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Masa Takayama: Sushi Confidential

Masayoshi Takayama, also known as Chef Masa, runs several restaurants across New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, among which his restaurant “Masa” is considered by international food critics to be one of the best Japanese restaurants in the world outside Japan. What’s more, in 2009 “Masa” was the first Japanese restaurant in the USA to obtain three Michelin stars. Chef Masa has also received the highest ratings from The New York Times and Forbes Travel Guide.

Nevertheless, this absolute master of his art is about to open his very first restaurant in Dubai this year!

Just like a fish runs through different waters of Japan, making an everlasting circle of life, the same way from his early childhood Chef Masa has had an immense passion for food that has been running through his veins ever since. Delivering fresh sashimi to neighbors on his bicycle and preparing hundreds of fish courses for wedding ceremonies while working at his family’s fish company in a town of Tochigi Prefecture in Japan, not only has it remained an inseparable memory, it has also created an eternal relationship with food and as a result determined Masa’s destiny to this day.

In 1980 Chef Masa’s eagerness to discover the world outside of Japan brought him to Los Angeles, where he opened his first Japanese restaurant called “Ginza Sushi-ko.” After more than 30 years of establishing himself as the most authentic Japanese Chef across California and revealing Japanese dishes never seen before in the country, Chef Masa moved to New York in 2004 and kept on creating.

Once you enter his three Michelin star restaurant “Masa,” located in New York City on the fourth floor of Time Warner Center, don’t expect any glow or glitter. Simplicity, purity, limpidity, clean air, branches of seasonal plants, subtle volcanic rock statues are just some of the décor elements. This same , which in Japanese culture represents a particular aesthetics of an unobtrusive beauty, is also evident in his dishes. With a majestic talent and a supreme passion for food, Masa will leave you thrilled to bits!

The experience Chef Masa offers to his guests every evening assumes a complete trust as the concept doesn’t imply a menu but the decision is left to the Chef. Once guests are seated at the captivating sushi counter for 10 made out of wood, the most prestigious type of wood brought to NYC straight from Japan and proudly inbuilt in Masa’s little temple, or by the tables that can accommodate another 16 people, they are served some of the most delicious bites ever. The approximately two hour dinning experience starts with around eight appetizers, made out of the best ingredients and imbued with some of the world’s finest flavors, but without covering its initial character, yet always built up to a state they become an overall sensory experience. Soon after this very sense-tickling introduction, a real sushi sensation takes place. Chef Masa prepares up to 16 different kinds of sushi in front of guests. The concept is to take each sushi with fingers immediately after it gets plated, and eat in a single bite to capture its essence – the very (in Japanese culture described as the primary flavor of each ingredient without any alterations).

But it is not only the magic Chef Masa imparts in his dishes that makes his culinary art pieces a thrilling yet very intimate gastronomic delight; it is also a great respect he has for food and the very best selection of the freshest ingredients he has on the menu, including the fish that has been regularly shipped over from Japan to the USA and particularly selected by Chef Masa’s order. As a perfect way to round-up , each bite is paired with a different drink, including wine and other spirits, and of course – the infallible . The sweet ending is usually an assortment of fresh fruits, always served and garnished .

On the other hand, Chef Masa also owns other more causal restaurants like those named “Kappo Masa” and “Bar Masa”, designed as , and plans to open “Tetsu”, special for its sizzling iron grill.

As we understood from the early start, there is always something on Masa’s mind. Either in a form of a new dish, a seasonal menu, a new painting or a pottery design (as he does that as well), or to our greatest joy – a new location where he will open another of his signature restaurants. As a matter of fact, one of the upcoming destinations where Chef Masa is about to place his foot, or better said – his plate this year will be nothing less than Dubai!

The latest venture you have been on is the big restaurant opening in Dubai in 2016?

Yes, that’s right. How the big day has been approaching, I more and more reminisce about 2009, when I opened the restaurant in Las Vegas in Aria Hotel. It was a fabulous event, and Dubai will be nothing less magnificent. It is a place that has been identified as the next mecca of food and every time I visit Dubai I get more inspired. Apart from the restaurants, the local ingredients such as lamb, spices, pickled vegetables and rice caught my eye the most during my recent visit.

When it comes to the experience guests may expect in my restaurant, it will be a menu composed of “Masa dishes” and new ones that will utilize local UAE spices. I want to introduce what real Japanese food is, but also I want to try some ingredients from the Middle East, including seafood from Oman. I want to take what is the best from all over the world and bring it to Dubai.

Moving all the way from Japan to Los Angeles then to New York City must not be an easy life decision. How challenging has it been to sustain all those years?

It was not a hard decision to move to the USA because I was looking for something new. The hard decision came when I got my green card and decided to open my own restaurant. In that time it was very difficult to get all ingredients so I started sourcing on my own from Japan. Around that time, there was a big article in Los Angeles Times, questioning how can we charge $250 for sushi, and this was why. In the end it turned out to be a big success, and it even had an impact on other local sushi restaurants to look for better ingredients. That was in the 80’s. I think it made a big change to what have followed after in my career.

When we talk about changes, there seems to be a huge one happening to sushi. Everyone has been making it nowadays. Will this global fashion take the sushi away from its tradition?

Nowadays you can find sushi in every country. People tend to embrace a healthy diet. That is why they like to eat sushi and fresh ingredients. But it doesn’t have to be traditional. On contrary, it has to be innovative. When I started my education in Tokyo there were two generations of masters teaching me. The older master told me, “When you descent the mountain (because I come from a mountain in the middle of nowhere), and when you go back to your hometown and open your restaurant, even if you learn here in Ginza, you have to think about whatever ingredients you have from the mountain to make your sushi.” That taught me – anywhere you go, you can create, you can make sushi, while at the same time I realized – wherever you go, you have to move forward.

Has sushi moved forward?

In the beginning sushi was very different from the sushi we know today. This evolution is a prime example of how tradition has been prospering. In the past, sushi was called funazushi, and it originated from Biwa Lake in Shiga Prefecture. Back then, rice was used only to cause fermentation. The original preparation assumed removing the guts from the fish, stuffing it with rice and curing it with salt for three months in a barrel. It was like making pickles. After three months, they would open the barrels, take the fish and throw out the rice. They would slice the fish and eat it.

That was how sushi was invented. The sushi we know today was originally called hayazushi, meaning “quick sushi.”

Once a Chef has such a strong vision it must not be easy to train other Chefs and infuse them with same passion. How do you do it?

It’s not easy to train people, but as long as people have sensibility – sensibility for ingredients and what those ingredients want to be, then anyone can do it. Our staff is not only Japanese. We have people from China, Latin America, Turkey, Poland, Philippines... We have a lot of people in the kitchen, but every person has that particular sensibility. If not, it is very hard to teach.

You mentor others, but as well learn by observing. Could you explain us how did you come up with gluten-free noodles, which have become one of your trademarks?

One day during the construction of “Kappo Masa” restaurant in NYC, I was standing on Madison Avenue and watching people passing by. Everyone was fashionable and thin, which gave me an idea of their lifestyle. But I thought to myself, they had to eat something, while still keeping slim. The area on the Upper East Side has a lot of Italian restaurants, so people were mostly eating pasta and salad, but pasta has a lot of carbohydrates and doesn’t go well with staying fit. I was assured if I could offer them something similar in taste but much healthier they would love it. Traditional fish noodles from Kyoto came to my mind. Originally, those noodles are made of hamo (pike conger eel) and only served in the summertime. I used this notion as my starting point and eventually created a special kind of pasta using the sea bream. I made the noodle thicker and added a sauce of olive oil, bottarga (cured fish roe), cilantro leaf and some chili. As an alternation I created a sauce made from sea urchin. It has become very popular nowadays.

… You might have all been wondering how does he make it? Just like everything Chef Masa does, the answer to this question lies in simplicity, determination and truthfulness. Following an old Japanese proverb that says every guest is like a God; Chef Masa gives his guests a divine culinary experience and honorable treatment, and no matter what accolade he obtains on the way, this Chef will still be proudly serving his guests and creating an everlasting value for whoever steps into one of his culinary oases.

(photo credit: Blackletter)

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