Masa Takayama may well be the most famous sushi chef in the United States. He has impressed both coasts with his four-star menus, unassuming personal attentiveness and artistic dexterity. Now he showcases his inimitable charisma and cuisine in Las Vegas with barMASA at ARIA Resort & Casino.
Takayama grew up in Nasu, a small town north of Tokyo, where his parents owned a fish shop and catering business. When he and his siblings were not in school, they loaded fish into the shop’s display case and delivered their father’s sashimi to customers by bicycle. Takayama began cooking in his teens, helping his parents prepare five-course wedding dinners for 200 guests at a time.
Throughout his school years, Takayama was drawn to creative activities like drawing, painting, modeling clay or sculpting wood – anything that involved the micro-rhythms of his hands. Even today, sketching remains central to his creative process, as well as the design of ceramic vessels and sculptures for his restaurants. After graduating from high school, he moved to Tokyo, where he was hired by a well-known sushi restaurant, Ginza Sushi-ko, as a dishwasher. Intrigued by the genuine joy he observed in diners, he began to develop an equally genuine interest in the restaurant and its culinary craft. Before long, he moved his way up to sushi chef. “When I first started cutting the small delicate fish, I was struck by the artistic skill involved,” says Takayama. Then with a smile: “When cutting the larger fish, well, I realized I had become my father.”
Eight years later, Takayama visited Los Angeles, intent on seeing expanses of flat land entirely antithetical to Japan’s island mountains. With curious foreshadowing, his trip took him straight from the plane to the desert surrounding Las Vegas. Soon after, he relocated entirely to Los Angeles, where he worked at a number of small Japanese restaurants before opening his own Ginza Sushi-ko in Beverly Hills in 1983.
Small and intimate – and located in an unglamorous mini-mall – Ginza Sushi-ko quickly attracted a cult-like following and a rare four-star review from The Los Angeles Times. Takayama became famous for sourcing the very best ingredients available and, in the early years, would fly to the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo himself each Saturday. For 20 years,
Takayama and Ginza Sushi-ko remained Los Angeles’ loyal sushi savant and legendary destination.
Soon after the turn of the millennium, Takayama received an offer to open a restaurant in New York City’s newly built Time Warner Center. Encouraged by Thomas Keller – a big fan of Ginza Sushi-ko and opening his own restaurant in the same complex – along with a strong economy and the excitement of an even bigger food city, Takayama opened Masa in 2004. The restaurant soon won four stars from The New York Times (the only Japanese restaurant to do so in 20 years) with redoubtable food critic Frank Bruni declaring, “Masa engineers discrete moments of pure elation that few if any other restaurants can match.” A Forbes Five-Star rating and Michelin’s top rating of three stars soon followed. In Los Angeles, Takayama passed the Ginza Sushi-ko torch and knives to his sous-chef Hiro Urasawa who bought the restaurant to carry on the tradition.
Five years later, Takayama returned west to join the culinary explosion taking place in Las Vegas with barMASA at ARIA, reaching his dedicated west coast clientele as well as new guests from around the globe.
Intense and dedicated beyond the call of duty, Takayama enjoys his free time dreaming up new menus, sketching future dishes and planning his next intrepid dining concept.