Michelin three-star chef Masayoshi Takayama – or, simply "Masa” – is a true artist. Like Madonna, Prince, Gaga...he’s such a big deal he doesn’t even need a last name. Check the chef’s jacket. Truth. I had the pleasure of dining at Bar Masa in Vegas awhile back and was wowed by the artistry of the meal. The presentation was beautiful and the dishes were crafted with thoughtfulness, flavors and textures layered upon one another like brushstrokes. I was delighted to sit down with Masa, the chef/artist/poet behind it all. Here’s what he had to say about Shaboo (his latest venture in Las Vegas), his inspirations, fishing trips, a life-changing dish, and love of Oreos + soy milk.
*****For a glimpse at Masa’s creations, check out highlights from my dinner at Bar Masa.
Tell me about Shaboo. It’s a concept that you’ve been working on for some time. Shabu-shabu is actually the real name, which is almost 120 years old. One day in Kyoto, the people, they thin slice the beef, they wash it in hot broth. It sounds like when you wash the clothes. Makes the sound: shabu-shabu. That’s where the name of the dish comes from. I cut it short. Funny sound, shabooo. A little French, a little Japanese. That’s why I make a funny name: Shaboo. The menu at Shaboo is all omakase-style. Can you tell me more about the menu? The first dish we do is three appetizers, then after that the seafood shabu. Sometimes we do thin-sliced abalone, lobster, octopus, sometimes langoustine. Then after that, beef shabu starts. We don’t have the Japanese beef right now because of the ban on it, only Australian beef, domestic beef they call Kobe beef, raised in the Japanese style. They thin slice it. Every day the menu is a little bit different. It changes all the time. We had a wonderful dinner at Bar Masa last night. Is there anything on the menu that is your favorite? They are all my favorite! This time I served kawahagi, thinly sliced, with white truffle julienned. Four years ago I designed that. That was the one that had a little bit of the gold in it and it came in the cold, rectangular clay pot... Yes, yes. I love that you design the serving ware as well. Where does your inspiration come from for all the pieces? I create, I design...I love nature, Earth, simple, dynamic stuff, that’s what I like. Before when I was young, I collect all of the antique stuff, old Japanese antique stuff. After a while I get tired of using that kind of stuff. There’s no wild, natural, more kind of dramatic designs. Nothing. I like to put my menu on what I design. Every season I change my own design. All the clay dish, clay bowl, clay plate, every season, different dishes. When you were growing up, your parents owned a fish market. Did you always know that food would be your life? No, never. I never think about that. Never think about this kind of business I’m going into. After I graduated high school, my brother was already working as a chef. He ran a very old famous restaurant in Tokyo, Ginza, which is a sushi restaurant. After I graduated high school, then I started working here, two years, three years – I’m still not very sure. After that after three years, the old man, Mister Sugiyama, he taught me all the different things. That time, the place is very old fashioned way to teach the people. Very hard. Not graduate the culinary school, no no. Very hard apprenticeship. One day he made me one very special dish. It was so beautiful, so great, it taste so great. Then after that I want to make that kind of dish too. I learned more and more and more. He explained me a lot. What was that life-changing dish? That was a very simple dish. It was kohada (shad). Baby shad, very small, that he made in a simple dish with vegetable. It was sushi. It was so beautiful, tasty, I had never had before that kind of flavor, taste, texture. Then I started learning more and more and more. That was maybe one of the biggest impact and my inspiration. I was reading that when you first opened Ginza Sushi-ko in L.A., you used to fly to Tokyo to the fish market every Saturday. That’s dedication! Yeah, every Saturday I left L.A. airport. I get there Sunday evening, Monday morning I go to the fish market, buy it, bring it back to L.A. All winter time, three months. Did you do it strictly because that was the best quality you could find? Exactly, yes. That’s what I did. Crazy, huh? What was the last great meal that you had? Every year, one month, I take off vacation. Entire August. I go Japan, fishing. I go all over Japan...Hokkaido island, Kusu...because I love fishing. Each time, I learn, I see something different. That’s why I need one month whole vacation. I can refresh. I can change all the time. That’s fun to me. I don’t need any ingredients, nothing. I just go there, catch the fish. Then, just grill it. Simply grill it, but no herb, no sauce. Just grab some vegetable, pound it. Add a little salt. Then put on top, and then grill it. That makes it so good. Simple, but so good. Last year, I caught 26 ayu fish in one day! Only summer time you’re able to catch them. Usually at most, 10-12. Last year, so big...so lucky, I had a great time last year. All my friends, five, six guys. Smoking cigars, relaxing. We make sashimi, sushi, grill...so much fun. How often are you in Vegas? Every month I come two days here to Vegas. It’s good for me to enjoy working in the kitchen, create different things. A lot of time in New York, so busy, I don’t have time to think about things. That’s why it’s good to come here two days relax. The kitchen is my perfect relaxing place...or fishing. Do you have children? Three kids. They’re all in L.A. But the last one, she’s in the French Culinary Institute in New York, so she lives with me. She loves Italian food. She’s learning right now the pastry stuff but she cooks a lot of Italian food. She bakes a lot of different bread. She’s amazing. That’s great! I bet she keeps you well fed. In my home there’s a lot of bread. That’s why I have to run every morning. I lost 30 pounds in the past five years. What’s your guilty pleasure? I love chocolate. I like Oreo cookies. I can’t drink regular milk, but soy milk, I love soy milk. Dip it, which I love. I love chocolate, all the time I eat chocolate.