I watched as this well oiled machine of a man worked with such innate precision, serving as a one-man show in this 10 table restaurant. I found myself hypnotized by his ability to prep and cook our meal, seat incoming parties, answer the phone, clear tables, wash dishes, serve the next course...it was like watching a super hero movie where the star operates in warp speed mode, accomplishing whole days' tasks in mere seconds. Who is this man, and how did he become "The Grouchy Chef"?
Our gym, Crossfit Mukilteo, is located next to The Grouchy Chef. When they first opened the gym they decided to be neighborly and dropped in to get a good meal after a tough workout. They were gruffly turned away for violating multiple rules: reservations only, NO workout clothes...Meanwhile, our summer time meal stuck with me and rather than reminiscing about the food as I usually do, I kept thinking about the Chef. And everyday as I pulled into the gym parking lot, I would peek in the restaurant to make sure he had customers and was doing OK; secretly assessing what level of grouchiness the Chef was that day. I thought, "this guy just needs a hug."
I am excited to have an outlet and excuse to discover the stories behind restaurants and Chefs like The Grouchy Chef with my column. I first approached Chef Takayuki Masumoto (he has a real name!) on a snowy evening when he was shaking out his rugs in the parking lot. A small winter storm had passed through the NW, and my clumsy introduction was framed with clouds as my quick words hit the cold air. I let him know about my column and asked if I could interview him. As a certified Chatty Cathy, I mistook his silence for my cue to fill it with awkward and over-the-top compliments about my appreciation of his food and his business. He finally cut me off and said he didn't know if he would be a good subject. He told me, sincerely, "I am no one special." Taking a couple steps back (both literally and figuratively) I told him that I would just make reservations to eat at his restaurant the following week and we could see what progressed. What made me think that practically attacking the poor guy in a dark, cold parking lot, wearing a crappy old sorority sweatshirt and dog hair encrusted work out pants would inspire him to be a part of my story??
When I showed up the next week at the restaurant, I dressed up; I didn't want to risk breaking one of his cardinal rules (no dirty jeans, workout clothes, sweatpants). I also wanted to prove I wasn't just "a bum in a suit" (random Wanda Sykes reference Kyle and I throw out sometimes). Mollie was my guinea pig guest this time and we dutifully sat on the wooden benches in the entry until Chef Masumoto noticed us and pointed to a table that was pre-set with menus, crystal glasses, and silverware. We read through the menu, and after deciding what we wanted, I approached the counter and ordered our food, paying with cash. I asked for the Chef's suggestion for which starch to have with my seared ahi. He said, "I don't know, that is why I call it 'YOUR CHOICE'!" I had to smile at that. He paused for a second, appraising whether or not to say what was on his mind. I raised my eyebrows, hoping he would open up to me. Be careful what you wish for.
"Can I give you some advice?" he stated, rather than asked. Oh boy. "If you want to be a real Restaurant Critic, you should not tell me when you are going to come to the restaurant. If you tell me, then I might act different, maybe kiss your butt because you tell me you will review my restaurant." Fair point. He went on to tell me that he does not want any positive review that is not well-earned. How can you be objective if you are getting special treatment?
I smiled and nodded, agreeing with him. I told him if I wanted to be a Restaurant Critic, then I would follow his advice. However, I plead, face beginning to blush, that this was not my goal. It is true, a real critic should be objective and fair-balanced. I have recently become enthralled with Ruth Reichl, former NY Times Restaurant Critic. Her memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, documents her adventures as a critic in the Food Capital and her quest to remain objective which involved elaborate disguises to elude the New York Restaurant scene.
I am not interested in reviewing food. I think I love food too much to be critical of it. I am interested in sharing the stories behind the food we eat; whether it be about the chefs, farmers, restaurateurs, traditions/rituals...I tried to convey this to him. He still looked skeptical and I think he tried EXTRA hard that evening to make sure I knew that I, too, am no one special. He was never outright rude, or really even grouchy. I think it was his way of showing me respect and demonstrating his style in action. He does not discriminate, he is gruff with everyone. At the same time, he will not just "kiss your butt" because you think you are someone special.
I really didn't have a story after that meal. I knew I had to go back, but honestly was a little nervous about what his next lesson for me would be! I brought my parents as reinforcement this time. I noticed this time that he had a sign saying "No pictures in the restaurant." My original angle for the story was that this "Grouchy" Chef was also very generous; and while he is gruff, he does not lack heart. He does not accept tips, but has a jar where you can donate to cancer research. He also offers free meals to wounded Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans to honor their sacrifices. When I approach the counter to order for my family, I asked if it would be OK to include photos of his "tip" jar for my story. He winces. Uh-oh. He tells me that the donations he makes is separate from his business. He is a for-profit business, and does not want to exploit a charitable cause to gain more customers. I tell him he is a man of strong principles, and he replies that he is just an old stubborn Japanese man. I point to my father and tell him, I have a couple of those in my life.
When he comes to serve our soup, he shakes my parents hands and thanks us for our business. I start to see a flicker of warmth, and like a puppy, practically start barking with excitement, pulling a classic Emi move by starting to talk too much. He quickly retreats to the safety of his kitchen.
As we finish dessert, the last guests start to trickle out. We all smile and practically high five one another for being in on the secret, knowing about the best restaurant in Mukilteo. Chef Masumoto comes back out and as he clears our plates, we pick up on our last conversation. We speak for almost an hour about his life, his career, politics, Japanese American history...I am surprised that this man I thought I would have to hold down and torture in order to get more than a single word out, is now opening up so freely. He leaves for a second and comes back with the ultimate trophy: Grouchy Chef apparel for each of us. I look over to the shelf where he keeps his merchandise and notice the sign that says "Merchandise Not For Sale." I realize that while he wanted to earn my respect through his food and work ethic, the whole time I was earning his in return. And while he may think he is no one special, I find him and his story incredibly unique. It is so cliche, but when I go home to write the article, it truly writes itself.
I hope you all enjoy it--if you can stand reading through my mini-novel of a lead in!
Emi's Eats: Grouchy Chef
While most associate February with a pricey meal with your special Valentine, I am exploring a less expensive fine dining experience in Mulkilteo: The Grouchy Chef, a hidden gem located within a grey warehouse building off the Mukilteo Speedway. Here you can feast on refined European influenced meals served on fine china with crystal glasses in a warm bistro-like atmosphere, all for no more than $20/person for dinner and $10 for lunch including tax (no tips accepted!). The catch is this: you must follow “the rules” and put up with--The Grouchy Chef.
Chef/Owner Takayuki Masumoto runs a tight ship, as he is the captain and crew all in one. Since he alone serves as the host, waiter, bus boy, sous-chef and executive chef, he simplifies both his gourmet food and his restaurant processes in order to pass savings on to the customer. Growing up in Nagasaki, Chef Masumoto told me his family did not have much money; he wants “ordinary” people to be able to enjoy a fine dining experience. Thus, he forgoes many of the luxuries of typical restaurants, like extra help and fancy food presentations, in order to provide his loyal customers with an elegant, yet affordable dining experience. And, there are many rules upon entering his establishment: reservations only, cash only, no tipping, dress appropriately with no dirty jeans or flip flops, the list goes on. The rules and his undiscriminating gruffness are not an act but are necessary to be efficient in the kitchen and provide elegant dining at prices affordable for all, which is noteworthy in our difficult economic times.
No matter the chef’s mood of the day, his three-course meals of soup, salad, and entrée are a palate pleaser day in and day out. On one visit the soup du jour was simply called, “chicken;” but it was so much more than just chicken. Tiny morsels of tender chicken are definitely there, but they are accompanied by a medley of perfectly diced vegetables and a broth immersed in spices with hints of curry, providing the perfect bath. When Chef Masumoto comes to clear our soup bowls, I ask him what spices he used to give the soup such a wonderfully complex flavor. He simply replies, “many.” The next time I eat at his restaurant, a new soup du jour is called “porcini chicken consommé.” The description is more detailed and the broth is less complex, but it still eludes me with its mysterious underlying spices and lovely layered flavors.
In addition to soup, every meal comes with a choice of the house or Caesar salad. I highly recommend the house salad, which is accented with oranges, grapes, watermelon, and mozzarella, tossed in a creamy vinaigrette dressing. You must also choose a starch to go with your entrée. While there are many choices, know that any you make will be delicious. Somehow, Chef Masumoto is able to blend the flavors of my seared rare ahi with a creamy coconut sauce and my shrimp mashed potatoes into a perfect marriage. Another time, we order leg of lamb with a mustard crust and risotto cake, NY strip steak with a cabernet reduction and shrimp mashed potatoes, and seared duck breast with a slightly sweet cinnamon glaze and cheese spaetzle. No matter what the combination, they all seem to make sense and leave you with the satisfying feeling that you made the right choice. Be sure to save room for the $3.50 cheesecake, which is light and drizzled in bright basil and sweet blueberry sauces, which counter balance the rich creaminess of the cake.
Chef Masumoto works with precision in pacing our meal, perfectly timing each course to arrive promptly, yet not pressuring us to finish without fully enjoying the meal. When the other customers begin to leave and he finally has a moment to speak with me, I discover that he is of the old guard that whole-heartedly believes in earning one’s respect through hard work and continually strives to improve his craft. I am particularly impressed with his knowledge of Japanese American history and his sincerity when he emphasizes how he would not be in business without the sacrifices and foundation laid by the Japanese American pioneers who came before him.
Without sugar coating things or ruining the infamous reputation of the Grouchy Chef, I walk away with a deeper understanding of the man behind the madness. The Grouchy Chef is open on Valentine’s Day, reservations only.
What are your Valentine’s Day plans? Share them with me at twitter.com/EmisEats or EmisEats@napost.com.
The Grouchy Chef is located at 4433 Russell Road, Suite 113, Mukilteo, WA 98275, 425-493-9754. Reservations Only.