This is part one of my interview with Shaun Motoda, chef de cuisine of TAG|RAW BAR; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Shaun Motoda, the chef de cuisine at TAG|RAW BAR, grew up wanting to be an architect. But the 33-year-old sultan of sushi, who was born and raised in Hawaii, admits that his math skills were less than desirable, so he ditched that idea in favor of culinary school at Kapiolani Community College, realizing that he could he could parlay his passion for design to the plate. "I knew that being an architect wasn't going to work out, but I love food, I'm obsessed with where it comes from, and I was aware that I could translate my love for architecture to creativity and artistry on the plate," he explains.
That love started at Taco Bell, his first job. "Believe it or not, we actually got innovative, especially late at night, when we'd experiment with taco pizzas, or buy fries from McDonald's and make chili-cheese fries," he recalls, adding that he still has a fetish for the fast-food joint. "I was a dedicated worker -- I stayed there for a year and a half -- and I still go once or twice a month to get my fix."
He worked at a family-run Italian restaurant while in culinary school and wound up spending more time in the kitchen than in the classroom, so after two years he dropped out and secured a gig as a line cook at Outback Steakhouse, where he catered to carnivores for almost three years. Then he got a lucky break: "A friend of mine from culinary school was working at Roy's on Oahu -- it was Roy Yamaguchi's first restaurant -- and he needed help with pastries, so while I knew very little about pastries, it was a foot in the door," says Motoda. He did the pastry gig for just over two years, then moved into the kitchen as a line cook. About that time, Roy's was beginning to roll out sushi -- and that, says Motoda, "really intrigued me, especially since my cultural background is Japanese."
Motoda was a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he could from Yamaguchi and his staff, and he began practicing at home, buying his own ingredients at the market. "I wanted to do fusion sushi -- things that people had never seen before -- so I started experimenting, and then I brought one of my rolls to Roy's and told the chef that I wanted to step it up a notch and do some really creative things," he remembers. And the kitchen gave him a shot. "I got to create new rolls every day; I learned how to break down fish, perfect rolling techniques and perfectly slice sashimi," he recalls. By the time he left, almost nine years later, he'd been given the opportunity to open another Roy's on Waikiki, where he became the sous chef.
But a girlfriend living in Denver convinced him to bid farewell to that job and Hawaii, and head to the Mile High City, where he soon said "Aloha" to Troy Guard, executive chef-owner of TAG. Guard and Motoda instantly clicked; Guard had also worked for Yamaguchi. Motoda staged at TAG for a night, and Guard hired him as a line cook/sauté cook, a stint he held for a year until Guard opened TAG|RAW BAR, where Motoda is now the chef de cuisine, along with Sam Freund. "This is an awesome job," he says. "I love creating flavor profiles that make guests raise their eyebrows and question my motives, and then seeing their 'Oh, wow, this works!' reaction. I love turning people into believers." In the following interview, Motoda weighs in on what he eats at Taco Bell (a lot!), pleads for a less judgmental restaurant industry and explains why his tasting menu will blow you away.
How do you describe your food? It's bold, unique and defies the generally accepted rules of the kitchen.
Ten words to describe you: Shy, different, understanding, patient, calm, protective, crazy, unique, passionate and hungry.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now I'm obsessed with using soy; I grew up with it, and it adds so much depth of flavor. I'm also working with a lot of different chiles -- jalapeño, sambal and serranos. I like the heat they bring to a dish and how they can unfurl so many unexpected flavors. I also like playing around with acid in the form of citrus, vinegars -- especially rice wine -- and yuzu. I like how they enhance certain flavors, like bringing out the sweetness in something you wouldn't expect. If you squeeze a little lemon on uni, for example, it brings out an incredible sweetness. I love how something so simple can alter the profile of whatever ingredient you're working with.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I use a specific metal kitchen spoon for everything -- to flip things in a pan, taste, plate and sculpt. It's a little bigger than a regular tablespoon, and I've always got one on me.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love using the melons from the Western Slope in salads, compressing them for carpaccio and plating the ripe fruit with fish. I'm already thinking about the summer and creating a sushi roll that will have a melon component.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd love to see a trend that's the anti-trend, by which I mean people just eating what they want and what they like -- not letting others dictate what to eat or how to eat, or what's "cool" to eat.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I get that certain people have serious dietary restrictions, but I'm not a big fan of everything going gluten-free. I know it seems like this is a trend that's here to stay, but so was the sugar-free trend, and the carb-free trend and the fat-free trend.... I'll be happy when gluten is back in style.
What's never in your kitchen? I don't use a fryer in my kitchen. There are chefs who can retain the flavor in food when they use a fryer, but I'm not really one of them. I think anything you put in a fryer probably tastes better before it goes in.
What's always in your kitchen? Super-fresh ingredients like tuna and salmon, avocados, butter lettuce and jalapeños. I'm also getting into the whole juicing thing -- both for drinking and for incorporating into my dishes, so I've been stocking up on lots of leafy greens, cucumbers, celery and apples.
Favorite dish on your menu: The moto-roll is the first sushi roll I ever created, and I purchased all the ingredients myself and then made it for the chef at Roy's because I really wanted to bring fusion sushi to the menu. It's tuna, roasted unagi and avocado slicked with a spicy pineapple glaze, and I think it's the best sushi on the TAG|RAW menu. It's got everything I love all rolled up, literally, into a perfect bite.
Biggest menu bomb: I was taking an Asian cooking class in culinary school and we were making tamago -- an egg omelet -- and it's really hard to make; it takes a ton of technique. You have to use chopsticks to fold the egg and make layers of omelet, and it's supposed to be a perfect square, have no color at all and be nice and fluffy. The first hundred times I tried to make it, the results were overcooked or undercooked, lopsided, lumpy, all punctured and cut up. It was seriously impossible to get right. I still haven't mastered it -- in fact, I don't think I've made it since.
Favorite childhood food memory: Starting when I was about six years old, my grandfather would take us up to the North Shore of Oahu to fish in the ocean during the summer. We'd pack a lunch and head out mid-morning and fish off the shore. We never really caught anything big -- just little fish. We'd bait the hooks ourselves and take the fish off when we caught them, and we did that every summer until I was about twelve, when he got too old to take us. It's still one of my favorite things to do when I go back to Oahu.
Favorite junk food: I love fast food from Taco Bell, especially after a night out. My standard order includes the Nachos Bell Grande, at least two chicken burritos and three taco supremes. For real.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: If a chef doesn't taste everything, early and often, then forget it. It's nearly impossible to control quality and consistency if you're not tasting the same food that your guests are tasting. I never serve anything to a guest that I haven't tried first.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: I would probably tell them that they paid too much for their education. There's a lot to be said about a formal culinary education, but there's no replacement for experience. I'd take a person with a few years of kitchen experience under his/her belt over a new culinary-school grad any day.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Product pricing is always fluctuating, and it's a full-time job to keep up with costs, especially with fresh fish.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Grant Achatz, because of his molecular expertise. I know a lot of people are doing it these days, but he's the best in my opinion. I'm totally intrigued by the whole approach. I'd also want to have dinner with Thomas Keller because, well, he's Thomas Keller. So many of the techniques I've learned over the years were gleaned from chefs who have worked in his kitchens. And last but not least, Jiro Ono, because I love traditional sushi. I'd love to talk basics with him. I have this daydream where he tells me all of his secrets.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I always thought I'd be an architect of either buildings or landscapes. I love art, but I wasn't great at math, so when I decided to pursue something different, I combined my love of art and building and applied them to creating beautiful dishes and plates.
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What's in the pipeline? I'm really excited about the launch of our RAW U sushi-making classes starting on March 16. After that, we'll host them at TAG|RAW the second Saturday of each month.