Getting to Know…Meat & Seafood’s LenKu Nauta

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LenKu's Halloween Costume - "Chicken Cordon Bleu". Photo by Stephanie Conde.

If you’ve shopped the Honest Weight Food Co-op’s (HWFC’s) Meat and Seafood counter, you’ve probably met the effervescent, personable and uniquely memorable LenKu Nauta, who has worked as a full-time Meat and Seafood Associate since the new store opened in 2013. Our lengthy conversation in preparation for this article revealed LenKu’s well-grounded and generous spirit and his thoughtful commitment to cooperative ideals.

LenKu’s Formative Years

A native of nearby Kingston, LenKu’s fascination with Japanese culture as a child and adolescent (discovered in comic books and samurai dramas) led him to practice Kendo (Japanese sword fighting, meaning “the way of the sword”) and, in high school, to employ self-teaching books in an effort to speak Japanese.

LenKu majored in Japanese Interdisciplinary Studies and English at SUNY Albany, including a year-long study abroad program at Tokyo University (Japan). After graduation, he returned to Tokyo for several years, teaching and tutoring English to native Japanese speakers and bartending part-time. While LenKu does not regard himself as fluent as a native speaker, he relishes any opportunity to speak Japanese. If you’re up on your Japanese, stop by the meat counter, and hit him up with a “kon’nichiwa.”

After a few years stateside in Maryland (where he discovered a love of crab cakes), LenKu returned to Albany, attracted by remaining college friends, close proximity to family in Kingston, and the promising job market.

LenKu’s Early Days with HWFC

While in college, LenKu was introduced to HWFC by a roommate. He was relieved to find the Co-op’s laundry detergents and shampoos relieved his “really bad, weird [skin] allergies;” and, although interested in membership, couldn’t then afford the share cost or member time requirements.

After stints in Japan and Maryland, LenKu’s 2012 return to Albany landed him within a mile of the Co-op’s Central Avenue store. He quickly became a Member-Owner in Produce and, shortly thereafter, a Staff “sub” in both Produce (washing 40-60 heads of lettuce at a pop) and the Front End (as a cashier). LenKu jumped at the chance to work full-time when the new store opened in 2013.

He spent his early days in Meats learning the ropes with fellow newbie Moses (“Mo”), his “brother in arms [and] a really good guy.” LenKu greatly admires Mo’s work ethic—“he’s the hardest working person in the department…I’ve asked [others in Meats] and they can’t disagree.” Kudos to you, Mo!

A Philosophy Grounded in Positivity and Optimism

LenKu meditates daily and strives to embody positivity. He believes “pushing good energy eventually brings good energy back” but concedes, “it’s not always easy because…often things don’t go the way you want them to. [Often] the best you can [do is to seek a kind of] enlightenment…accepting the universe…and doing the best you can. If you continue to do good things, eventually you’ll be rewarded.” LenKu’s most cherished possession is the Mjolnir necklace (Thor’s hammer) he wears daily. He regards it as a symbol of strength, perseverance and tenaciousness.

LenKu spontaneously employs his optimistic philosophy when asked who should be rewarded at the Co-op. “I would love to see the community rewarded.” He likes the Co-op’s new purple-tagged Basics Line and some of the “really solid outreach” done over the last year (neighborhood clean-up day, neighborhood trash pickup, the winter clothing drive). He’d love to see the Co-op continue to do ‘feel-good’ things for the community, including greater accessibility/discounts for those in lower income brackets.

LenKu and other fun-loving members of the Meat and Seafood Department enjoy fostering positive vibes at work. Consider LenKu’s department-specific chicken cordon bleu Halloween costume (his effort “to embody a pun—the highest form of comedy”) and the custom bingo games the department began making in 2014 to maintain good energy and bolster camaraderie. (Bingo squares included “David Aube paged three times in ten minutes” or hearing “At the old store…”) The Department enjoys spreading the love, once providing a customized a bingo card to Produce staff; currently, they’re in talks with Housekeeping to develop a store-wide bingo card.

LenKu’s Work in the Meat and Seafood Department

Most of LenKu’s work at HWFC involves helping customers; cleaning, skinning and portioning fish; and making the crab cakes he learned to love while living in Maryland, and making other “great” Department recipes.

LenKu didn’t expect meat to be as popular with customers as it has been. He explained, “A lot of people get exposed at a formative age to the horrors of commercial meat and [decide], ‘that’s it, I’m done.’…Sometime later, [at varying ages, they] learn about more humane and sustainable options that fit into their personal ethics [and] make them ready to try meat again, but without the knowledge of what [kind] to buy [or how best to prepare it].”
LenKu relishes the opportunity to help others learn about the Co-op’s “exciting foodie options [and] select from [the Co-op’s] high-quality products, the perfect piece of fish or roast for their dinner.” Poetically, he adds, “we have some wonderful [food] at the Co-op to really paint some beautiful portraits…if you will.”

LenKu’s Co-op Favorites

Of his department’s offerings, LenKu says, “we have some really high quality seafood; it’s a real privilege to serve [it].” From May to July, the seasonal soft shell crab is his hands-down favorite; but year round LenKu is “constantly making crab cakes”—up to 25 pounds per week. Cheekily, he reveals, “the secret ingredient is crab… [because] a crab cake should be mostly crab and then cake.” LenKu says the Co-op’s crab cakes are very popular and recommends everyone try them. Also among his favorites is the “really nice” skate wings fish; and, although not a personal favorite, he’s proud to say HWFC is the only local source of shad roe.

LenKu calls the Co-op’s local, fresh produce “really great.” He’s particularly fond of the extensive selection of apples (up to 70 varieties!), the ramps in early spring, the fiddleheads in late spring, and the pixy tangerines in late winter. He refers to the Bulk Department’s dried fruits as “hidden gems,” and is partial to anything patchouli, especially the Co-op’s “really nice patchouli soap and patchouli oil extracts.”

In terms of Co-op classes, LenKu highly recommends the yoga and meditation classes for everyone and is especially fond of Rebecca Maxwell’s tea and gluten-free classes.

LenKu’s Vision for the Co-op

LenKu is excited and optimistic about the future of the Co-op. “We’re doing gangbusters. [The last two quarters], we’re in the black; we’re giving the staff a performance bonus; and the Meat Department [just had] a lengthy 20 percent off sale on all Freebird and Plainville chicken.” He’s particularly enthusiastic about the renewed focus on the Co-op’s “triple bottom line” (which LenKu describes as people first, then planet, then profits) and the opportunity the Co-op’s improving fiscal state provides in terms of furthering the Co-op’s triple bottom line mission.

LenKu longs for the return of the Meat Department’s smoker, which has been inactive since late 2014 when the Co-op learned it had inadvertently applied for and received the wrong kind of permit. “[I’d like to] snap my fingers and get our smoker license squared away…but it’s a whole bunch of paperwork” and time that Meat Department staff just doesn’t have right now. Hopefully this article might generate some help with that.

Another change LenKu favors is an update to New York State’s liquor license laws to enable the Co-op to sell local wines. Alternatively, he envisions the Co-op buying a nearby building and opening “a little bakery and outdoor wine garden.” Sorry we couldn’t fit them all in here, but trust me—this guy is full of good ideas!

LenKu, Personal Chef for Hire

In March 2015, LenKu’s love for food and cooking led him to offer his services as a personal chef. Currently, he’s working to build a customer base for his word-of-mouth business. Anyone interested can reach him at LNauta389@gmail.com or 845-706-1739. His business card can be found on the Co-op’s bulletin board.

Hobbies and Interests

In his off hours, LenKu enjoys hosting small weekly Dungeons and Dragons video game gatherings. He also enjoys the company of his cat, Jasper Ulysses Buttersworth, a half-Mainecoon, former barn cat from Maine prominently featured on his Facebook page. In terms of listening, he favors classical music and Led Zeppelin.

LenKu traveled extensively in Southeast Asia (Palau, Singapore, Saipan, Guam, Korea, Hong Kong, mainland China, and Thailand) while living in Japan. Today, he says, “I think I’m done doing any dream traveling” and prefers hiking his native Catskills and surrounding mountains.

LenKu still longs to fulfill his childhood career ambitions—high speed internet, fireworks, and piles of money. But after getting to know LenKu better here, perhaps you’ll agree with me—I’m really glad he’s here with us at HWFC.

We could fill a book describing the many ways in which LenKu is involved here at HWFC—facilitating the “All Staff” meeting and sharing a wide variety of solid improvement ideas—but space doesn’t allow. The Co-op Voice is hopeful that LenKu may want to pen a Part 2 to this article in his own voice, detailing more of his vision and ideas for HWFC’s future. Stay tuned…

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Stephanie Conde has been a Shareholder of the Co-op for about a decade and a Member for about a year. She fulfills her member hours as a cashier on Wednesday mornings and as a staff writer for “The Voice.” Stephanie also works as an independent consultant, providing research, writing and editing services to educational institutions and others.