Zagat logo

Stories

Serving Omakase In The Pandemic Era

Trying to read diners secondhand, and getting back to traditional roots.

Kiyoshi Chikano is chef at Tempura Matsui, the restaurant founded by New York’s first tempura master Masao Matsui (who passed away in 2016). Closed for six months due to the pandemic, Tempura Matsui reopened in August to experiment with an outdoor version of its traditional omakase style of chef’s choice counter-seated dining.

I’ve been cooking tempura for 29 years—25 years in Japan, and 4 years in New York at Tempura Matsui. I started off my career in a restaurant and tempura restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo, called Zakuro. I was there for nine years, and then I moved to Nadaman, a very famous Japanese high-end restaurant group. I was there for 16 years.

They had tempura on the menu at Zakuro, but my focus was more on general Japanese cuisine. It’s really when I moved to Nadaman that I got into the tempura cooking and omakase-style serving.

Masao Matsui also worked at Nadaman, though at a different location. He was like the boss of my boss—like my master. Seeing my master quit Nadaman and open Tempura Matsui in New York was really a motivation for me to eventually seek that same opportunity here for myself.

Omakase means “it’s up to the chef.” So at a tempura restaurant, instead of having the guests choose each ingredient, we pick the best for each guest. We make the selection, and we serve it. Traditionally, tempura omakase is served at the counter, and the food is cooked in front of the guests, served right after it’s been cooked.

Here in America versus Japan, the setup itself is the same, so the feel is the same. But when they opened Tempura Matsui, it was a company decision to entertain the American guests—knowing that when American guests come to Japanese restaurants, they want sashimi, and they usually start their meal with an appetizer. So instead of the traditional way that Matsui was accustomed to—which is serving tempura from the first course—they had a couple of appetizers, and then a palate cleanser. This added more variation to the number of dishes that the guest will have when they come to omakase.

Photo: Courtesy Tempura Matsui.

Some fish and seafood from Japan are only used for tempura. Since there are no other tempura restaurants in New York, there was no way for us to get them when the pandemic shut things down. We had a hard time. The restaurant had to find a way to source those. But now we’ve established new relationships, and we have access to more ingredients. Rather than substituting other dishes, I’d like to do more and different kinds of tempura in each course.

As we get back to indoor dining, I want to go back to the original way, to my roots, and do pure Japanese-style omakase, which is that you sit down and start with tempura. Unfortunately, we still can’t use the counter. But we have tables right behind the counter. We will be using those tables to start with for indoor dining.

With me inside cooking and the guests dining outside, the most difficult thing for me is the timing, and also not being able to watch the guests eat. Normally I look at how quickly they eat, and how much they eat. Do they look full, or do they look hungry? What do their facial expressions say about what kind of ingredients the guests like? When you have regulars at the counter, some of the time we’ll serve them sake. There will be direct communication as I get to understand each guest better. That component is definitely missing during this pandemic.

I can’t say it’s 100 percent solved, but for outdoor diners, my servers are my eyes and my voice. I’m trying to communicate as much as possible with each server so they tell me what exactly is going on outside—the speed and the timing of serving the food. I still try to pop outside every once in a while to see our guests and how the servers are communicating with them. What I hear from my servers and what I actually see when I go outside is the same, so I feel like they’re giving me the correct analysis of what’s happening outside.

Obviously, there’s been an expansion of takeout and delivery in general. That will probably continue. But we all know that tempura doesn’t travel well. I do takeout, but I won’t do tempura takeout. We do tempura over rice though, which is called tenju, and to my mind is a different menu. That will probably continue. But I won’t ever do tempura to-go or delivery on its own. So that delivery and takeout trend doesn’t really apply to us, unfortunately. We just have to operate in a smaller format and maintain safety.

I really want to bring my traditional Japanese style and apply it to New York, so that New Yorkers can experience it without traveling to Japan. We’ll just do it in that smaller format. I know what style I want to do, and I feel like I’m already doing it.

Interview translated from Japanese by Ayako Kaneyoshi.