Interview with Los Angeles Rising Star Pastry Chef Kei Hasegawa of Matsuhisa

by Antoinette Bruno
May 2014

Antoinette Bruno: Where ya from?
Kei Hasegawa: Yokohama.

AB: Did food play an important role in your life growing up?
KH: Oh yeah. My mom always loved to cook. She was one of my main mentors.

AB: Did you know you wanted to be a pastry chef?
KH: No, not a lot. I wanted to be a savory chef. When I was around 20, one day I got a line-cook job and that was interesting. And of course the pastry world was a new world to me because I had no idea how to make pastry and sponge cake, so that’s why I started in the pastry industry.

AB: Did you attend culinary school?
KH: No, I didn’t. I Just worked for experience.

AB: So, why pastry versus savory?
KH: Because I think when I started the culinary experience, at my first job, I thought I could handle savory, but pastry was a different world to me. I’d never made cookies or baked anything in my house. I wanted to know how to run pastry. When I started studying it, it was a big world. I wanted to learn, even now, I want to keep going.

AB: What is your culinary style or philosophy?
KH: I think Japan is really my background, and I really want to bring the Japanese ingredients, culture, especially pastry technique into my pastry. At the same time, I learned French technique and I love French pastry, so I want to do some twists with Japanese and eastern ingredients. I really want to make good food, good taste, especially for pastries, the flavor is very important, so I find good ingredients, so I can make a good pastry.

AB: How does traditional Japanese pastry differ from French or American?
KH: I think the Japanese traditions, like wagashi, they’re really healthy. We don’t use so much fat or butter, we use more vegetarian ingredients. Also, we use natural ingredients and we use things like vegetables and beans and we never use milk or fat. Now, especially in California, people are really interested in vegetarian ingredients, so, if I bring more wagashi techniques into my pastry, people are interested. But I never had professional training in wagashi. Growing up, I was familiar with it, so I know how to make it and I know the taste. That’s how I can do it.

AB: How do you make Japanese pastry accessible to the American palate?
KH: I think it’s hard for me because Japanese pastry is really Japanese. The first thing I have to do is bring Asian ingredients into European or American pastry to make people not afraid of Japanese or Asian ingredients. But thankfully, so many pastry chefs around the world are starting to use Japanese ingredients and they’re interested in Japanese culture. At the same time, so many chefs didn’t know about Japanese techniques, so that’s why I want to bring them into this country and make people interested in Japanese culture. But it’s not easy at all. But I think I have to do it because there are not so many chefs who can do it.

AB: What’s your favorite ingredient or technique?
KH: My favorite ingredient is yuzu because it’s really amazing, it’s already famous in all the world. I like to use citrus in my pastry. In the future, I’d like to use kinako (soybean powder), also cherry blossom, which is really traditional in Japanese pastry. I made one dessert using cherry blossom flavor.

AB: What’s the secret to your mochi?
KH: Shiratama is one type of mochi. Mochi is like sugar, there are different types. Shiratama uses shiratama powder, and you mix it with water and cook it in boiling water a few minutes. It’s not really mochi, but it’s really traditional. When we were kids in school in cooking class, that’s one of the things we had to do.

AB: Where do you find the ingredients you need?
KH: It’s not easy in this country, but in Asian markets they’re available—except the cherry blossoms. I get them direct from Japan. Especially our restaurant, has a good vendor to connect with in Japan.

AB: What can’t you find here that you stock up on when you visit Japan?
KH: I went to Japan last October and I got a bunch of stuff. Cherry blossom, cherry blossom leaves, charcoal powder. I use charcoal powder in the macarons to make smoked macarons. Charcoal powder is very famous in Japan. It’s good for cleaning air and water, so if you eat a little bit, good quality, it makes your stomach clean. I hope people start talking about charcoal powder in the States.

AB: What’s a dessert you have in the works?
KH: Cherry blossom dessert, at the time it wasn’t on the menu, but in cherry blossom season (March and April) I’ll definitely put that on my menu. Focus on Valentine’s Day. I love to go to the farmers market.

AB: What have you enjoyed introducing to your guests?
KH: I think, Japanese traditional deserts. Wagashi is a very interesting dessert because it’s healthy and we use natural ingredients and it’s very beautiful, very artistic. I want to bring this and introduce it to people. People are really protective of their culture, which I understand, but I want people to enjoy other ingredients that they don’t know about, a challenge. So, I want to try more new ingredients, new techniques for our customers.

People love chocolate, I love chocolate, but if you go to a restaurant, it’s a good chance to know more about other foods.

AB: How has your mix of the traditional and the modern been received?
KH: I think it’s not easy for customers to get new dishes, so I want to push them. For me, the easiest way to introduce Japanese pastry is to mix with modern technique. Also, I love to use new techniques, so that’s why I started mixing. Most of my menus are mixing old and new techniques, traditional Japanese pastry and American-European ingredients with Japanese ingredients. I don’t want to push too much Japanese ingredients or techniques. It’s going to be a huge challenge for the customer. I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but I’m just trying. I want it to be easy for people to eat it.