A few years ago, every bartender in the world seemed obsessed by the Japanese school. They studied the hard-shake, delved into the colour theories of Uyeda-san and marvelled at the incredible service of white-gloved bartenders in Shinjuku’s minuscule cocktail bars. The problem – and maybe part of the romance – was that you really had to go to Japan to learn about it, as few local bartenders worked abroad or even travelled to barshows. There are always exceptions, and Masahiro (Masa for his friends) Urushido is one of them.
When Masa, the winner of the Chivas Master Global Competition in 2014, came to Havana to judge this year’s Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix, he told us that when he moved to New York 10 years ago to study he immediately looked for a job as “here, you have to work to pay tuition and to live. I was very, very lucky to be introduced to everyone by the brand ambassador for a vodka – the friend of a friend – and to find work at a very busy restaurant in the West Village”. You see, Masa didn’t turn to hospitality because he had to: he already had about 7 years experience back home.
“I started working in a Tokyo restaurant when I was 19”, he explained, “and I got to work with amazing senseis, I picked up a lot of knowledge and classic, authentic Japanese technique in this beautiful place”. He fell in love with the trade: “I’m very lucky. The first place I worked at, I thought ‘oh, this is great’. It’s a privilege to go to work and do something you love.” One of the things this classically trained Japanese bartender immediately liked about New York bars was the diversity. “It’s very special, you walk into any place and the staff is from everywhere: Japan, France, North Africa, Mexico, America… It makes for a very creative environment”. This was a big contrast with Tokyo. “Obviously, everyone was from there. I don’t think I’m representing Japanese style bartending. I just happen to be from Japan and to have been trained by amazing Japanese hospitality professors”.
For Masa, there are also a lot of common points between the two cities, not least the fact that in New York as much as in Tokyo, “people who come to our bars mean something and we’re just there to be helpful”. Another aspect interesting to Masa is that New York shares latitude with the north of Japan, which means there are common points in terms of seasonality. “In Japan we celebrate seasons. The backbone of our culinary culture is that everything changes. We don’t split the year in four seasons. You may have as much as 6 ‘seasons’ in spring, for example. And if you go to a sushi restaurant, the master will talk about the fish he is serving and say is the first catch of the season, so it has specific flavours. He is sharing all those beautiful things with his guests because he enjoys doing that. It’s the same in bars”.
For the last 7 years, Masa’s name has been linked with Saxon + Parole, where he had joined Linden Pride and Naren Young to “create a great American restaurant bar”. It was a resounding success. When Pride and Young left a couple of years ago, Masa stayed and the whole team's hard work was rewarded by a Spirited Award for Best Restaurant Bar in America in 2016. He was also instrumental in launching Saxon + Parole in Moscow. There, he told us, the concept was the same but they were very inspired by local markets and cuisine: "It doesn't make sense to go to another country to try and do exactly what we were doing in New York". It was a fun project and it gave him the opportunity to discover another style of gastronomy. After so many years working at the same place, Masa is now ready for something different and he is about to open his own bar. We're still waiting for details, but with such a fascinating background, we have no doubts this will be another homerun for Masa!
Photo (c) Doron Gild.