The story behind ULO’s Kitchen, a family operation that offers Japanese-Korean flavours and a space made solely of upcycled materials
Slivers of spiced salmon, so fresh they barely rest over the sticky beds of sesame sprinkled rice, are tucked away in glistening sheets of nori by the steady, dentistry-trained hand of the now sushi master, Yoshi Shirai.
Welcome to ULO’s Kitchen, a shared catering and restaurant operation; offering Japanese-Korean flavours and a space made solely by upcycling materials from local opp-shops and recycling centres.
The Innovators: The Shirai Family
The Shirai family were forced to leave their quaked-home after the deadly Tohoku earthquake and tsunami rocked Fukushima in 2011. With radiation from the Fukushima incident later preventing the family from returning to the province, they fled Japan in search of a new beginning.
With few countries welcoming the Japanese family of five (parents Yoshiaki and Yuko, with children: Kyoko, Eriko, Taka) and their two friends, they arrived in the New Zealand capital Wellington with nothing but a suitcase.
After two years of working in sushi restaurants and training in the culinary arts, the Shirai family moved to Raglan in 2013. Being lifelong surfers, Yoshi and his son Taka were lured by the town’s world-renowned swells and relaxed lifestyle.
Raglan is a small coastal town on the west coast of New Zealand. Not only is it ranked by Lonely Planet as New Zealand’s “best-looking town”, but the strong community focus also allows for a great deal of environmental and sustainability-focused advocacy. Initiatives include a wastewater education campaign, Plastic Bag-Free Whaingaroa, beach clean-up days and a kerbside food waste collection that diverts 178,833 kg of food waste from landfill every month.
Within a small period of time, the family quickly made themselves appreciated in town. Yoshi brought his fine motor skills to the local sushi shop. Meanwhile, Kyoko began lending her artistic capabilities to advertise Raglan’s bustling music scene.
Gifted by her father’s dexterity, it wasn’t long until Kyoko and her partner (British Cian O’Donnell, an international DJ and producer of Earshot’ radio) opened their own vintage shop next door — selling clothing, vinyl records and Kyoko’s own artwork. Combining Kiwi’s respect for nature and indigenous cultures with the beauty and delicacy of oriental flora, her Japanese styled trace features Hokusai-inspired waves, cartoon-like sunshine and many chrysanthemum flowers. All of which have become a quintessential part of the Raglan memorabilia.
Within a couple of years, news emerged of the Shirai’s Oishii-evoking abilities, encouraging the family to use the commercial kitchen at the Old School Arts Centre as an incubator for their own catering and restaurant service. With a combination of Japanese and Korean cuisine, locals soon became enticed by flavoursome layers of pickled and fresh veggies, silky satay sauces and aesthetic spring rolls pressed with tendrils of pea shoots and pansies.
Meanwhile, after Yoshi and Yuko were declined residency twice and, at age 55, were too old to re-apply, the Raglan community came together with a petition for a special exemption to be granted for the couple.
Five years later (last December) saw the family finally launch culinary business Ulo’s Kitchen together at 6 Wallis St (Raglan, NZ).
The Innovation: ULO’s Kitchen
Placed on a quirky, opp-shopped ceramic plate, tangy and slightly spicy golden “Mayoracha” sauce drips over mochi-soft tofu to be savoured alongside a rainbow of snappy micro sprouts and dainty wildflowers.
Antique oddities and a few hand-painted surf fins are arranged sparsely, but artfully, in glass display frames. A little library holds nuggets of indigenous wisdom and Japanese poetry. It could be the sitting room of an eccentric great-aunt. It could be the lounge of a cosy Japanese bed and breakfast — except for one tell-tale restaurant sign — the many colourful stools propped along the sake bar.
Behind the counter, carrot peels are sliced into hair-thin ribbons and plates of dazzling sushi are carefully arranged with chopsticks. These tastebud teasers are being conjured by Eriko, the family’s second daughter – a fully autodidactic chef with an intuitive sense for all things flavour.
Taka, the family’s son, also an autodidact, has proven a competent carpenter; making upcycled stools from halved skate-boards.
Kyoko’s creative flair is also evident in the restaurant. All the wooden tables, none of which have witnessed the cut of a tree for a few decades, provide the canvas for spiralling chrysanthemums. Conch shells have been attached to carved twigs to make spooning ULO’s signature shellfish soup a unique, and rather humorous, experience. And a wall of odd, but coherent, hand-painted tiles lay amongst a few spare skateboard wheels serving as coat hangers.
The final cherry of ULO’s sensory utopia is provided on a weekend night by Cian, who sits comfortably on a sunken armchair DJing an eclectic mix of music past and present.
Written By: Katrina Lane
25th September 2020