Wonder what it takes to become a professional Chef?

259

Interview with a rising star Christopher Massad

by: ricemonkee

Embed from Getty Images

It’s 27F in Jackson Hole and the forecast calls for a 70% chance of light snowfall. By 10:16am, Teton Village parking lots are already full and the slopes have a decent amount of skiers and snowboarders. COVID-19 protocols are well in place with the restaurant curfew recently being lifted. Being an avid snowboarder for many years, it hits me that everyone will already be covered from head to toe. I thrive in inclement weather like this for whatever reason. It almost seems quieter and your soul is one with nature and the elements.

It is in this small Wyoming town, often ranked top in the nation as a ski resort destination we catch up with Christopher Massad. Chris has quietly spent the last four months settling into his new home and getting a feel for the landscape. He has been busy with a singular purpose. Before the end of 2021, Chris will be at the helm for what he believes will be the premier Japanese restaurant in the region. With him he brings a lifetime of culinary talent from training in Japan and working in Michelin starred establishments to leading some of the top sushi restaurants in San Francisco.

Thank you for joining us Chris. You have accomplished quite a bit in a short time during your career.  What inspired you to become a chef?  For many of us it is a way of life, what drives you?

I spent my formative years living in Tokyo attending middle school and high school.  This probably created the foundation for my love of Japanese food and culture.  Upon returning to the U.S. for university, I knew I wanted to remain connected to Japan in a creative way. Cooking gave me the ability to do that.  Growing up, I was an athlete. The camaraderie of the kitchen environment provided a familiar team atmosphere that I was used to.

In terms of motivation, it seems like the more that I learn about cuisine, the more I realize I have to learn.  originally, I was very focused on sushi. Training in Japan made me realize how much more there was.  As a chef, I am about taking that philosophy and connecting with American diners.  I have also been studying sake and visiting breweries for some years now, which has led to an interest in wine.  Both fields seem unlimited. 

Embed from Getty Images

What do you love most about the restaurant industry?

I love that the majority of the tasks, knowledge and skills to be successful are able to be learned by anyone who puts their mind to it.  We have the ability to create unforgettable experiences and bring joy to our customers and the local community.

You were raised in Japan which is a mecca for food culture and a personal dedication to one’s craft.  What made you want to expand your horizons as a chef in the U.S.?

While growing up in Japan, all that I really knew about Japanese food was that I loved it.  I had my favorite spots, and learned how to make a few dishes in school and at home, but my experience with food was primarily for pleasure and day to day life.  

When I started out cooking in the states, I was in a very simple (but organized) roll-forward sushi restaurant.  The emphasis here was speed in service and prep, learning on the fly, some sushi and sashimi… but ultimately variations of uramaki and california rolls. 

The kaiseki / sushi training programs that I experienced and witnessed in Japan encouraged a thorough understanding of dashi. We had great respect for the ingredients (many of which are coming in whole or alive). We learned attention to detail in plating with a clear hierarchical system, and a full understanding of the restaurant before we worked any station in the kitchen. 

I knew I wanted to remain connected to Japan in a creative way. Cooking gave me the ability to do that. 

This is a question that we often ponder.  There are a number of Japanese restaurants and sushi bars that have achieved Michelin stars in the U.S.  In some cases, you could pay upwards of $800 for a single meal.  Yet, in Japan you can get some of the best sushi in the world in a bento box for say $19.00.  What are your personal thoughts on that?

The Michelin guide for me is a little confusing in regards to Japanese food.  There are so many great places in Japan that have incredible access to ingredients. There are very skilled shokunin (職人) or chef who have trained at the best shops and devote their lives to the craft. But, they are not included in the guide.  The criteria for Michelin here in the states seems to be slightly lower than in Japan.

The kaiseki restaurant I worked at in Kyoto was a pioneer in Kappo Cuisine (customers choice at chefs counter).  They opened in the early 1900’s and have been pushing Kyoto cuisine ever since.  When the Michelin guide came out in Kyoto they were included.  I believe they lost the star last year. The owner is a third generation chef and the entire staff is the same. The recipes, ingredients and purveyors haven’t changed. It seemed to be the epitome of consistency.

In terms of the pricing in Japan, overall, the lunch prices are WAY TOO LOW.  I take advantage of it as much as possible when I am over there.  As a sushi chef at Sushi Tokami in Ginza, Tokyo, we only served the best and most premium pieces whether it was lunch or dinner, but their lunch price was $45 – 130 and the dinner price was $300+. There were no cutting corners in terms of quality and craftsmanship every service.  The only difference may be the lunch service where the fish may have sat overnight.  Which in some cases, (and depending on the person) this may actually be MORE delicious

**Note: Fish like Bluefin Tuna go through an aging process where the proteins break down somewhat similar to a dry aged steak. The result is increased tenderness and a sophisticated flavor that has had time to fully develop.

For a $400+ meal here, it’s typically in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco where rent (and housing) are really expensive.  From my experience in SF, there was barely any affordable housing within biking distance from the area where the nice restaurants were.  In Japan, all of the staff were able to afford a flat either a short train or bike ride away.  Japan also offers universal healthcare for their citizens, whereas here, that cost falls on the restaurant owner who in turn needs to factor it into the price.

In Tokyo, a sushi chef will head to the market each morning to gather fish from the best fish mongers.  After this, they take it to their restaurant to remove the scales and guts.  While the systems are getting better for getting fish from Japan to the US, it is difficult for us to get the most premium ingredients (scarcity and local demand keeps a lot of this in Japan). 

The fish that we can afford, are shipped with the head, scale and guts inside the fish that begin to decay.  Of course, everyone points to aging and how if we got the fish any sooner it would be too rigormortis to serve.  There are truths to aging techniques, but decaying guts, blood and fish slime aren’t enhancing any flavor during the transit time in the shipping process.  An ideal scenario for aging would be to clean the fish as soon as possible after being caught, and then have a cold, clean aging process.  For me, in Jackson, sourcing fish is one of the biggest issues.  

I love that the majority of the tasks, knowledge and skills to be successful are able to be learned by anyone who puts their mind to it.  We have the ability to create unforgettable experiences and bring joy to our customers and the local community.

Tell us about your favorite dish or cuisine and what it means to you personally.

Something I constantly crave is perfectly cooked fluffy shiny white rice, a warm dashi based bowl of soup, and pickles.  This is the standard staple to most meals in Japanese cuisine. 

My favorite cuisine is Japanese, and it is hard to pick a favorite dish.  The progression of a beautiful nigiri sushi omakase would have to be pretty high up there. Preparation alone is incredibly hard. So much detail goes into the sourcing and preparation of each ingredient. 

There is a balance of colors, textures and temperatures, something fatty followed by something vinegar cured, something served slightly warmed to help it melt in your mouth, the varying amount of hidden wasabi tucked underneath, something sweet mixed in to balance the soy.  It is an incredible joy to be able to sit down for a meal. At the sushi counter you are served as many as 14 – 20 unique pieces.

I tend to look at most Japanese food with a similar respect to tradition, technique and quality.  I have a soft spot for tenzarusoba.  Simply prepared freshly cut cold buckwheat noodles, and fried vegetables and shrimp served with a light dashi soy dipping sauce.  Simplicity at its finest.

Embed from Getty Images

Do you have a name for your upcoming restaurant project?  Is there a personal meaning or story behind the name?

The name of the upcoming project is Kampai.  The owner fell in love with this name a long time ago.  Kampai literally means “empty cup/ glass” or simply “cheers.”  We hope this name will continue to encourage the tradition of gatherings to enjoy food and drink.  In a town lacking many Japanese things, it’s easy to say. To this day I have never seen anybody say “Kampai” with a frown. While we take the food, service and drink seriously, we want the atmosphere to be comfortable, fun and engaging.  I’m working on creating a bridge between the Jackson mountain town feel and Japanese omotenashi (お持て成し) or hospitality.

Something we have been focusing on a lot as a team is our company culture, hospitality and overall customer experience.  Along with that, we are trying to define what we bring to the Jackson Hole community and dining scene.  All of the training and practice in all of these areas are stepping stones to my goal of eventually owning and operating my own restaurant. 

Something I constantly crave is perfectly cooked fluffy shiny white rice, a warm dashi based bowl of soup, and pickles. 

Have you adjusted your business model given the fact that opening a business this year could still face many obstacles due to the global pandemic?

Jackson is an interesting place. Last summer, we witnessed record high real estate and local restaurant sales. We are working on a to-go program to offset some potential reduced capacity.  In any case, the reduced capacity during opening time may be welcome in order for us to create systems, dial in recipes and train staff.  Unlike some of the other bigger restaurant openings I have been a part of, there is no existing structure or formats.  Both the sourcing of alcohol and fish are way more difficult here than anywhere I have ever worked. 

Embed from Getty Images

There is a balance of colors, textures and temperatures… something fatty followed by something vinegar cured… something served slightly warmed to help it melt in your mouth… the varying amount of hidden wasabi tucked underneath… something sweet mixed in to balance the soy…

What is the craziest memory from your professional career?

The most unlikely thing that happened to me was shortly after leaving my head chef post at Akiko’s Restaurant San Francisco to attend a kaiseki training program in Kyoto.  I was invited to participate in the 2018 World Washoku Challenge.  The deadline to apply had passed but they were accepting some late applicants. 

I was still learning and the president of the culinary program had asked me if I would join.  To do so, I needed to submit an OWAN (clear soup) recipe and a FUJIDAKAMORI (assorted appetizer bento box).  It seemed simple enough, but while many other contestants had a year to prepare, I only had a week before the deadline to submit. 

Being inexperienced, I leaned on the cookbooks from the restaurant where I was working. Tankuma Kitamise, and some of the older chefs to helped me express seasonality (I was submitting recipes in November but the final would be in February).  I put together what I thought was a skillful and balanced bento plus, a classic clear soup of littleneck clam dumplings, carrots, daikon and baby broccoli. 

To my surprise, I was invited to Tokyo to face off in the Japan regional round.  I stayed late after work with the head chef to practice the night before, hopped on an overnight bus, went to the competition and won.  The final round came around February, there were all kinds of TV cameras, interviews and press. 

My menu was aggressive featuring most of the techniques you would find in a traditional kaiseki (懐石)menu. I also added kohada (コハダ) or Gizzard Shad sushi .  Besides the sushi, the competition was the first time I had made the dishes start to finish on my own.  I was able to cook for Mr. Murata of Kikunoi restaurant.  I came in second overall.  He loved my sushi, which was a win for me!

*Note: Kaiseki (懐石) is an artistic form of food preparation in Japanese cuisine that takes intensive training and years of experience to master. It blends seasonality and harmony from the food to the presentation and plate ware. The basic elements are color, flavor, textures and visual beauty. Throughout the progression of the meal, there are different cooking techniques that involve a soup element, a raw dish, something steamed, broiled, fried, pickled and our favorite…rice.

Embed from Getty Images

I have a soft spot for Tenzaru Soba (天ざるそば).  Simply prepared freshly cut cold buckwheat noodles, and fried vegetables and shrimp served with a light dashi soy dipping sauce.  Simplicity at its finest.

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the hospitality and restaurant landscape in ways we never imagined.  There are many unknown challenges ahead that require a fluid mindset and adaptable leadership.  What are your thoughts on the future of the restaurant industry?

One of the things that has never made much sense is how concentrated the talent seems to be.  For the most part, cooks endure difficult lives in big cities to get the skills required in order to be taken seriously or start their own project.  Covid has spread people out more and I am hoping that this allows for a higher quality of life for aspiring cooks (and everyone in the restaurant industry) while still working in nice restaurants that they can be proud of. This will enable them to build the skills to help them in their future.

I may live in a bit of a bubble, but it seems that diners are realizing how hard restaurants have been hit.  We are now realizing how broken the system was. I would hope that this will help us press reset and fix some of the problems that got us here.  We could create a more sustainable restaurant model that takes better care of the employees.  That may be a bit too optimistic. 

What advice would you give to small business operators i.e. restaurant owners with less than three locations or ‘mom and pop’ operations that are struggling to survive?

Assuming the food they are serving is well made and in demand, I think that I would recommend investing in high quality packaging and advertising using social media and targeted online ads.  If the online ad options are too expensive, consider spending some time updating the facebook/ instagram page with information on hours and offerings as much as possible. 

Some of the best packaging we have been able to source cost about $1 per box.  These boxes ultimately allowed us to charge more for the same food.  It paid off in the long run. Back in San Francisco when everyone switched to carry-out only, some restaurants were putting out some really incredible food. But, nobody knew about it.  Getting the word out seems to be the hardest part for a small mom and pop shops.

Embed from Getty Images

It seems that diners are realizing how hard restaurants have been hit and how broken the system was.  I would hope that this will help us press reset and fix some of the problems that got us here.  We could create a more sustainable restaurant model that takes better care of the employees.  That may be a bit too optimistic. 

What are your thoughts on food supply and sustainability?

It has never really made much sense to me why the U.S. has so much coast line, incredible seafood and marine life, but such horrible handling and distribution of their seafood.  I visited an uni farm in Fort Bragg, California and they were importing palates of whole sea urchin from Alaska to San Francisco, driving it up to Fort Bragg, cleaning it and putting it on trays, bringing it back to San Francisco and shipping it all over the states.

I know that there are some fisherman using the ikejime (a quick kill method that extends quality and freshness) technique with local seafood to preserve the quality during shipping, but it would be great if this became more widespread.  This probably will require improved education on both the part of the fisherman and the clientele to create a situation everyone wins. 

Here in Wyoming we have a lot of farmland, and there are local farms that will grow specific items for restaurants in town.  The farmers seem to enjoy diversifying their plantlife on the farm and they can charge more for it. 

I would prefer to give the money to them than a major shipping company.  We will also save all of the food waste and scraps and feed it to their pigs that we plan on featuring on the kitchen menu year round.  Maybe there is a way to work with the government to create a nationwide program to help support local farmers growing more diverse crops for the community. 

Japanese cuisine is hyper regional.  It is important to note that you can prepare any local ingredients in a Japanese way.  For example, you can tempura fry your local sweet potatoes, make a soup of blended sweet corn, or grill locally raised meat/fish/poultry on skewers over charcoal.  If something is especially good in any particular place, they are going to serve it.  This is even the case for something as fundamental to Japanese cuisine as dashi. 

Ichiban Dashi is typically shaved dried fish flakes, kelp and water.  Last winter in Tokyo we experimented with wild boar bone+onion dashi, chicken wing+meat dashi, tomato water+fish sauce dashi, roasted shell on shrimp+mirepoix dashi and using these ingredients we were able to imitate similar glutamate levels in the stock as found in Ichiban Dashi.  

Embed from Getty Images

Here in Wyoming we have a lot of farmland, and there are local farms that will grow specific items for restaurants in town.  The farmers seem to enjoy diversifying their plantlife on the farm and they can charge more for it.  I would prefer to give the money to them than a major shipping company.  We will also save all of the food waste and scraps and feed it to their pigs that we plan on featuring on the kitchen menu year round.

What is the best piece of advice you could give a young culinarian starting their professional journey?

Find yourself a mentor and always keep your word. Remember to be always have patience. Take focus to the highest level with doing every task the right way and don’t take shortcuts. It is okay to admit that you don’t know something or to ask for help. 

Really good to hear from you Chris! We wish you all the best on the opening of Kampai restaurant and the next chapter in your culinary journey!

Follow Chris on Instagram @chefmasado.

side view of chef Chris Massad

CONTRIBUTED RECIPES BY CHRIS MASSAD

Chicken Nanbanzuke with Vegetables

White Asparagus with a Creamy Tofu Sauce



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like
Close
ricemonkee © Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
Close