The Japanese Pastry Ambassador

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
April 2014

There's nothing predictable about Pastry Chef Kei Hasegawa's blending of Japanese traditions with modernist French and American flavors and techniques. "So many chefs don't know about Japanese techniques. That's why I want to bring them to this country," he says. "It's not easy, but I think I have to do it because there are not many chefs who can." An ambassador for the highly refined culture of Japanese pastry, Hasegawa treats his guests at Los Angeles's Matsuhisa to experiences they won't find anywhere else in the United States—or in Japan, for that matter.

Sakura Saku, Mascarpone Cream, Cherry Ice Cream, Sakura Sponge, Beets Cake, Sake Jelly, Cherry Confit, Popped Dehydrated Sakura, and Sakura Leaf Chip.

Sakura Saku, Mascarpone Cream, Cherry Ice Cream, Sakura Sponge, Beets Cake, Sake Jelly, Cherry Confit, Popped Dehydrated Sakura, and Sakura Leaf Chip.

Winter Wonderland: Dark Chocolate Cream, Mango-Passion fruit Sorbet, Chocolate Soil, Coconut Snow, Caramel Foam, and Yuzu Cream

Winter Wonderland: Dark Chocolate Cream, Mango-Passion fruit Sorbet, Chocolate Soil, Coconut Snow, Caramel Foam, and Yuzu Cream

Kogashi (Petite Fours): Smoked Macaron, Canelé, Youkan, Daifuku Mochi, Yuzu Bonbon, and Green Tea Hazelnut

Kogashi (Petite Fours): Smoked Macaron, Canelé, Youkan, Daifuku Mochi, Yuzu Bonbon, and Green Tea Hazelnut

Green Tea Shaved Ice, Sweet Red Beans, Vanilla Ice Cream, Shiratama Mochi, and Green Tea Syrup

Green Tea Shaved Ice, Sweet Red Beans, Vanilla Ice Cream, Shiratama Mochi, and Green Tea Syrup

Green Tea Shaved Ice, Sweet Red Beans, Vanilla Ice Cream, Shiratama Mochi, and Green Tea Syrup

Green Tea Shaved Ice, Sweet Red Beans, Vanilla Ice Cream, Shiratama Mochi, and Green Tea Syrup

Pastry Chef Kei Hasegawa of Matsuhisa- Los Angeles, CA

Pastry Chef Kei Hasegawa of Matsuhisa- Los Angeles, CA

Matsuhisa- Los Angeles, CA

Matsuhisa- Los Angeles, CA

With roots in the savory kitchen, Hasegawa ventured to the sweeter side as a personal challenge. "Pastry was a different world to me. It was a big world ... and I wanted to learn." He mastered old-school French technique, as well as traditional Japanese wagashi—a category of confections served with tea. Hasegawa projects his adventuresome spirit onto his customers, tempting them into unknown territory with his dexterous weaving of Japanese and Western flavors. In his sakura-saku composition, he uses the symbolic and celebrated Japanese cherry blossom as an inspiration. For the dessert, Hasegawa makes an approachable cherry ice cream, cherry confit, and mascarpone cream. But it's the beet cake, sake jelly, popped dehydrated cherry blossoms, and cherry leaf chip that make it a memorable affair. "I want to push customers," says Hasegawa. "For me, the easiest way to introduce Japanese pastry is to mix it with modern technique."

In Hasegawa's kitchen, chewy is chewier, silky is silkier, crunchy is crunchier and the interplay of textures is always superlative, often fun, and sometimes unexpected. For his shaved ice dessert, a mountain of fine, fluffy snow has a pour-over of vibrant green tea syrup to start. Dig in and discover bites of resilient shiratama mochi, starchy-sweet red beans, and a rich, custardy vanilla ice cream. Fluffy, chewy, creamy, crunchy, this dessert is a playground for the senses, an adventure in which each bite is different from the last. It's Japanese tradition encased in cool, sweet modernity.

Hasegawa's snow-like shaved ice is the product of a Japanese ice shaving machine that rotates a cylinder of frozen, purified water against a razor sharp blade. The shiratama mochi is made from traditional shiratamako, granules of glutinous rice flour created by soaking the rice, grinding it in water, and pressing it. The result is an almost creamy feel and a texture that is more elastic and supple than mochi made from mochiko flour, which is also glutinous rice-based but less finely processed. Hasegawa also uses kinako (roasted soy bean powder) in other desserts to create a less typical mochi—gooey with a distinctly nutty flavor.

Typical of Japanese sweets, Hasegawa's desserts solemnly renounce butter (and most fats) in favor of vegetables, beans, and varied starches. Though this approach is healthful, for some guests dessert is not dessert unless it packs a diabetes-inducing, calorie-loaded punch. "People are really protective of their culture, which I understand. It's a challenge. I want people to enjoy other ingredients that they don't know about," says Hasegawa. "When you go to a restaurant, it's a good chance to know more about food."

Los Angeles, with its large Asian population and abundant farmers markets, is well equipped to provide Hasegawa with the high-quality product he requires. Connections in Japan make up for whatever the local Asian markets don't carry. "I went to Japan last October and got a bunch of stuff. Cherry blossoms, cherry leaves, charcoal powder," says Hasegawa. Yuzu, green tea, azuki beans, and kinako are among his pantry staples, as well.

The scope of Hasegawa's technical mastery and bi-cultural synthesis is glimpsed in his kogashi: a presentation of petit fours. His exquisite smoked macarons and deeply caramelized canelé sit proudly alongside youkan (agar-gelled red bean paste) and daifuku mochi (pillowy glutinous rice cakes). Yuzu bonbons and green tea hazelnuts, prepared in the style of dragées, bridge the divide between East and West—and bend America's perception of Japanese pastry.

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