Nooresha Kably Reminisces On Izumi's Runaway Success

In the food world, we talk all too often about ‘hidden gems’, but there are some places which shine so brightly, that they just can’t be ignored. 

Like so many Bombay locals in 2018, I heard the name Izumi long before ever stepped through its doors. Tales of soul-stirring ramen and sushi so nuanced it inspired odes of devotion were uttered in hushed tones by anyone who had managed to get a seat in its ever-overflowing Bandra cubby. But when I finally did pull up a stool in the warm embrace of this Izakaya-inspired restaurant, each bite revealed that these rumours – unlike most – were true.

Since 2018, Nooresha and Anil Kably along with their partners Neale Murray and Owen Roncon have been running Bandra’s most sought-after sushi and ramen spot. From the very beginning, Nooresha has been a driving force behind this success but she came into the restaurant industry as a complete novice. So we decided to find out why at 45, she decided to do a 180 on her career path, take on intensive training in Japan, wrestle with an octopus and eventually become the mind behind one of India’s most successful Japanese restaurants.

Where did your journey into the food world begin?

My interest has always been in travel and lifestyle space and food just came along with that. I was a merchandiser in the garment sector before this and I enjoyed the attention to detail that is required. I enjoyed the ability to systematically bring a vision to life.

I had no history or experience in the food industry. Anil knew more given his time as co-founder of Zenzi, but when the restaurant closed I was really sad that the staff of nine years had to go. I was determined we needed to do something about it, even though I had no idea what yet. Anil suggested a pop-up where we could bring back the Zenzi Chinese Box (which had been hugely popular) but before that, someone contacted me for another festival saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you do the sushi?’

How did you feel about being in the catering business?

We had no idea what was possible but there was one guy on our team who knew what needed to be done so we jumped in and were overwhelmed by the positive response we got. It gave me the confidence to cater for another event, then another and another.

As we did this more often, people started calling to ask about home delivery orders and before I knew it we were in the proper daily business with Sushi Koi with a presence on Zomato and Swiggy and orders coming in on the regular.

Your course in Japan was intensive for a beginner, why did you decide to go?

When Sushi Koi took off, I felt like the business was getting serious and I needed to know more about the cuisine to grow the business and feel more like a professional. I decided to go and study in Japan so I looked up a place online, applied, had an online interview with the Tokyo Sushi Academy and off I went for a three-month course!

What did your first few weeks in Japan look like?

I was extremely apprehensive about going because I had no idea what to expect. Everyone said language would be a problem and everything. I booked an Airbnb for the first time, in a Tokyo suburb.

In the class itself, there were about 17 of us, all international students, from different age groups and all stages of life. Bloggers, people who were just passionate about food, professional chefs straight out of French Culinary institutes, and even a woman who wanted to learn to make sushi for her husband who loved to throw parties. It was a real mixed bag. 

I made friends with a Swiss blogger and every day she put up a new post about her trip. Through this, I ended up exploring places like Fuji and Kamakura and a lot of places that were outside ‘touristy Japan’.

What was one of the most challenging days for you at the Academy?

We had to make a different sushi every day but when we had to deal with a live was quite something. Most days we cooked individually but the octopus was a sharing class. So I thought to overcome my fear I should go ahead and take charge. So one guy cut it near the head to kill it, but the tentacles kept moving and grabbing hold of me which was really frightening, but I got through it and in the end, I feel like I learned a lot.

What were the biggest takeaways from the trip?

A lot of what I picked up is just about the way they live life. It’s disciplined, it’s taking pride in everything you do no matter how small and doing it all yourself. When I brought back these skills and showed them to my team, automatically their respect for me grew. 

I learned how to do everything correctly. From buying fresh fish from the market, preparing it correctly and also managing the kitchen. I also learned that keeping your station clean and ready from the night before is an absolute must.

For me, this short, detailed and intense course was all I had to become a ‘chef’.

 What were some things that worried you about opening Izumi?

That I had to be face to face with people all day? No, we opened the restaurant with no expectations. But we just knew we had food that I wanted people to try. In my mind, it was about making Japanese food more accessible to people. People always think that Japanese has to mean 5-star or fine dining. It’s always seemed out of the reach of being a common everyday meal, which is just untrue.

We opened in 2018 with almost no PR, and within a week we had queues outside the door, just through word of mouth. Just a year later we were awarded the Times Food & Nightlife Awards and then placed at #3 on Conde Nast’s Top Restaurant Awards. It’s just been wonderful, I felt like I was walking on clouds.

Izumi not only survived, but thrived during the pandemic, how did you manage that?

We never intended for Izumi to be a delivery restaurant. But when the pandemic happened we worked towards some deliveries of ramen across the whole city and it was received really well which gave us the encouragement to open up to more deliveries. We moved the staff into Izumi to keep them safe, cleared up the space and kept them there for 3-4 months. 

We remained open consistently until the second pandemic when we needed to close for maybe 10 days. It reflected how essential good food is to the quality of life, we need food to survive. 

Most importantly it gave us time to put our heads together and work on a plan for Goa, we would never have had time for that otherwise. 

How has Goa and the new outlet been treating you?

It’s worlds apart. Everyone in Goa acts like they’re on holiday, even people who live there. In Bombay, everyone’s rushed. Two sittings plus squeezing people in for quick meals between them. The stress, the pressure, the pace. It’s city dining. Goa is the polar opposite. 

We have a large space where people can come and sit and enjoy the ambience. We have an actual bar in Goa – not like our dispense bar in Bombay – people can come and sit and party at the bar now! The live sushi and yakitori counters from Bombay are replicated at the new location, but aside from that, they couldn’t be more different. 

What should people know about the realities of running an award-winning restaurant?

There is no such thing as time off. For example, I took a few days off to spend with my son before he left for college, but then we came to Goa because I had to visit the restaurant. That’s how my ‘time off’ always looks. And if you want to get into Japanese cuisine it involves a whole other level of challenges in sourcing the correct ingredients so that is something you should be prepared for. 

But it’s very satisfying. Being a chef and being in this industry, you get to see it immediately when a guest’s enjoying their food, it’s a kind of instant gratification which is rare in other industries. You see their expression when they put that spoon in their mouth and you see their expression. Often I just want to stand and observe their reactions, especially when we have a new dish I just want to stand around and watch.

You have to understand your guest and what they come to you for, that’s really the biggest thing. 

Where would you choose for your last meal on earth?

Kobe steak. If it’s Wagyu, even better. It takes me back to one of the final meals I had in Toyko in a tiny basement restaurant in Ginza. I’ve also brought an element to our menu with a minimalistic dish echoing their preparation with salt and wasabi.

Or if I could choose a second, it would be the Hong Kong seafood market where you buy the seafood, go to one of the homes nearby and they cook it for you there. 

What’s next for you and for Izumi?

It’s been a journey. Full of fun, tears, laughter, sacrifices and bonds. I have great like-minded partners in Anil, Owen and Neale and we’re always looking for the next step. Every day something new happens and you never know what’s coming next. Even now we have a new menu in the works.

The learning has been great. I’m hoping to travel again soon. Go to Japan, visit some places I haven’t been and bring back something exciting.