Nami’s stance was always, ‘No. Like, I’m Japanese. I think it’s really important for people to understand the true Japanese flavor.’”
Nami agreed with her husband’s assessment. 
Miso ramen is one of the many recipes available on Just One Cookbook.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “… But I feel that coming from Japan, I know how real Japanese food should be. And I’m not the only one, but I’m one of the few people who can share what’s the authentic way to cook and eat, so that’s my niche.”
In recent years, though, they find they are needing to compromise less and less. 
“I think finally we came to the point that we don’t have to make those teriyaki salmon, tempura, you know those familiarly named dishes, and we can dive into more true home-cooked recipes,” Nami said.
These days, they can share a recipe for something like mazemen (a brothless ramen noodle), and many people will actually recognize it from restaurants in the U.S. Those who don’t often are still comfortable enough with Japanese ingredients to try cooking it. 
While Nami has an endless list of foods she grew up with or tasted at Japanese restaurants that fuels the blog, she actually finds a lot of inspiration from reader requests, too. 
Japanese milk bread is one of the many recipes available on Just One Cookbook.
“Our readers are very specific,” Shen said, offering me the last precious bite of hamachi crudo. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I was in Kyoto, and this is the best thing I have eaten in my whole life, so I want to re-create it’ … or ‘my mom used to make this dish,’ and they would describe it. So we do this for readers, too, just because it’s nostalgic for them.” 
In a typical week, the couple reserves Tuesdays and Thursdays as filming days (that’s when their dog goes to day care), and the rest is for production and recipe testing for Nami and optimizing the website for Shen. Besides the two of them, they employ a team of five to run Just One Cookbook.
As Nami explained her recipe testing process between spoonfuls of our shared dessert, a genmaicha flan, Shen teased her for being “a little bit obsessive.” When she’s working on a recipe, she’ll make it for her family so many times that her kids, now high school-age, get completely sick of it. 
Yakisoba is one of the many recipes available on Just One Cookbook.
“I ruin my family’s craving for something,” Nami grinned guiltily. “But if you don’t do a good recipe, some people will say something. … I’m a perfectionist, so if it’s not perfect, I don’t want to give it to even the neighbor.” 
When I asked the couple how they like to spend their free time, they answered in unison, “We love to eat.” 
And travel. They’re really looking forward to their trip to Japan next month, their first in three years. Before the pandemic, they made the trip with their kids to visit Nami’s parents every year. They’re excited to see them, of course, but also to eat the Japanese food of Nami’s childhood. 
In particular, Nami looks forward to her mother’s korokke, the snackable potato-and-meat croquettes that were a comfort food to her as a child. In her opinion, no restaurant can make them as perfectly as her mother. Now, her kids love korokke, too. Whenever they visit Japan, her mother makes them both the day they arrive and the day they leave.
It’s a part of their travels that she loves sharing with the Just One Cookbook community. 
Shen Chen (left) and Nami Chen (right) are the Bay Area couple behind popular Japanese cooking site Just One Cookbook.
“Through food, I think we can introduce all the Japanese things to people who are interested but maybe cannot go,” Nami said. “There are a lot of older people who wish to go back but cannot, and I hope I can share some of the experience with them.” 
While Nami has no plans to turn Just One Cookbook into a physical cookbook (too time-consuming, too expensive, and she doesn’t want to abandon the blog to do so), she still feels like there’s so much left to do in her career. 
“I want to continue to connect people here who have Japanese roots,” she said. “Maybe they lost a lot of authentic food because their grandma passed away, or their Japanese wife passed away. So I really hope to help them reconnect to their roots and the recipes that they’re used to.”
Madeline Wells is a reporter for SFGATE covering food and drink in the Bay Area. She grew up in the Seattle area and received her B.A. in English and Media Studies from UC Berkeley. Prior to SFGATE, she was an associate editor at East Bay Express and freelance writer covering the Bay Area music scene. Email: madeline.wells@sfgate.com

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