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The
House
of
Soba

 

Jacques Petit

Jacques Petit's long strange trip to noodle manufacturer . By Dan Seamens

It was a fine summer afternoon in 1985, and Jacques Petit was getting the usual stares. As a six-foot tall French Canadian, he was an unusual sight behind the noodle counter in the Tokyo sobaya (soba shop). Indeed, during the past three months he had become the talk of the neighborhood. " People would come in and look at me with wide eyes and mutter, 'What's this guy doing here?' " Petit says.

What he was doing was learning to make soba, the traditional Japanese buckwheat noodles prized for their hearty flavor and strength-giving properties. Apprenticed to Kenichi Matsuura, one of Japan's few remaining soba masters who make the noodles by hand, Petit had a dream of opening the first sobaya in North America. This dream was partially realized later that year when he founded La Maison de Soba, a noodle company in Montreal. "The House of Soba" began producing his Sobaya brand of Japanese noodle the first Japanese pasta made in North America. Today Sobaya distributes its organic soba, udon, somen and genmai noodles across the U.S. and Canada.

Just how Petit came to create a premier line of organic pasta is an almost twenty-years saga that is spiced with more ingredients than just whole wheat, buckwheat, and sea salt. It also contains a healthy dash of karate, bartending, and soldiering, with a stint in the U.S. Army.
Petit's story begins in 1967, a time when many Americans where escaping to Canada to avoid the draft. Petit, however, took the opposite approach; he came to the U.S. to enlist. "You have to realize that I was young and crazy, and when I saw those advertisements that said 'Travel...Adventure...Join the Army', I did. " The adventure he got was a tour of Vietnam. But while on R and R in Japan he met a friend from Canada who was studying karate and working in the Quebec pavillion at the World's Fair in Osaka. The friend invited Petit to assist in a karate demonstration. " Of course I had already had an introduction to karate in the army, " Petit says, "but when I sat in at that class I was really impressed and got hooked."

When he got out of the army in 1970 Petit was eager to indulge his new-found passion and joined a karate group in Montreal. For several years he studied karate during the day and worked as a bartender at night. But the rigors of practicing in the day and maintaining an active night life eventually began to take a toll. " It was hard for me to keep up physically, and ethically it began to be quite a conflict, " he says." I wanted to concentrate on the healthy and spiritual aspect of karate, so I quit bartending and began studying Zen meditation. After several more years I felt the need to deepen my understanding and began planning a trip to Japan."

In 1983, Petit made arrangements to train intensively for three months at the Hoitsugan dojo of sensei Masatoshi Nakayama, a renowned karate master. At the dojo he was practicing twice a day and working up quite an appetite. It wasn't long before he discovered the benefit of soba. " I stayed at the dojo to practice karate and Zen meditation, but otherwise I was pretty much on my own. I had little money, so I started going to the local sobaya and eating the buckwheat noodles. I found them very nourishing, good enough to hold me through two trainings a day."

A sobaya is a small, no-frills, restaurant that serves inexpensive soba and udon noodle dishes. There are more than forty thousand of these tiny shops scattered throughout the neighborhoods of Japan. At lunchtime they are filled with a highly animated crush of laborers, students, and business people. Some shops are even too small to allow seating, and patrons have to rush in and out slurping their noodles while standing. Petit found the sobaya a good place literally to rub elbows and absorb the local culture. His taste for soba quickly grew, and soon it began to match his dedication to karate. Petit lived on soba for almost three months, and although he didn't realize it at the time, soba was to become the second great passion of his life.

Petit returned to Canada and, with the approval of Nakayama, founded the Quebec Hoitsugan dojo and began to teach. Although his karate practice flourished, he could not find decent soba. " There were some imported brands available in a few shops, " he says. "But they were expensive, and these dried noodles couldn't match the quality of the fresh-made ones that I had had in Japan. As far as I could tell, there wasn't a soba shop in all of North America. " Frustrated, and in the midst of "soba withdrawal, " Petit began fantasizing about opening his own sobaya. He shared his dream with Keibo Oiwa, a professor of anthropology who was working out at his dojo. They decided that if Petit's dream was to become a reality, it would be best for him to go back to the source and learn from a master.

With Oiwa's help, connections were made and introductions arranged, and in 1985 Petit found himself back in Tokyo. Within a week he was working in a small soba shop learning to make handmade soba. " My situation was unique, and I was very fortunate , " Petit recalls. "I could only stay for three months, which was much too short for a typical apprenticeship, but Mr. Matsuura graciously agreed to teach me. Matsuura welcomed Petit into his family, and for the next three months they lived, ate, and worked side by side.

At first some of the customers resented Petit's presence and were openly contemptuous of this ninety-day wonder. "They told me that an apprentice was supposed to stay for ten years, and that before I could even touch a noodle I had to spend years cleaning the kitchen and scrubbing the street in front of the shop, " Petit remembers." I did plenty of that, but I also learned how to make noodles." Petit found his bartending experience a useful asset. " I already knew how to work a counter and handle a crowd , " he says. " It wasn't long before I could keep up and even increase the number of people the shop could serve each day. " He was quickly accepted and soon became the pride of the neighborhood.

Petit worked from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M., six days a week, studying all aspects of noodle making from selecting the grain and grinding the flour to creating recipes and setting prices. " We would make the dough in the evening and let it sit overnight. The next morning we'd roll it out and cut the noodles," Petit says." Those fresh noodles are alive. I could just feel the energy in them. When you cut them you can see them move and spring back. It's as if they are talking to you. That's when I fell in love with them."

At the end of his long day of cooking, cleaning and waiting on customers Petit would write in a journal, recording Matsuura's instructions and making notes about everything that might help him make noodles back home. Eager to learn everything he could about producing noodles, he even spent several weekends studying how to make soba by machine at a commercial plant. Finally, loaded down with a ream of notes and instilled with the spirit of the master, he made his heartfelt farewells.

When he returned to Montreal, he and Oiwa set their plans in motion. First they got together a group of investors and formed La Maison de Soba. They got as far as commissioning a design for the actual floor plan of their restaurant when they realized they had to change their approach. Petit and his partners decided because almost no one in Quebec knew what soba was, their initial customer base was going to be far too limited to support their sobaya. They decided it would be best to manufacture and distribute the noodles and work to build a broader awareness of soba, then start the restaurant.

As Petit began to search for equipment and manufacturing resources, he was surprised to find in Montreal a Chinese noodle company that was using the same machines that he had used in Japan. He met with the owner, Gilbert Lee, and asked if he would be interested in making soba. "Lee told me that he didn't know how to make soba, but said that if I was willing to show him, we could work together...and that's how we got started, without any formal agreement."

Now that Petit had the knowledge, the investors, and the factory, all he needed was to find sources for the ingredients. "Many people were making stone-ground flours, but they were making it for bread, pancake mixes, and such things, " Petit says. "No one in Canada was making it for noodles and certainly not for a sophisticated noodle like soba. Soba is probably the hardest noodle to make because buckwheat has no gluten to hold it together. That's why nobody in North America was making soba; it was just to much bother. I had to work with the mills to select the right grains and get them ground properly for soba making."

Lee and Petit experimented with a variety of flours and formulas, and by the end of 1985 La Maison de Soba put out its first noodles and started selling them under the Sobaya label in natural food stores in Quebec. In the begining the noodles were not made with organic ingredients, but after a trip to the U.S. Petit decided to make the change. "I attended a natural foods trade show, and I could see that the trend was toward organic ingredients. I realized that we had to consider the health of the earth too."

Today Sobaya markets four types of organic Japanese pastas: soba, made from buckwheat and sifted whole wheat flours; udon, a combination of whole wheat and sifted whole wheat flours; somen, a thin whole wheat noodle; and genmai udon, made with a blend of brown rice and whole wheat flours. All the grains are certified organic and are stone-ground at low temperatures. The noodles are made by the same roll-and-cut process as Mr. Matsuura's handmade noodles. Petit says that although no dried noodles can truly match the taste of fresh, Sobaya noodles come close. "We call our process 'fresh dried'." he says." That means we don't make them until we get an order from a distributor. Then we grind the flour, produce the noodles to order, and ship them as soon as they are dried."

"The next step for La Maison de Soba is to start its chain of soba shops." Petit says. "We are still trying to increase people's awareness of the Sobaya products, but we hope that at last we will soon see our first restaurant." When that happens, Petit's dream of reuniting his two passion, karate and soba, will come full circle.

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