Monday, August 28, 2006

The Real Chef

After reading so much about how top chefs must expand and move out of the kitchen in order to make money, it was a relief to see that there are still purists out there.

Masa has what sounds like the supreme Japanese restaurant in America. Reading about his food put me in mind of going with Rose to Fujiyama for her East Asian research; it was the most pure sushi place we'd ever been. Filled with Japanese customers, beautiful and simple design, with the most delicious raw fish you can imagine, prepared by an aged master behind the sushi counter. It was an experience that stretched the envelope for all of us.
Masa, I realized, was something unique in this age of the chef-CEO; he was unique perhaps to any age of the chef. He had created the most extraordinary restaurant experience in New York. "Here is my money," he'd said, holding up his hands. "Here is my money," he'd said, touching his chest. He'd realized this as a young man, and he would do something none of the greats had done, not Keller or Soltner or Ducasse -- none of them. He'd created a single restaurant that was wholly dependent on his presence. A restaurant that without him couldn't even open. "When I catch cold, I close the restaurant." The goal of most chefs was to train their staffs so well that they, the chefs, didn't have to be there -- when the staff could replicate a chef's goals without his being there, that was an extraordinary achievement. The chef's goals was to make themselves completely dispensable -- they considered that their ultimate success.

Masa had done the opposite. In an age of the branded chef and TV chefs and Vegas outposts and Olive Gardens and P.F. Chang's, Masa had created a restaurant so personal, do dependent on his skills and spirit and personality, that it had no meaning when he was not inside it. Masa was the artist.

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