AT AN AGE when many people retire, Bruce Miyahara signed on as a prep cook when Mutsuko Soma opened her Japanese restaurant, Kamonegi, in 2017. It was a surprising second act for a public health professional who had headed both the King County Health Department and the Washington State Department of Health. But Miyahara jumped at the chance to work with Soma, in part because it would allow him to explore his Japanese culinary heritage more deeply than he’d ever done.  

Miyahara’s grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima. His parents were born in the United States. As a child in the 1950s, he would hear them tell stories of their “camp” days. They made it sound like fun. It wasn’t until third or fourth grade that he learned the real story. A teacher overheard him and a group of other Japanese kids talking about their parents’ camp experiences. She seized the moment to ask whether they really understood what happened there.

“She shifted our perspective,” Miyahara says.

Like a lot of people back then, he says, “We tried not to be too Japanese.” His mother cooked from the Betty Crocker Cookbook. They ate a lot of hamburger meat and casseroles at home. There was always rice. “That’s what made everything sort of Japanese.” He preferred his mother’s cooking to the Americanized teriyaki, sukiyaki and tempura they would get in Japanese restaurants. On the days when his grandfather took care of him, lunch would be Spam, pickles and hot dogs cooked in soy sauce — foods that generate nostalgia for many Japanese Americans.

Miyahara met Soma when she demonstrated the art of soba-making at one of Tom Douglas’ annual culinary summer camps. Those boozy, weeklong, star-chef-studded events were a precursor to Douglas’ Hot Stove Society cooking school. Miyahara’s wife, Dana Spencer, encouraged him to attend, and later joined him. The couple was part of a group that returned every year and became, Douglas says, “a little food club” that socialized together frequently until the pandemic.

“Bruce was like the Captain of Summer Camp,” recalls Amy Richardson of Tom Douglas Restaurants. “He would show up at 8:30 a.m. ready for a shot of Maker’s Mark and a full day of class.” For Douglas’ 60th birthday, the group organized a party at Palace Ballroom. Each made a dish learned at camp. Instead of a cake, they stuck birthday candles in stacks of Dick’s burgers.

“Tom and summer camp got me thinking about flavors and techniques,” says Miyahara. He was inspired to combine flavors in ways he’d never thought of before and was more curious about Japanese food. Urged by Douglas and his business partner Eric Tanaka, Miyahara participated in “Work Release,” pop-up dinners at The Carlile Room, where sous chefs and line cooks were invited to cook whatever they wanted for a night. He collaborated on a formal Japanese kaiseki menu influenced by the idea of “reverse-yoshoku.” (Yoshoku refers to Western-influenced Japanese food.)

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When Soma told him she was opening a restaurant, he asked whether he could help. He worked the daytime prep shift because it’s less hectic than evening service, and he worried about making mistakes at his age. “This is really a young person’s sport,” says the man who goes by the Instagram handle @older_than_i_5.

Miyahara estimates he has made about 40,000 duck meatballs at Kamonegi. He makes Spam, too, and he smokes salmon and repairs whatever is broken. He rode the bus to work because he wanted the whole experience. “It’s given me total respect for everyone in this industry.”

In 2019, when Soma and her business partner, Russell King, opened the sake bar Hannyatou, a couple of doors down from Kamonegi, Miyahara helped with the remodeling, applied himself to the study of sake and worked service. He also was a buffer between the two temperamentally disparate owners. Soma is more like Guy Fieri, he says; King is more like Thomas Keller.

King sold his interest in Hannyatou when he relocated to New Mexico last year for family reasons. Miyahara is now a part owner. He’s earned the sobriquet OG San. It means authentic, old-school and esteemed. In May, Soma paid tribute to him with a special “Bruce-inspired menu” of shoyu hot dogs, chicken liver mousse with Spam, and pickles. Proceeds went to the International Community Health Services Foundation. Miyahara was the organization’s first director in 1973, when it was a one-room storefront in the Chinatown International District. There are 11 clinics in the greater Seattle area that provide interpretation in 50 different languages.

Is Hannyatou Miyahara’s third act? He turns 70 in November. He’s pleased that the cozy corner izakaya, with its secluded, wisteria-rimmed patio, has become an industry haunt, because he likes “hanging out with the kids.” One thing is certain: He hasn’t stopped learning or cooking.

Koji is among his latest obsessions. When he met Soma, she already was deep into using this transformational ingredient for pickling and miso. A type of mold (aspergillus oryzae) propagated on rice or other grain, koji is used to make soy sauce, miso and sake. It produces enzymes that break down starches, proteins and fats. Used as a marinade, it works magic with meats.

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Miyahara says it’s simple to make your own shio (salt) or shoyu (soy sauce) koji at home. Buying koji rice is the easiest way. Growing the mold yourself, which he is learning to do, is much more complicated. Cold Mountain is a popular brand of koji rice available at many Asian groceries or online. I found it at Central Market, where you also can buy premade shio koji, if you’re in a hurry.

Shio Koji
Koji rice
Distilled water
Sea salt or kosher salt

1. Combine equal parts, by weight, of koji and water in a Mason jar or deli container.
2. Add salt, equal to 10% of total water and koji weight. (Note: You can use a range of 5% to 15%. You will find you need to use less additional salt when cooking with koji.)
3. Mix until salt is dissolved, cover and store at room temperature (70ºF).
4. Stir daily. It is ready to use in 7 to 10 days. It will take on a slightly sweet aroma. You can use an immersion blender at this point to turn it into a paste rather than leaving the rice grains whole. Refrigerate.

Shio Koji Pan-Seared Pork Chops
1. Coat each side of a thick-cut pork chop with 1 tablespoon of shio koji, and place in a plastic bag or covered container overnight.
2. When ready to cook, wipe off excess shio koji. Lightly oil a pan. Sear the chops on all sides, then move pan to a 250º-300º F oven for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on the thickness of the chop).
3. Remove pork chops at an internal temp of 138º F. Rest a few minutes before serving.
Note: The Maillard effect (browning) will occur more quickly because of sugars and changes in the protein created by the koji, so keep an eye on it.

Shoyu Koji
1. Combine equal amounts by weight of shoyu (soy sauce) and koji rice in a Mason jar or deli container.
2. Store at room temperature. Stir daily.
3. It is ready to use in 7-10 days. Use an immersion blender at this point to create a paste, or use it as is. Refrigerate.

Sous Vide Shoyu Koji Chuck Roast
Chuck roast
Shoyu koji
Fresh ginger
Red pepper flakes

1. Set immersion circulator to 138º F.
2. Place chuck roast in a Ziploc or vacuum-sealed bag. Add 2 tablespoons shoyu koji per pound of chuck roast, plus 3 coins of ginger and a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes. Remove air, and seal. Briefly massage to coat the chuck roast.
3. Place in the circulator for 18 to 24 hours.
4. Remove from the bag. Save and reduce the juices. Briefly pan sear or grill the chuck roast to give it some color. Slice, and serve with reduced sauce.