Glory grasped in the big city of New York
Then, in 2004, you finally moved to New York. What was the reason?
The Beverly Hills restaurant was thriving, so there was no reason to leave. The biggest reason was that I got divorced.
Right at that time, I got a phone call from Thomas Keller (owner-chef of “The French Laundry”), because he had heard that the Time Warner Center in New York was looking for a tenant. I left my Beverly Hills restaurant with one of my apprentices and headed to New York to turn over a new leaf.
You are good at making quick decisions! In New York, did the clientele become different again?
Yes, compared to Beverly Hills, the amount of people who were vegetarians or who had dietary restrictions was relatively lower, so the job became easier.
How did you purchase fish from Japan when you moved to New York?
There are no direct flights from Osaka, so I made a company in Tsukiji, Tokyo, and stationed staff there who were experts in purchasing. I have them do everything up to sending the fish from Tokyo. As for the reception on the New York side, even now I go to the airport myself to receive the fish.
But it’s not as though you’re just sticking to ingredients from Japan, right?
That’s right. I actively use ingredients from places other than Japan if I think that they are delicious.
For example, with regard to langoustines (*a kind of freshwater prawn or shrimp from the genus Macrobrachium), we can get good ones from Europe, and the red king crabs from Norway are delicious. The sweet taste is very strong, so I even use these in the restaurant.
Also, there are delicious truffles produced in Europe and America, and I thought that these might taste good as sushi, so I tried making some.
I had a hard time balancing the truffle itself with the sushi rice. At that point, I made a sauce by putting vinegar and oil in with chopped up truffle, so I made something with a “connection” to the truffle itself. Then I spread this onto sushi rice that had been shaped into little balls, and dusted it with sliced truffles. That’s how it got the shape it has now.
At the root of this kind of free way of thinking and conceiving of ingredients, there is the shiitake sushi which was a specialty of “Sushi-ko.” This was developed by the great second generation master during the war, on the thought that “we’ll need to be able to make sushi even in the mountains.”
Of course at that time, there was criticism: “what has this historical sushi restaurant started!” But tradition is not something to protect. It is rather something that always moves, always changes.
Also, you’ve been radiant as a Michelin three star restaurant for many years.
The Michelin Guidebook (2006 edition) landed in New York in the autumn of 2005, the year after we opened. In the first year we got two stars, and from the 2009 edition we’ve always received three stars.
I do my best not to pay attention to this, but, after all, it has an influence on the number of customers.
In fact, there is an inside story here.
Before the Guidebook landed, the owner of Michelin Tires—his name is also Michelin—came for a meal.
He sat at the counter and asked “Do you know who I am?” The restaurant has information on the guests beforehand, so of course I knew that he was the owner of Michelin.
But I just didn’t like his way of asking. Human relationships aren’t like that, are they? So I said “I’ve heard that your company makes tires, but in Japan there is an even bigger company called Bridgestone.” When I said that he got angry and turned all red… But he still only left after eating all the sushi! (Laughs)
Mr. Michelin thought the sushi was delicious even though he got angry, so he could not leave his seat in the middle of the meal! Even so, being chosen for two stars, three stars even after something like that, it’s an episode that really lets us appreciate afresh the neutrality and rigor of the Michelin guide… But anyway, you now have a number of affiliated restaurants, Kappo(Kappo Masa), Tetsu(Teppanyaki), a Masa’s Raw Bar. I think it must be a big team, so how to you go about choosing your staff?
I have a person in charge of hiring, but the thing I’m always telling this person is that the first thing is a person’s humanity. That’s because, if you don’t have honesty and sincerity, I cannot work with you.
The troubling thing is when a person’s humanity is good but they are a clumsy person. No matter how much you teach, it’s a matter of feeling, so there is a part that you cannot teach even if you try. This is the part where I feel the difficulty in hiring.
The price, not including things like drinks and taxes, is 595 dollars per person. It’s said that this is the most expensive sushi restaurant in America. What do you think about this?
I don’t think anything about it. New York is also the city with the highest rent and personnel expenses. Just our rent alone is several hundred thousand dollars per month. In addition, if you can leave an impression on your customers in proportion to the amount of money, or even more, I don’t think it’s expensive at all. That’s the feeling I have when I face my work day by day.
Please teach the secret of success to young chefs.
Instead of trying to succeed, it’s more important to “know yourself.” It’s not about killing yourself to please your customers. It’s important to do the job you want to do while putting yourself to good use.
(Interview, article, and photographs by: Kyoko Nakayama)