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After 10 Years of Masa, a Sushi Legend Surveys His Kingdom

The story of one chef's rise to titan status

Masa

I’m not a snob,” says renowned Japanese chef Masayoshi Takayama of his decision to never eat sushi in New York City, unless it comes from his own kitchens. “The thing is my ingredients. I don’t think they have equals.”

Over an impressive three decades (technically 34 years) of cooking in America, Masa has redefined what sushi and Japanese cuisine mean in his adopted country. Ten years after opening his eponymous New York City flagship Masa — and just weeks after opening the slightly more casual, slightly more affordable Kappo Masa, also in New York City — the chef reflects on today's sushi culture in America. It is a culture he in large part created, having carved a space in American dining for the high-end sushi counter experience and encouraging American diners to demand higher quality from their fish.

His steadfast commitment to spreading the sushi gospel has paid off. "These young kids eat sushi, generations are changing," he observes. "That's a great thing for the future, sushi grows more and more." While there's still a lot of room for improvement in quality, he says, Masa seems unequivocally positive about what the future holds.

While often media attention focuses on the high price tag of Masa's menus, there's a bigger story of how Masa came to serve some of the country's most expensive meals. In his journey from an apprentice chef in Japan to a headline-grabbing phenom in Los Angeles to a record-making legend in New York City, Masa continues to push the boundaries of how sushi is eaten and thought about in America. Here's how he does it.

Photo: Hillary Dixler

Discovering a sensibility

While his name, to many people, is now synonymous with high-end sushi, Masa didn't grow up with a desire to be a chef. Born in Japan in the 1950s, he did spend time working at his family's fish company. After high school and brief stint in college, he followed his brother's path as an apprentice chef in Tokyo. Masa apprenticed at Tokyo's renowned Ginza Sushi-Ko where he trained for eight years before calling himself a sushi chef.

He says he never spotted a real talent in himself, exactly. Rather, he noticed that he would get "a feeling." "I noticed in myself, that I received a feeling from the ingredients: vegetables, fish, whatever. I bring a feeling ... I noticed that." He also had a lot of ideas about how sushi should be served: with emotion; with much less soy sauce; with fanciful touches like shaved turnip "snow"; with sauces made from ingredients like konbu water, dried anchovy, dried mushroom, and seasonal citrus. "Those kinds of ideas, no one teaches. Mostly, I get it from my sensibility."

Transforming the American sushi experience

Legend has it that Masa decided to move to Los Angeles because he liked the scenery and the golfing. That is all true. A client from Tokyo invited him to stay for two weeks in Los Angeles and Masa enjoyed it. But there was also opportunity in LA in the late '70s when he first visited and moved there.

"Sushi at that time, it was not much, not like today. It was limited, only California roll, no spicy rolls, salmon. It was cheap, and there were not very many Japanese restaurants at the time." Masa opened Saba-ya in 1980, and says the process of opening a sushi restaurant in LA versus Tokyo was "very different." "'Saba' means ordinary fish. The reason was, [I wanted] casual dining, not expensive." His plan was to start with a casual restaurant and earn some money before opening a high-end sushi restaurant. "After four years, across the street a new shopping mall was being built. I was the first to sign onto this shopping mall at a dead end, with no sign, nothing."

In 1987, this unassuming venue became Ginza Sushi-ko, named for the restaurant where Masa trained and made a name for himself in Tokyo. At first, Masa says,
"80-90% were Japanese clients." Masa thinks that Japan's booming economy at that time contributed to it, but so did the fact that the Japanese customers were familiar with the expensive sushi counter experience. Things started to change after Ruth Reichl wrote up the restaurant, saying the high price tag was well worth it. By the '90s, Masa was charging $250 per person and, with Ruth Reichl's endorsement, Los Angeles diners were happy to pay for it. "At that time I didn't care. I made what I want to make, people followed."

He moved the restaurant to a new location in 1994, and took the move as an opportunity to hone in on his vision for Japanese cuisine. "At that time, more of my sensibility goes into the menu. I create the toro caviar dish. I create the foie gras shabu-shabu (at that time no one used foie gras for shabu-shabu)." He explains it: "I don't want to break my career, I don't want to do French-style Japanese, Italian-style Japanese. Still Japanese cuisine, but a little bit different. Non-Japanese ingredients. My idea was any kind [of ingredient], I could bring to Japanese cuisine and Japanese style. That's what I did there."

Masa was a trailblazer in Los Angeles; Ginza Sushi-ko helped ignite the city's sushi boom. "I'm very proud of that," Masa says. "Somebody has to do that." Ginza Sushi-ko's legacy lives on in the hands of Masa's former sous-chef Hiroyuki Urasawa. When Masa made the decision to move to New York City, he sold the restaurant to Urasawa who has been running it under his own name to much acclaim ever since.

Looking back at 10 Years of Masa

Masa's move to New York City was in many ways the product of excellent timing. He had entertained the idea of a New York City restaurant because many of his Beverly Hills customers were from New York. As Masa's 10 year lease in Beverly Hills was coming to an end, chef Thomas Keller personally reached out to convince him to sign on for a restaurant in a new, high-end Manhattan shopping mall, the Time Warner Center. The rents were high ("I didn't know New York," says Masa), but he says he wasn't nervous about the move. He had divorced, he had been at Ginza Sushi-ko for well over twenty years. He was ready for change.

He says he wasn't sure what New Yorkers were looking for, but he boldly started selling his menu at $300 when he opened Masa in 2004. At that price point, he could cover his rent, his extremely high food costs (he was importing fish from Japan), and deliver food and service at the level he wanted. The people, he says, were "totally different" from his LA client base. More finance, less film; and much faster and more to the point. "For me, it is very comfortable to work with. So if it's not good, it's not good, good is good. They tell you. I noticed it right away." It took Masa about four years to feel at home in New York City and in the Time Warner Center. Experiencing New York's seasons, which mirror Japan's, helped.

In the 2009 Michelin Guide to New York, Masa earned three stars, becoming the first Japanese restaurant in the country to do so. Not that the chef was overly preoccupied with that. "I didn't pay attention in the beginning. I didn't care," Masa says. "But now I care." The stars, he says, gave him a new responsibility. "Before, whatever I wanted to serve the customers is what I think about it. After the stars, people are coming, expecting. Their expectations, I have to satisfy every night. I have to hit a home run every night."

Photos: Official

When $450 means value

Even without the stars, a meal with a $450 price tag also places demands on a chef to provide value. The high price of Masa's fare — whether in Los Angeles or in New York City — has been the subject of much press musing. In 2011, then-critic Sam Sifton opened his three star New York Times review of Masa: "Is it worth it? This is the question that has attended Masa, the stupendously expensive sushi emporium in the Time Warner Center, ever since it opened in 2004." But Masa puts it very simply. "The most expensive part is ingredients. Of course, rent is high. That's all."

But that's not quite all. It's not just that importing fish from Japan like Masa does is expensive. Nobody imports quite like Masa does. The chef actually owns a very small company to assist him in the process. The company was born out of his time in California. "When I was in Los Angeles, I started to import by myself. I used to depend on local fish market people," he explained. "I was looking for more and more high-end fish quality-wise, and I tried to convince local buyers, but they were not [interested]."

He took matters into his own hands. "In the beginning, almost every Saturday I leave to Japan to buy fish, and come back Monday morning. That's what I did." Using those connections, he set up a system where he was getting shipments from Osaka to LA. Things got complicated when he moved to New York, however, because at the time there were no Osaka to New York non-stop flights. To keep his supply coming, he set up a small company right near Tokyo's airport, to ship him purchases from Tokyo's legendary Tsujiki Fish Market. Masa's menu costs reflect the fact that he operates this entire other company.

While high prices are more or less a fait accompli, Masa continues to keep an eye on the amount he charges. During the '09 recession, Masa lowered his menu cost from $450 to $400. Today, he explains that he is choosing not to raise the price. When asked if he was planning an increase, Masa says: "Maybe in the future. The rent is going up, we just finished ten years. I tried to not [raise the prices]. Right now the Japanese yen is weak, which helps me a lot. So if the yen gets strong, I may raise price. But so far, I'm not raising price." And he says that for his customers, they know $450 gets them a valuable experience. "People, when they leave [a meal at Masa], they turn to me and say, 'Thank you very much, Masa.' $450 is value, then."


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Growing an empire

Today, Masa oversees a small empire. His properties include Masa and Bar Masa in New York City plus two venues in Vegas: Bar Masa and Tetsu Masa. The newest addition to his portfolio is Kappo Masa, which opened in New York City in October.

With Kappo Masa, the chef partnered with a friend he made while living in Los Angeles: art dealer extraordinaire Larry Gagosian, who approached Masa with the idea "a couple years ago." Kappo Masa is located below Gagosian's Upper East Side gallery, a subterranean space that Masa says is meant to feel "homey" as well as clean and modern with lots of natural materials like stone and wood. The kitchen is actually in a space that used to house a bank vault. The art on the wall was of course selected by Gagosian.

Initially, Masa's plan was for the Kappo Masa menu to closely resemble that of Bar Masa. He quickly adapted, however, when he realized that Upper Eastsiders were looking for "healthier" cuisine: now there's almost nothing fried on the Kappo Masa menu and he can accommodate gluten-free diners. He's also doing a lunch business, catering to diners who are short on time with a luxe take on the bento box. Masa says these first months have been going "really good" — he's launching a winter menu — but that of course "every night there are big surprises."

Just like any chef with an expanding empire, Masa faces challenges in maintaining his level of quality and his vision in kitchens he might not be in on a given night. "We do a leader, which is a captain, at every single venue. In the beginning, I create all the menus." As at Kappo Masa, each venue must continue to grow and evolve to meet the unique needs of their customers.

"I'm not an easy person," says Masa of himself as a boss. "I'm a very strong person. But, the thing is, I give everyone a chance to learn sushi, sashimi, hot grill, whatever. The beginning is just simple vegetables, slicing perfectly. After that, if people have the ability to make sushi, I promote [them to] sushi, sashimi. The whole thing is: be professional. Be professional means, time to time, manage yourself ... Professional is, 'I have work tomorrow, which means tonight I can't be hungover for tomorrow's work.'" He expects a lot from each of his cooks. "Your schedule is this time to this time. You've got to be prepared in your private life to show up in this kitchen, work perfect, exactly what I want. Quality of the people makes quality, good food. Not only ingredients." Like many other chefs, Masa says he sometimes has trouble finding and keeping talent in his kitchen.

Continuing a quest for the new

Masa has several goals for the future. Generally, he wants to make sure his restaurants maintain a high level of service and hospitality. He has a lot of ambition when it comes to cuisine still. "I like to create different stuff. My hated stuff is all the time same things over and over." He emphasizes that while quality and taste are important, this quest for new things really drives him. "New, something with a new style, which is new fashion for the food. That's what I'm looking for." He acknowledges that in relation to the importance of tradition in Japanese cuisine, his desire to always be innovating is complicated.

Practically speaking, Masa has several irons in the fire. In New York City, his long-awaited Tetsu project in TriBeCa is still in the works for next year, and is aiming to open for a May or June opening. He also has a few European projects which could open within the next two to three years. He mentions Germany, Paris, and London as possible locations, but is shy about confirming. "It could be Kappo-style, could be Tetsu-style, could be Bar Masa-style." (A rep for his restaurant group says " the number of projects and which cities are not confirmed" and won't confirm a date for Tetsu either.)

Masa also seems very open to the idea of coming full circle and returning to Los Angeles. He says that one of his longtime customers from LA visits New York often, and told him that he wants to create a group of investors from Masa's old customers to back a small, "Bar Masa-type restaurant." But would he ever say yes to something like that? "My old country, old town," he laughs. "Yes, why not?"

Kappo Masa

976 Madison avenue, New York, NY 10075
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