Masa Urushido on The art of Omotenashi
Masa Urushido began his career in hospitality on a bike, delivering pizza through the streets of Tokyo. He opened his own bar, Katana Kitten, in New York’s Greenwich Village two decades later. Multi-talented and notoriously charismatic, Masa’s unique style of hospitality sees him combine his experiences of growing up in Minowa - a small idyllic town in Japan's Nagano Prefecture - with his time spent in Tokyo and thirteen years of calling NYC his home.
Opened in 2018, Katana Kitten is Masa distilled - fun, welcoming, and impossible not to love. A roaring success, Katana Kitten was listed as 16th Best Bar in the World 2020, and named America’s Best New Bar 2019 by Tales of The Cocktail. Drinks are innovative yet simple with highballs and martinis at the forefront, served alongside dishes inspired by Masa’s grandmother’s recipes. Japanese film posters adorn the walls next to Americana trinkets behind a bamboo-fronted bar, with dollar bills affixed to Japanese hanging lights.
The combination of Japanese culture and American influence can be found everywhere - in a boilermaker of Budweiser and Toki Whisky, buffalo tofu fingers served with dashi buttermilk ranch, and an Amaretto Sour made with American rye, salted plum and Yukari. At the centre of it all is Masa, with his signature smile and hachimaki, working to ensure that every guest leaves happier than when they arrived.
Join us on an exploration of Japanese hospitality with House of Suntory as we chart Masa’s rise to success, from his grandparent’s paddy fields to his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Through the overarching theme of Omotenashi, we’ll be learning about the Japanese concepts of Ikigai, Sensei, Kodawari, and Shokunin, picking up tips, techniques, and a few cocktails on the way.
OMOTENASHI - おもてなし
Omotenashi is the combination of two ideas. ‘Omote’ means ‘public face’ – an image you wish to present to outsiders. ‘Nashi’ means ‘nothing’. Combining them means every service is from the bottom of the heart – honest, no hiding, no pretending. As Masa explains, “as a host, welcoming people into your house, into the bar, really paying attention to the guest, and making sure they leave happy, that's omotenashi to me.”
Chapter one of Masa’s story is centred around the idea of Ikigai. Masa explains, “The word ‘ikigai’ means something you live for, something that drives you and gives you excitement for the new day.” For Masa, growing up in the countryside with his family gave him an early insight into the importance of finding something you love. “As a kid, it's beautiful to have both grandparents nearby. I always found them in the field working from before I woke up to past sunset. That was their ikigai. When I go home and walk into my grandparent’s house, I can still see what they achieved. I'm very lucky to get to do what I love, and I have to give that credit to my grandparents. I wish I could tell them how grateful I am. In my case, it’s my daughter, my precious daughter, walking her to school, that’s my ikigai.” To represent the concept of ikigai, Masa has created the Panda Fizz. In an ode to his grandparents and the paddy fields they loved, Masa combines Haku Vodka - made from Japanese rice - with pear, pandan, lemon, and Calpico - a Japanese milk-based soft drink that harks back to his childhood - finished with a lava salt rim. Nostalgic, tasty, and not quite as simple as it looks.
In chapter two of Masa’s story, we explore the importance of Sensei and mentorship. As Masa explains, “mentorship is very important because all these people came before me, brought me up to where I am today, everything is kind of traced back to what they told me. I got so much from them.” While delivering pizzas in Tokyo, Masa found a job advert for a role at Shibuya’s Tableaux. He applied, was accepted, and found himself cleaning the bathrooms, polishing the silverware and setting up the tables. Six months in, he was promoted to head bartender under the tutelage of his first bartending sensei, Antonio Suzuki, in the restaurant’s cigar bar. “The speed of his work, drinks making at the same time as having conversations with a bar full of people, he was a star and still to this day, I really have a respect for him.” In his new position as a bartender, the first drinks Masa learned to make were Martinis for a particularly fussy regular. Today, he’s created the Tokubetsu Martini in celebration of the man who taught him how to make cocktails, his first sensei - Antonio Suzuki. Tokubetsu in Japanese means special, and this drink lives up to its name. Roku Gin is combined with extra dry vermouth and the Japanese rice beverage Amazake, bottled, stored in the freezer, garnished with fresh yuzu zest and cucumber bitters.
In chapter three of Masa’s story, we delve into the meaning of Kodawari. In Masa’s words, “kodawari to me is - you like certain things in a very particular way. When it comes to work, this comes down to care; how much do you care?” In 2008 Masa moved to NYC to pursue a degree in hospitality management, taking a job at Nolita’s Ruby’s Cafe to help pay the bills. “Working at Ruby’s Cafe, I started getting to meet people and making friends, and building the feeling of like ‘oh I feel like home.’ To be honest, I never felt that when I was living in Tokyo.” In 2011, Masa was approached to join the team at Saxon and Parole - a bar that would go on to win the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for World’s Best Restaurant Bar 2013 and America’s Best Restaurant Bar 2016. When working at Saxon + Parole, Masa discovered a new attention to detail that made him want to learn more, and delve deeper into the history of classic cocktails. He explains, “It was like I had to go back to school to be serious about what I do. What I learnt is how to respect the classics and the stories behind them, and how to look through that history and add your own story, and that's how I make drinks today.” To represent kodawari, Masa has chosen The Truffle Old Fashioned, which he created during his time at Saxon + Parole. Truffle butter-washed Toki Whisky is stirred with a shiitake and porcini syrup, chocolate bitters and truffle salt, garnished with a freshly shaved burgundy black truffle slice.
For Masa, who is characteristically modest, he doesn’t see himself as a shokunin, but it’s something he aspires to be. “I want to be looked at by other people as a shokunin. That's kind of like motivation, I guess, that I want to make this thing better; it’s something I enjoy living for, working in the bar. Everything comes down to shokunin; it’s not just one day you get there - it's a daily practice.” To represent the concept of shokunin, Masa has chosen the Toki Highball, served on tap from a bespoke machine at Katana Kitten. “Every single highball serve is very different in that each highball needs care and attention. We have these two very special machines created for this very special, very particular drink.” With the highest carbonation possible, the machine chills Toki Whisky through a coil and dispenses it with soda, which Masa serves with a perfectly clear ice cube garnished with pickled ume and lemon twist. “Katana kitten is a very casual setting”, Masa explains, “so this is everyone’s everyday bar. Hot food is hot; cold drinks are cold; it has to be simple and delicious and worth your penny. When I step out from the bar, I hear time-to-time people's reaction; some people walk past, and you know, like I listen to the conversation. They go, “the drinks are good. I love that place.” That's my proud moment.”
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