The small, high-ceilinged dining room at Beacon has the unmistakable buzz of the restaurant of the moment.
The staff is in constant motion, delivering little plates piled with skewers of grilled chicken dabbed with sour umeboshi paste and strewn with aromatic shiso leaf, or salads like the one with sliced avocados sweetened with mirin dressing and speckled with black and white sesame seeds. They bring bowls filled with rich braised pork belly and crisp baby bok choy resting atop a pillow of chewy udon noodles. They carry big plates filled with black cod burnished with caramelly miso and grilled hanger steak spiked with fiery wasabi.
The white walls and sleek natural wood structures seem to soak up and reflect back the light that pours in from the tall windows. Light fixtures shaped like box kites float overhead.
In the display kitchen, chef Kazuto Matsusaka stands tall and a little stern, watching every detail. After 10 years of wandering from kitchen to kitchen, city to city, continent to continent, one of California’s most influential chefs has come home.
“I guess the last 10 years have been ... bumpy,” Matsusaka says, pausing to search for the politic adjective. “But everything here is the result of all those experiences I’ve had. It’s food from all the places I’ve worked, but it’s just the things I still want to cook every day and the things I want to eat every day.”
Back when some of his current customers were but glimmers in their foodie parents’ eyes, the 53-year-old Matsusaka was a founding member of Southern California’s chef elite, and an inventor of the fusing of Asian and European cuisines that has become a hallmark of modern restaurant cooking.
He worked at Ma Maison with Wolfgang Puck, at Michael’s with Michael McCarty and at L’Ermitage with Michel Blanchet. He was in the kitchen the first night at Spago, ushering in California cuisine, and at Chinois on Main, where he was head chef for eight years and helped to define fusion cuisine.
But then came more than a decade of what seemed like missteps and curious choices. In 1992 he left Chinois to open Zenzero, which was supposed to be his own restaurant. So why did he walk out after little more than a year? It turns out his supposed ownership was really a front for publicity’s sake. The real owner was a Japanese businessman, with whom he soon had a falling-out.
From there he bounced to a six-month stint at the old La Boheme in West Hollywood. Then he decamped to Paris, where he opened the white-hot Buddha Bar in 1996. He left that after a little more than a year to come back to Los Angeles to open the spinoff Barfly, but again split after only 10 months.
He moved to New York, running Restaurant Above for Larry Forgione and Jonathan Waxman for a year before returning to Southern California in 2001; he did some catering and private chef gigs while looking for a restaurant location.
Finally, last spring, Beacon opened, tucked into a back corner of the historic Helms Bakery home furnishings complex in Culver City.
Despite the obscurity of the location -- not only is it not in the Golden Triangle of Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, it isn’t even on Venice Boulevard -- Beacon was packed almost immediately. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila raved that the place “feels like a blessing” and predicted, “Beacon may be the start of a dining revolution.”
She was not alone in her opinion. Los Angeles magazine tabbed it as the best restaurant in the city -- extraordinary praise considering nothing on the menu costs more than $20 and most of the dishes are under $10. Heck, Beacon doesn’t even have valet parking.
Instead, imagine the neighborhood restaurant of your dreams and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Beacon is like -- smart and stylish, with the kind of food you can eat every night. The flavors are focused and bright. The dishes are thoughtfully edited, with only a few carefully chosen ingredients that somehow always seem to taste even better than you think they will.
Forget the jokes about “fusion cooking” being an abbreviation for “confusion cooking.” Maybe that’s because the cuisine is filtered through Matsusaka’s purist sensibility, or maybe it’s just the result of 20 years’ maturity.
“Usually fusion cooking doesn’t work because people try to combine too many ingredients,” Matsusaka says. “That’s the most common mistake. I think mostly it’s because people don’t respect the food. They just combine whatever they think might taste good, and sometimes that doesn’t work so well. I think our food works because we respect Asian food as it is instead of trying to change it too much. I try to keep it simple and clean and casual enough so everyone can enjoy it.”
Ego on the back burner
But he acknowledges there may be more personal reasons for his success. “I think today I have a lot less ego and am a lot more focused on the food than maybe I was before,” he says. “When you’re young, you always have that ego challenging you to do more. You have to be better than Wolfgang [Puck] or something.”
Indeed, Puck played a huge role in Matsusaka’s career. He hired him for his first non-Japanese job. In 1978 Matsusaka, who was born in Kumamoto, Japan, and drifted into cooking as a way to make a living, was doing Benihana-style teppan cooking at a place on La Cienega called Pear Garden, when his golfing buddy Hideo Yamashiro (later to open Shiro in Pasadena) called him.
“At that time I had only been in this country long enough to get my green card,” Matsusaka says. “The only English I knew was ‘Hello,’ ‘Thank you very much’ and ‘How do you like your steak cooked?’
“Shiro called me and said, ‘Kazuto, you don’t want to be doing teppan when you’re 30 years old, do you? I’m at a place called Ma Maison, and I’m talking to a guy named Wolfgang Puck. You need to talk to him.’
“Shiro-san always had a vision; he was always thinking about 10 years ahead of everyone else. He knew that French restaurants were going to be big in Los Angeles and that that would be a good business to be in. And I knew that I didn’t want to keep doing the same thing. If you do that, you’re not gaining anything; you’re not growing. I still remember that day. That call changed my whole life.”
Cooking at Ma Maison was definitely something different. Matsusaka had never even eaten French food before going to work there. The rich cream-, cheese- and butter-laden dishes served in those days were as foreign to his Japanese palate as wasabi, shoyu and shiso were to the French.
His first job was making the restaurant’s famous salmon en croute. “That’s basically butter, butter and more butter,” Matsusaka says. “There’s salmon mousse, which is about 90% butter, wrapped in puff pastry, which is about 90% butter, and served with beurre blanc. We sold something like 60 of those every night.”
After that introduction to French cooking, Matsusaka moved to L’Ermitage. Though legendary founder Jean Bertranou had recently died, it was still regarded as the best French restaurant in the city under Bertranou’s successor Michel Blanchet, and possibly one of the best in the country.
Matsusaka began hearing rumors that Puck and his sous-chef, Mark Peel, might be leaving Ma Maison to open a place of their own up above Sunset Boulevard. His offer of help was quickly accepted. “They gave me the menu and said, ‘Here it is. We’re going to open tomorrow.’ There was no practice, not even a cocktail party or anything. I was the pantry chef, and I just read the descriptions on the menu and made everything up.”
Occasionally those improvisations would veer off into experiments with Asian flavors -- some of the first attempts anywhere at what would come to be called fusion cooking.
“One day Wolfgang said he wanted a tuna sashimi salad,” Matsusaka says. “I said, ‘How do you want me to do this?’ And he just said, ‘Kazuto, use your imagination.’ ” Matsusaka tossed thinly sliced tuna sashimi with some mixed greens and dressed the salad with ginger, soy sauce and olive oil. That dish stayed on the Spago menu for years.
There was definitely something in the air in Los Angeles at that time. Besides Spago, there were La Petite Chaya, Ishi Grill, C’est Japon and Restaurant Lyon, all of which were experimenting with cooking French food from a Japanese point of view.
When Chinois opened the next year, it took fusion in a slightly different and much more dramatic direction -- centered on Chinese and Southeast Asian influences. Puck and Richard Krause, who was the head chef for the first year, would talk about ideas for dishes and then leave most of the execution to the talented team of Matsusaka, Makoto Tanaka (now chef at Mako) and Takashi “Fred” Iwasaki (now chef at the Highlands in Hollywood). (Matsusaka is aware of the irony of three Japanese, an American and an Austrian cooking Chinese fusion: “Chinese customers never said it tasted Chinese; they always said it tasted American.”)
After a year, Matsusaka was named chef, a position he held for eight years. “I thought I would never leave that restaurant,” he says. “I thought I’d stay forever. The way Wolfgang treated me -- the freedom and the creativity I had. That was a great experience. I got to travel, and I got to meet so many people. Without that I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“But eventually it was time for me to step out of that comfortable chair and challenge myself.... To cook the kind of food I wanted to, I’d have to leave. Chinois’ food is not exactly light cooking. There’s a lot of butter, cream and spices, and as I was getting older, I realized that was not the kind of food that I wanted to eat or cook every day. My vision of food is clean, light and simple.”
A taste of reality
Thus began more than a decade of bouncing from one job to another, the responsibility for which he quickly owns up to.
“I had worked for Wolfgang for so many years, my business sense was a little bit up in the air,” Matsusaka says. “I didn’t realize that the reality of the restaurant business was completely different from what I’d been doing the last 10 years. At Chinois, you opened the door and people just fell in. It didn’t really matter what you served and it didn’t really matter what you charged. When I opened Zenzero, I realized the reality was a little different. But I wasn’t mature or experienced enough for it to work.”
There were good things to come out of it, though. Foremost among them was meeting his wife, Vicki Fan, who worked as a line cook at Zenzero and is now general manager at Beacon. They married in 1996.
The daughter of Shanghainese immigrants, she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and is the one Matsusaka credits for having the business sense in the family.
“I just am not a good businessman -- I don’t think about the money,” he says. “After I leave the restaurant at night, I try not to think about the business part of it at all. I just want to make the menu and cook the food.”
Fan is also a good cook and brings an expertise with Chinese cuisine. The braised pork belly for Beacon’s kakuni udon is based on her mom’s recipe, though it has been filtered through Matsusaka’s Japanese sensibility. The original is very Chinese, long-cooked with soy and rock sugar. The Beacon version is lighter in flavor, the pork belly braised in mirin sweet wine instead, and served with brothy udon noodles and crisp baby bok choy and bamboo shoots.
“My mom’s is in a sticky brown sauce, and it has that lip-coating taste Chinese people love,” Fan says. “But for everybody else’s palate, we need to lighten up a little.”
The partnership at Beacon, which also includes pastry chefs Rochelle Huppin Fleck and Lorraine Tajiri, took three years to find just the right spot for the restaurant. Finally it happened almost by accident. A friend in the real estate business had been bugging Matsusaka and Fan about the location for months before they agreed to look at it.
“We were not too excited about being in Culver City, to tell you the truth,” says Matsusaka. “I don’t think we’d even been here except to go to [restaurant supply store] Surfas. But [our friend] kept pushing.
“Finally Vicki and I decided to come take a look, and it turned out to be the perfect spot. The guy who owns the complex had kept it open for four years looking for just the right concept. For him, it wasn’t about just the money, but about finding the right food to fit in with the rest of the businesses.
“And now we really like Culver City. There are normal people here. I think we did pretty good.”
Fusion flavors come home
Kazuto MATSUSAKA’S and Vicki Fan’s recipes come together remarkably easily considering the complexity and harmony of the flavors. But there are some ingredients called for that may be a little unfamiliar. All of these can be bought at a good Japanese market, such as Marukai or Mitsuwa.
Katsuobushi (bonito flakes): Made from dried bonito, a member of the tuna family, it is frequently combined with kombu to make dashi, the fundamental stock in Japanese cooking. Buy bags with the biggest, shiniest flakes you can find. Store whatever you don’t use in the pantry in a tightly sealed plastic bag.
Kombu: Sheets of dried kelp (various members of the Laminaria family) that are used for their flavor-enhancing properties. Look for packages labeled dashi kombu.
Mirin: A sweet, somewhat syrupy low-alcohol beverage made from rice. It is used as mostly as a cooking ingredient, not for drinking by itself.
Shiso leaves (or oba): These are the extremely fragrant leaves of the perilla plant (Perilla frutescens), a member of the mint family. It is sometimes called Japanese basil, mostly because of the remarkable aromatic quality rather than any specific flavor similarity.
Fish sauce: There are various fish sauces made throughout Southeast Asia. Be sure to use one specifically labeled as having been made in Thailand or Vietnam. There is also one from the Philippines (patis) that is much stronger in flavor.
Tokyo negi: Giant scallions with a sweet, mild flavor.
Umeboshi paste: This extremely sour condiment is made from ground umeboshi, an immature plum (actually closer to an apricot) that has been salted and dried with shiso leaves for seasoning.
Usukuchi-style soy sauce: A thin, light-colored soy sauce that won’t change the color of the food.