“I’m a pretty weird dude,” chef Josh Nebe says—not in a self-deprecating way, but almost as an explanation for his cooking. After all, this is the chef that conceptualized the crazy carnival-themed menu at Unicorn and collaborated on the idea of seafood-topped poutine at White Swan, where he’s been leading the kitchen since they opened last year. His style is inventive and unpretentious. A kind of middle finger to the idea of molecular gastronomy and fancy tasting menus, though he’s quick to explain that those are super fun to cook, too.
Last week, he completed his last shift at White Swan. Now, he’s readying for his next venture: a stint at buzzy new soba-and-tempura spot Kamonegi and a pop-up called Oko focused on savory Japanese pancakes called okonomiyaki. Hell yes.
When I reached out to Nebe after hearing about his departure and he told me he was planning a pop-up, I immediately thought, “German food, of course.” It’s a signature cuisine of his, and the currywurst at White Swan was perhaps the best dish—at a restaurant focused more on seafood than sausages. Plus, he ran a German pop up called Dackel a few years ago. But no… this is decidedly different.
“I’ve always had this desire to cook Japanese food,” he tells me.
As a kid in Texas, his family had a Japanese housekeeper that would cook him okonomiyaki—one of the first foods he remembers eating. He says he’s eaten every one available in Seattle—there aren’t many—and none live up to how he remembers them. This isn’t him being a food snob, really; in Japan, okonomiyaki are made to order, in front of the recipient, or griddled on a flattop in the middle of the table by diners themselves (a la Korean barbecue here). So when the dish shows up at izakayas here, brought out from the kitchen with dishes of fried chicken and other starchy bar food, it can’t compete with that level of freshness. Plus, Japanese okonomiyaki comes in a variety of regional styles—my personal favorite is Hiroshima-style, where the pancake is layered with yakisoba noodles. Nebe says he’ll likely start with the simpler Osaka variation, minus the noodles, which is the most widely found.
A personal fondness for Japanese food isn’t the only reason he’s stepping out on his own. “I looked around the city one day and thought, ‘I’m just wasting my life cooking food for someone else, when I could be cooking food the way I want to,’” he says. “Eventually, I want to have a family. I’ve watched a lot of my mentors get bogged down with a family and running a restaurant. I’d like to set myself up for success and work on something now, while I’m young and I can.”
Oko will show up Mondays at Kamonegi… sometime soon. His hope is to use this time learning from chef-owner Mutsuko Soma there and honing his okonomiyaki recipe—he’s planning a month-long trip to Japan in February to research—and then eventually set up his own shop with a kind of Benihana vibe, where guests will sit and watch him cook the pancakes to order. (He was originally thinking Capitol Hill, to be near the drinking crowd, but mentioned possibly South Park or somewhere similarly up-and-coming.)
You’ll definitely find okonomiyaki, and possibly omurice or omusoba—a thin omelette wrapped around rice or soba—to make for a Japanese-Western take on pancakes and eggs. Nebe ultimately sees himself as a Seattle chef, despite his forays into German, Spanish, French and (now) Japanese, so look for plenty of local ingredients: “I’m obsessed with the idea of squid omelettes with mayonnaise.”
What would a Seattle-style okonomiyaki involve? “There’d be cream cheese in there for sure.”
As for White Swan, there's exciting news there, too: Travis Kukull, who gained a ton of local critical acclaim with his South Lake Union restaurant Mollusk, is taking over the kitchen.