Interview with Chef Masato Shimizu of 15 East - New York City

September, 2007

Antoinette Bruno: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking?
Masato Shimizu: My uncle was a sushi chef in Japan where I grew up. When I was five, he cut and filleted a whole tuna in front of me and showed me the technique. When I was 18, I moved to Tokyo, where I did a seven year apprenticeship with sushi master Rikio Kugo, at Sukeroku.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
MS: After my Sukeroku apprenticeship, I moved to New York. My first job there was at Benten, a sushi restaurant in Long Island. After that, I left and started working at Jewel Bako in Manhattan, where I stayed for 4 years before coming to 15 East.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
MS: No, I can’t recommend culinary school because I didn’t go. I trained in a restaurant instead. I didn’t train with my uncle because we were too close and it is sometimes difficult to separate business from family matters. Sushi is very precise, so maybe going to a school specifically to learn about sushi would be a good idea, but it isn’t necessary.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
MS: I did a seven year apprenticeship in Tokyo under sushi master Rikio Kugo – he is my mentor. He taught me to endure hardships, short-term or long-term. He told me to just stick with what I was doing, no matter what.

AB: In which kitchens have you staged? Do you take stagiers in your kitchen?
MS:I haven’t staged anywhere, but I would certainly be open to accepting stages.

AB: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
MS: I ask ‘Where have you worked and for how long?’ It is valuable to hear how long someone has worked at one place to get an idea of how dedicated and consistent they are.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
MS: It is important to set goals. A person doesn’t change that much in one year, but when you look back at yourself two years ago, you realize that a lot has happened. In order to not get off track, I think you should decide where you want to be and what you want to do and set a time frame for yourself.

AB: Is there an ingredient that you feel is particularly underappreciated or under-utilized? Why?
MS: People often eat river eel (unagi) instead of sea eel (anago), but I prefer sea eel – its skin is thinner.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
MS: Ground ginger with yakumi (a Japanese seasoning). I also like jack mackerel or sardines paired with scallion.

AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
MS: One year on my birthday, my mentor, Chef Kugo gave me a butcher knife. I have many other tools, but Chef Kugo is like my father, so the knife is very important to me. I still use it everyday.

AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or borrowed and used in an unusual way?
MS: I always cut fish with a very sharp knife – the sharpness of the knife used changes the way the fish tastes. When I prepare octopus, I have a specific way I massage it to tenderize it. Also, when I prepare red snapper sashimi, I submerge the pieces in an ice bath before serving them. It completely changes the texture of the fish.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
MS: Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters.

AB: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
MS: I go to France – you can always see and taste quality cuisine there.

AB: What languages do you speak?
MS: Kitchen Spanish and Japanese.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
MS: Prune for the cow heart dish, and Keens Steak House. They have 200 different kinds of single malt Scotch. My favorite is Japanese Nikka Single Cask Malt Whiskey.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MS: The customer is always the most important element, especially in the traditional sushi bar restaurant, where they see everything that is going on.

AB: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? Who would you serve? Who would you most like to cook for you?
MS: I would most like to make sushi for Al Gore, and I would like Joël Robuchon to make a meal for me.

AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community on a national and global level?
MS: I participate in fish seminars with other chefs and local fish companies.

AB: If you weren’t a chef, what do you think you’d be doing?
MS: I would like to be a baseball player.

AB: What does success mean for you?
MS: If I am very lucky, I will open my own restaurant in New York. That would be a real mark of success.