Words by Leigh Patterson
Photographs Justin Chung

Sonoko Sakai

Los Angeles, CA

Sonoko Sakai
Chef, Teacher
Los Angeles, CA

From the moment we step into Sonoko Sakai’s Los Angeles home, the energy is buzzing. She greets us and then promptly oscillates through the house. At every turn, an ongoing culinary project is in progress, and she toggles without pause between stirring a pot on the stove, telling stories, showing us a favorite illustration in a book, running to the garden to snap a few green beans off the vine, brewing a pot of herbal tea, testing a batch of miso with a tiny metal spoon like a sample of gelato.
A dedicated cook and respected teacher on the craft of Japanese home cooking, Sonoko’s work personifies what it means to let your senses lead. Every corner of the Highland Park home she shares with her husband Katsuhisa Sakai feels like an exercise in calculated experimentation and systems of her making. As we talk, the air is fragrant with spice as a table is filled with bowls of coriander, cumin, cardamom, mustard seed, turmeric and ginger root, kombu, and shiitake. In her fermentation room, a row of ceramic crocks hold pickles in varying stages of aging. Shelves are lined with a wonderland of speciality preserves, from industrial-sized tubs of Sonora flour to nutty California-grown Kokuho Rose rice, dried jujubes to glass jars of chrysanthemum petals. In the kitchen, candied strawberries and sage leaves rest on a wire rack — garnishes for homemade ice cream.
Overall, it’s a highly particular sensory overload, and one that speaks to Sonoko’s equally specific expertise surrounding food, cooking, technique, and flavor. The oldest of five children, Sonoko was born in New York before moving with her family to Japan, then to San Francisco, Mexico City, and back to Japan all before she was 10 years old. In Japan, she learned to cook from watching her mother and grandmother walking through the garden, traversing hillsides in search of wild vegetables, and visiting local markets for freshly made tofu or noodles. Sonoko moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s where she’s admittedly “reinvented herself several times,” working for decades as a producer and buyer in the film industry amid other professions before a new path became clear. In 2008, she left the film world and began making batches of fresh soba noodles, writing cookbooks, teaching workshops, hosting private dinners, and selling her various creations at LA’s farmer’s markets. In the last couple years, she’s expanded her offerings to include homemade pantry staples, mixes, and spice kits, which she makes and packages at home with a small team.
And while her work is an inspiration for the home cook, it goes far beyond that. Sonoko’s delicious food is a reminder of the quiet value that comes from seeking quality, of cooking with the seasons, of not shying from what’s time-consuming, and of being patient with the process. It’s about seeking a balance of and harmony within the elements, be it the five senses, or within the body or spirit. It’s being conscious of your consumption in all forms.
“Nobody makes miso. Nobody makes noodles by hand. Nobody makes pickles,” she says. “It's very time consuming, but to me it's a good way to spend it. As a cook I believe it is my responsibility to share why food is important, and the only way to really understand that is to start making your own. You have to be faced with an ingredient, cook with it, appreciate what goes into it. And when you do…everything becomes deeper.”



Full story available in Making Sense Vol. 1 Book

Making Sense is a publication series with Le Labo Fragrances that is a study in distilling life to its essence, as told through the stories of 12 individual who have fearlessly hand-crafted lives of their own making.

Read more about the series here.