EastBay Today

Feature
Posted September 6, 2017

Two Million Viewers and Counting

Alumna Namiko Chen's food blog preserves culture, spreads tradition

There’s a reason shows on the Food Network and Cooking Channel rake in tens of millions of viewers and advertising dollars — and only part of it has to do with what’s on the stove. If you’ve ever spent hours transfixed by Giada de Laurentis’ Nutella ravioli, Ina Garten’s football field-sized herb garden or the ginormous portions consumed by Guy Fieri in diners across America, you already know that cooking shows are about people. And music. And spotless refrigerators and artful plating. And the sound of water boiling, a grill sizzling and steam rising.

Cal State East Bay alumna Namiko (formerly Hirasawa) Chen has all those elements down pat on her blog and YouTube recipe channel, Just One Cookbook, which tracks a profitable 2 million page views each month and counting — and may someday catapult her to celebrity chef status.

The secret to her success? Chen says she was lucky to strike upon a niche market with the cuisine of her native Japan, but after a few minutes of speaking with her, it’s clear that hard work — not serendipity — is the driving force behind her growing fan base.

Here, for East Bay Today, Chen breaks down the difference between quality and quantity in a Pinterest and YouTube-saturated world; how Cal State East Bay gave her the American dream; and the food cravings she’s acquired living in the U.S.

East Bay Today: How did your blog get started?

Namiko Chen: I was constantly being asked by my circle of friends for Japanese recipes, and it was during the time when people were just beginning to blog and use social media, so I said ‘OK, I’ll try this.’ I started taking pictures of the recipes I made at night and posting them, but the pictures were all dark and yellow or gray. I started looking at other food blogs and realizing I needed to use natural light and start cooking during the day. It just grew — in the beginning, you were able to post searchable recipes on Facebook and people could leave comments, but then things changed and people couldn’t find my recipes, so I started my own website.

EBT: You’re from Japan and you’ve been living in the Bay Area for 20 years now — how did you come to Cal State East Bay?

NC: I came to Berkeley to study English in the summers and stayed with a host family when I was in high school. The family would take me camping in Yosemite each summer, and I was fascinated by the scenery — there’s nothing like that in Japan. I knew then that’s what I wanted to study, geology, geography, and the environment. So, after high school I completed a two-year degree in English in Japan, and when I was ready to come here, my host family recommended St. Mary’s.

Recently, Chen has taken on recreating dishes from the Netflix series "Midnight Diner: Tokyo" a drama based on patrons of a diner who bond over their shared love of various dishes.
Mr. JOC

EBT: But you didn’t complete your degree there — what happened?

NC: I was 20 at the time and most of the other freshmen were 18, so younger than me, and I didn’t fit in. Moraga is also a sleepy town, I didn’t have a car and I felt trapped in the dorms. I wanted to go somewhere that felt closer to the city. My mother was very worried by that point, but I convinced her to let me transfer to Diablo Valley College and then I came to Cal State East Bay for two years.

EBT: You graduated from the university when it was called Cal State Hayward in 2001 and you haven’t been back to campus since. What’s it like to be here?

NC: It’s amazing! I can’t believe how much it’s grown and how different it looks. All the new buildings and the (East Bay monument) letters are cool.

EBT: What was the experience here like?

NC: The students here were all very busy, with jobs outside of school and commuting from different places, so I did have some trouble making friends. But, I learned a lot about hard work here. When we would get together for group projects, everyone was really focused and balancing a lot of different things, so they came together to get things done — not play or talk and eat for hours.

EBT: And after graduation?

NC: I majored in environmental studies, and during my senior year I took some Geographic Information System (digital mapping) classes. Because I had that experience, after graduation I applied to a company called Etak (now Tele Atlas) and was hired. They made maps for companies like Mapquest and also for some early versions of car navigation. I worked there for four years. By then, they were closing down and laying people off, so I thought it was a good time to go back to Japan. But, I was dating my husband and he didn’t want me to leave — so he asked me to marry him.  Here I am 20 years later, still in America, with two children, building my business. In a way, Cal State East Bay gave me the American Dream.  

EBT: What’s your motivation in doing this? Do you love to cook?

NC: I actually like cleaning more! But, when I make something for my children and they enjoy it, I love that feeling. Also, my mother takes a lot of pride in cooking, but she doesn’t have any recipes written down. The memory is in her hands. So, I wanted to preserve the recipes for my children. And now, so many people share their stories with me through emails that I feel like I don’t want to disappoint them. I get a lot of emails from sansei and yonsei — third and fourth generation Japanese-Americans — who remember their mother’s and grandmother’s cooking but don’t have the recipes.

EBT: And you have your own YouTube channel as well?

NC: Yes. Back when I started blogging in 2011, there were really only three Japanese food blogs that were successful in the United States. So, my husband said to me ‘You can be one of these — you can do this.’  Then four years ago he said ‘We have to do videos.’ I was so nervous, I never wanted to be on camera and our first few videos we only showed my hands and no sound. But now, we include sound, so my husband and I can’t yell at each other during production and the kids have to be quiet.

One of Chen's most popular videos is for Chashu, or pork belly seared in a sweet and savory sauce. The video has nearly 600,000 views.  
Mr. JOC

EBT: How do you stay on the cutting edge of what’s new in blogs, Pinterest, YouTube, etc.

NC: I work very hard to stay up to date on what’s happening in the market and to offer something different. Content is very, very important to me — I try to include information about the origin of the food and how it’s eaten, the story behind the food, not talk about random things that happened in my day. But I used to do that. And, I also have a button available on my page that says ‘skip to recipe’ for people who don’t want to read that.  

EBT: How important is the aesthetic of your food and videos?

NC: It’s almost hard for me to answer that. We are trained to think about presentation [in Japanese culture]. It’s very important for things to be visually appealing before you eat — but I don’t try to do that, necessarily. It’s just a ‘have to’ for me that the food must be colorful and represent the season. It’s included in the recipe to an extent. Brown food by itself is not appetizing and it’s also probably not healthy.

EBT: Do you ever get recognized?

NC: When I was in Japan this summer near Hiroshima, an American family stopped me and said ‘Aren’t you Nami?’ and that was very surprising! But I was featured in the Japan Times recently, which was so fun because I used to use that newspaper to study English.

 EBT: What American foods do you love?

NC: Roasted vegetables. I had never eaten roasted food before I came to America because a typical Japanese kitchen doesn’t come with an oven. So roasted foods and vegetables I think are delicious and have so much flavor. I also love lobster rolls, barbecued ribs and freshly baked bagels. I crave these American foods when I visit Japan for two months each summer.

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