How This Tempura Restaurant Became the Only One to Land a Michelin Star
By focusing on details, this Hokkaido native moved to New York and made it happen
Kiyoshi Chikano is executive chef of the first and only Michelin-starred tempura restaurant in the U.S., Tempura Matsui. In our interview, I assumed Chikano-san was in his 30s, for he looks quite young and spoke of his former bosses as “oyakata” — a term that’s equivalent to master — but he revealed that he’s actually 49.
His career started in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, where he worked at a sushi restaurant until telling his mentor he wanted to work in the city. His mentor advised him to make his way to Tokyo and introduced him to a restaurant called Zakuro, where he got his official start in a professional kitchen. He worked his way up and while he enjoyed Tokyo, it didn’t satisfy him — and from there he set his eyes on NYC.
KO: Why New York City?
KC: It’s hard to explain. It’s always been a thing for me, to want to go to different, more exciting places. I had visited other countries, but the U.S. felt like the place where things happened. And even among cities like Los Angeles or Las Vegas, the most exciting place was NYC — it’s the city of dreams after all, and that left an impression on me.
It was when I was in my 20s, trying to figure out how to get to New York, that I figured I could perhaps get into the Japanese restaurant, Nadaman, which had a restaurant in Manhattan. But it’s a prestigious place that’s competitive and difficult to get in, so to increase my chances I left Zakuro to work at the Nadaman in Sapporo, Hokkaido, in hopes that I could be transferred to NYC.
While at Zakuro I cooked only Japanese food, the boss at Nadaman decided to put me in charge of the tempura counter. It’s funny because I’m quite shy and cooking in front of other people was not something I was super enthusiastic about, but I did it nonetheless.
Do you still feel that shyness when serving people today?
You know, if you ask me whether I’m good at performing in front of other people or not, I’d probably say no. But there’s a certain concentration and rhythm involved in making tempura, so when I’m behind the pot I don’t feel nervous. They say that a guitarist is most confident and comfortable when they have a guitar in their arms, and I would think it’s that same feeling.
Working at the counter, I assume lots of guests want to talk to you. Are there common comments or questions that everybody keeps asking?
It’s interesting because our Japanese guests want to know my history. They want to know where I’ve learned and studied Japanese food, and they want to know who I’ve trained under and for how many years. But our non-Japanese guests want to know where we source our ingredients. They want to know where the fish and vegetables are coming from, and when I tell them we source mostly everything from Japan, they seem to appreciate it.
‘It’s interesting because our Japanese guests want to know my history. They want to know where I’ve learned and studied Japanese food, and they want to know who I’ve trained under and for how many years. But our non-Japanese guests want to know where we source our ingredients.’
Why is it important to you that your ingredients are sourced from Japan?
I received a very formal education in tempura when I was at Nadaman, and I try to honor that education in what I do here. It was very difficult at first because there were no suppliers used to sourcing what I was asking for. Unlike sushi or other seafood dishes, you can’t slice the fish or seafood in tempura — we’re frying it whole, so size is important. Shrimp is 20g. Garfish is 50g. You need to specify what you need down to the weight of the fish. But I’d order like this, and the shipment was often wrong which was frustrating.
I can’t imagine American fish wholesalers being too detailed like that.
Yes, for example, I’d get a shipment of shrimp that was bigger than what I ordered. And I’d call them back and tell them that it wasn’t what I asked for, but they’d tell me, “Why are you complaining? They’re bigger than what you wanted!” But I can’t cut a shrimp in half — it’s one tail to one shrimp, and to fry something bigger than the size it’s supposed to be won’t taste right.
How’d you go about fixing this problem?
It was difficult, but it got done. I mean, to the suppliers I would explain why it needed to be this way and was really adamant about the details. It ended up being that I contacted my supplier back in Japan, and connected them with my supplier in the United States. They now have a relationship going, and together they supply my restaurant with the ingredients we need.
Haha, but that’s what it took! I have the fish and shrimp they catch in Japan flown in by airplane to the United States, and that’s what I use to cook at my restaurant.
I read that Tempura Matsui was actually started by a man called Mr. Matsui, before you took on his work after him. Can you tell me more about how this happened?
Matsui-san is my oyakata. He was the head chef overseeing all tempura divisions at the Nadaman restaurants, and he quit one day to start his own restaurant in NYC. He didn’t tell any of us subordinates of this move, and we actually thought he retired. It was only when I was just working in Sapporo one day, that a customer comes in and goes, “Wow that’s really amazing what Mr. Matsui is doing right now, isn’t it?” and I go, “What’s amazing? He retired.” and the customer tells me no, that he is actually opening a tempura restaurant in NYC.
Immediately I call him that day, and ask: “Hi, do you have enough staff members for your restaurant?” and he tells me that they’re still looking, so I tell him “I’ll go.” and that was that. It didn’t even take a day to decide, it was like having my lifelong dream drop into my lap — this is the opportunity I was looking for.
I had no way of knowing this, but it turned out Matsui-san was sick and he was looking for someone to become head chef to replace his spot. This was when I called saying I wanted to be in New York, and he told me that I should do it and that I should take over his restaurant.
Wow, it kind of feels like fate.
I mean, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to make but it wasn’t an easy choice. There was no other tempura restaurant in NYC at the time, and the man who was supposed to lead the initiative didn’t have much time left. It was my dream to work in NYC, but it was only the tip of the iceberg in the big scheme of things.
Did you feel a lot of pressure having to follow in Matsui-san’s footsteps?
I made that initial phone call hoping that I could work as Matsui-san’s right-hand man at a New York restaurant, but it ended up being that I would run the kitchen, so there was some doubt. But there was nothing else to do than to just do it.
You’ve come to New York and have found a lot of success here — what are your next steps?
Coming to New York was a big dream of mine, but it was never the goal. New York is the beginning. It’s helped build the confidence that if I have the right tempura pot and the right ingredients for it, I can successfully do tempura anywhere in the world. Japanese cuisines like kaiseki and sushi have found their place, but a true and authentic version of Japanese tempura is yet to emerge — by setting an example and paving the path, I hope to see tempura take on its own popularity and culture with the rest of the world as well.
‘New York is the beginning. It’s helped build the confidence that if I have the right tempura pot and the right ingredients for it, I can successfully do tempura anywhere in the world.’
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