Masato Okamoto is numero uni to Avon sushi fans
It all goes back to a fear of washing dishes. Thirteen years old and earning his own spending money, Masato Okamoto worked weekends as a dishwasher in a Kyoto sushi restaurant. He scrubbed his way through every shift.
“They found me handy,” he said of his employers. They offered to teach him other things, like handling fish and making rolls. “I learned everything. I was afraid of being sent back to dishwashing.”
And that was the beginning of a (so far) 35-year career in sushi. He’s spent the last 14 years of it in Avon, behind the bar of his own place, Masato’s Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar. “Food: I’m not afraid of it,” he said. “But fish ” I really, really like fish. It’s just such a great flavor.”
Shocking to some, he’s closing his doors and heading to the East Coast. He and restaurateur Don Felner are teaming up and opening a place together in New York City. The exactly what and exactly where are up in the air, but the plan is to be open for business within a year. It’s a dream come true for the sushi chef with a serious case of wanderlust. He’s always wanted to live in the Big Apple.
“New York, it’s like a small world shrunk down into one city,” he said.
And he’s ready to check it out. Over the years, Masato has always had a couple of “off the menu” (and sometimes off the wall) concoctions going in the kitchen. Those who get to know him get to try them: pumpkin soup, teriyaki cheesecake, millet-rice cakes, hot-spring eggs. But lately he is a man obsessed, eyes gleaming as he injects traditional Japanese ingredients into different cuisines. The change is obviously invigorating him.
The 47-year-old thrives on adventure and reinvention. It’s the same approach that brought him to the States in the first place.
“If anyone in Japan wants to go to America, they go to LA,” he said.
And so in 1984 Masato, too, flew across the ocean and landed on the West Coast for a two-month trip. After cruising to New York and back via Greyhound, Masato discovered himself in Los Angeles with an empty wallet at the beginning of the sushi boom. He walked into a sushi restaurant and worked for the remaining 30 days of his trip.
He decided to make a go of it in the U.S.
“I chose Arizona because it was away from the Japanese culture so I could learn English,” he said. He worked at Fuji Restaurant for the next seven years while going through the green-card process.
“And then I thought, ‘I can do anything I want. What do I want to do?'” He decided his own restaurant was the next order of business, and ” after a cross-country excursion ” Colorado was the place to do it.
Masato signed a lease, hired a contractor and returned to Arizona to pack up his life. “He was one of those trustworthy hippie dudes,” he explained of the contractor. “We had a handshake deal.” By the time he returned to Avon three weeks before opening, his restaurant was ready to go.
Masato began with user-friendly basics: teriyaki, California rolls, tempura and sushi staples.
“People start with safe stuff,” he said. “It’s in our genes to be safe. Most people find what they really love and then that’s it. But people like me, we get greedy. We feel like we’re missing something if we’re not trying new things. Who first thought of eating sea urchin? He’s my hero.”
Just so, his menu began to grow and grow as Masato discovered like-minded eaters. The house specials range from the classic (miso-marinated cod) to the wacky (Albacore with broiled Camembert). But his hard-core fans keep coming for the pristine fish.
Tab Bonidy, president of the architectural firm TAB Associates, Inc. visited Masato’s on opening day.
“I love going in and having a triple-belly lunch: toro (tuna belly), salmon belly and yellowtail belly,” he said. “And sometimes he’ll slip in the flounder, so it’ll be a quadruple-belly lunch. Masato is a magician.”
Another early fan was John Uhley, founder of vail.net and a presence at most local food festivals. “He’s one of the greatest supporters,” Masato said about Uhley. “He brought all those computer geeks, and they started eating sushi.”
Like many regulars, Uhley prefers to eat “omakase,” or whatever the chef recommends.
“I especially like his blowtorched items,” he said. “They’re always fun to eat and even more fun to point out to any new diners that a chef with a blowtorch is a good reason to tip well.”
His mother, Keikosan Moritsu, introduced him to the travel bug when she gave him a calendar featuring ancient ruins from around the world.
“I’m 10 and I have no idea where Peru is, but I know I want to go there,” he said. He never gave up the urge, which has taken him to Machu Picchu and beyond. “When you’re standing there, you’re looking as the same view people had thousands of years ago. It’s like you’re sharing it with them. It’s very, very satisfying. You can’t time travel, but this is the closest you can come.”
He’s circumnavigated the globe a couple of times, from big cities to the countryside. And even if a place smells bad or people are rude to him, the experiences seem to feed him in an elemental way. Chances are, New York City’s going to be a good fit.
Masato’s first ski season was in ’95: snow, snow and more snow. He pulled up in rear-entry ski boots and local riders felt sorry for him. Through the local-hookup factor he received snowboard gear.
“You know how it is out here, someone’s always giving you stuff,” he said. He took the gear and learned how to snowboard. “I laughed so hard the whole time down the mountain. I got hooked.”
He got so hooked, in fact, that he didn’t let a broken arm prevent him from bagging 100 days. Sling and all, he was back on the hill within a couple weeks.
Lately, he’s been doing most of his riding in cars and on motorcycles. By age five he knew the make and model of every car he saw on the road. And he makes some sort of modification to every car he buys, from changing the tire size to ripping the entire engine out and starting again.
He created quite a stir at the Denver Auto Show when he unveiled his “Datsun 950Z.” Originally a 2003 Nissan 350Z, he remade it to have 950 horsepower. The name was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Nissan’s former US name, Datsun. Thanks to pretty girls and television crews, the unveiling was taken seriously for a time. Masato always gets an impish look when telling the tale.
The same competitive streak that kept him snowboarding with a broken arm serves him in other areas of his life. No matter how many people are in his restaurant, everybody has to at least start getting their food in under 30 minutes. If they do, he considers it a win.
Even in the beginning he’d race the professional sushi chefs when he was simply a kid, training to work with fish. “They didn’t know I was racing them, but I did,” he said. “So they didn’t know I was faster, but I was.”
By the same token, failure isn’t an option. He wasn’t considered a financially sound investment by banks, so he funded his restaurant with credit cards for the first year or so. And paid the bills off within two years. He doesn’t even think about failing in New York.
“The founder of Panasonic said, ‘The formula of success is 99 percent of effort and 1 percent of luck,'” he said. “I heard this when I was in my early 20s. This was cut and clear ” made total sense for young Masato. I still believe in it.”
Freelance photographer Gregory Costanzo is a former Beaver Creek snowboard instructor who now lives in Brooklyn, where Masato is heading.
“I learned how to eat sushi at Masato’s,” Costanzo said. “It’ll be nice if he’s here (in Brooklyn) but it won’t be the same.”
Part of the difference will be the staff. He’s got many long-time employees who make up part of the Masato’s experience. Seitaro Amaguchi has been working in the kitchen and on the sushi bar for 12 years, while Isidoro Lopez has been a combination sous chef/dishwasher for eight yeas. Up front servers Cindi Lewis and Carrie Sedota have been sassing patrons for four years and three years, respectively.
Though excited about his new adventure, Masato says he’ll miss the people here.
“I love it when someone says, ‘If he has it, the uni’s always good,'” Masato said. “Chefs would stop making things if people stopped enjoying them. I’m glad I found people who enjoy what I do.”
It’s safe to say those people are glad they found him, too.
Closing day at Beaver Creek, Apr. 12, is also closing day at Masato’s. Nozawa will be taking over the space. But before Masato leaves town at the end of the month he intends to teach three classes at the restaurant for novice cooks, experienced chefs and anyone in between. For more information, or to simply make a dinner reservation, call the restaurant at 970-949-0330.