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Shinji Muramoto is standing in the back kitchen of his flagship Restaurant Muramoto, explaining a bit of his restaurant philosophy.
"We don't have a walk-in cooler because I want to try to get everything fresh every day," says one of Madison's most notable restaurateurs. "If we have a walk-in cooler, the cooks tend to overstock everything, so I just give them a little space for cooling and freezing."
He walks over to a low fridge and pulls out a transparent plastic container that appears to hold a tiny biosphere. It's packed full of small, delicate green plants used for garnishing and texture. "We buy microgreens from Scott at Garden to Be, in Mount Horeb," Muramoto says.
The restaurant tries to buy as much locally as possible; fish, though, is flown in daily from Chicago. "At Sushi Muramoto, we get maybe 20 different kinds every day. We have bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin, albacore, and we buy fatty tuna from bluefin separately."
Muramoto's finely tuned attention is evident in every aspect of his three Asian-influenced Madison restaurants: Sushi Muramoto, 546 N. Midvale Blvd.; Restaurant Muramoto, 225 King St.; and the Haze, 106 King St.
He is one of Madison's most decorated chefs. A 2009 James Beard Foundation Award nominee for best chef in the Midwest, he also won the Dueling Chefs competition at the Madison Food and Wine Show for three consecutive years (2005-2007). Muramoto's style of cooking is simple, fresh ingredients prepared well, and his expertise has led him to the top of a growing restaurant mini-empire in Madison.
It would be logical to assume that someone so ensconced in the food world has a driving passion for cooking and food. But Muramoto's nonchalant attitude toward the act of cooking is almost startling given his abilities. He looks baffled when asked his favorite ingredient to work with. "I don't really get the question," he says. "Cooking is just a job to me. I don't know if I can say I enjoy cooking at all."
Clearly he doesn't daydream about perfect loins of tuna. But to say he doesn't love to cook doesn't mean he doesn't care.
Shinji Muramoto was born in 1970 in Sapporo, Japan. His father was a businessman whose job at an American-owned company allowed him to come home around 5 or 6 p.m. rather than keeping the extended hours of the typical Japanese father. After arriving home from work, Yuji Muramoto took either Shinji or Shinji's mother, Michiko, shopping for food. They'd return with the groceries, and Yuji would make dinner in his restaurant-standard kitchen.
Shinji Muramoto doesn't know how his dad learned to enjoy cooking, but credits his father with getting him interested. "I think he wanted to be a cook. Because he had four kids, he couldn't go for his dream - he just stayed with his job. He came home at the same time every day and cooked for the family, so he acted like he was a chef and I was his sous chef. I think that's how I got into cooking."
Despite the hours spent at his father's side in the kitchen, Muramoto didn't plan to become a chef. The hunger for the wider world was there early on. "I knew I didn't fit in in Japan," he says. "The Japanese businessman, you work for a company and you never quit the job. You have no freedom. My dad was a good example. He worked for the same company for 40 years. That's an old Japanese tradition; that was something I didn't want."
Muramoto left Japan for the U.S. in 1992, enrolling at Edgewood College to study business. He didn't finish. His unexpected entry into the Madison restaurant scene has been well documented: a part-time job at Wasabi turned full-time when his talent became apparent. There were off-and-on stints at Restaurant Magnus; he then became executive chef at Opus Lounge when it opened in 2000 (and created, along with Patrick O'Halloran of Lombardino's, its opening menu). By then he was working on plans for his own restaurant. The first iteration of Restaurant Muramoto opened in 2004 at 106 King St., transforming a former hot dog stand into a chic urban oasis.
There's an obvious irony in the fact that Muramoto ended up in an industry known for its punishing hours and disconnection from the rhythms of "normal" life: the late-night work schedule leading to days that begin at noon, the holidays spent working while others gather with family. Even so, Muramoto says, "The first restaurant I opened, I really enjoyed what I was doing, even though I put in a hundred hours a week. I was very excited."
Justin Carlisle, Restaurant Muramoto's executive chef, fondly calls Muramoto a workaholic. "I think he's worse now than when he started. Everybody always makes fun of him because they don't see him at the restaurant, but he's running three restaurants, and now...he has a wife and two kids under the age of three, and he's taken on triple the employees. Trying to keep a handle on all that is pretty extreme."
So extreme, in fact, that in the past year the Muramoto mini-empire has seen a changing of the guard. Carlisle, formerly of Harvest and Chicago's Tru, was hired in 2007 at Restaurant Muramoto (bringing several of Harvest's staff along with him) and became executive chef in October 2009. Bee Khang, the manager of the west-side Sushi Muramoto, became executive chef there at the same time. Muramoto also hired Daniel Momont, a founder of the wildly successful Old Fashioned, as the general manager of all his restaurants.
These shifts were the culmination of a longstanding plan by Muramoto to put Khang and Carlisle in control so that Muramoto himself could step back. "The kitchen is running itself," he remarks, "which is what I wanted from the beginning."
Along with Carlisle, Carlisle's wife Cory, and Restaurant Muramoto pastry chef Dan Almquist, Muramoto opened the American-Asian barbecue joint the Haze late last year. "I built this bar myself," Muramoto says, running a hand along the smoothly varnished wooden slab. This space is a sort of Muramoto hydra, having been home to three of his restaurants: the original Restaurant Muramoto, the now-defunct Kushi Muramoto and the Haze.
The Haze shares several characteristics with Muramoto's other restaurants, most obviously a focus on combining Asian and other types of cuisine. In this case, the fusion is demarcated by a line down a blackboard separating east and west. At the more upscale Restaurant Muramoto and Sushi Muramoto, fusion occurs on a subtler level in dishes like crab cakes with yuzu béarnaise or Okinawan potato gnocchi in a miso-mascarpone sauce.
Although Muramoto certainly played a role in creating and opening the Haze, he never intended for the public to associate him with it. "I was trying to hide the fact that I am involved, but this town is too small to hide that." However, Muramoto's web page makes the relationship clear - there's a link to "our friends at the Haze."
"I was planning to own many restaurants from the beginning," Muramoto explains from our vantage point in the back kitchen of Restaurant Muramoto. The restaurant is preparing to host its first wedding banquet, and the cooks are moving around us in concentrated motion. Muramoto leans against a counter, relaxed and quiet. It wasn't passion that led him to be a chef, but practicality. "I am good at it," says Muramoto, with no boasting in his tone.
"Just because I am good at it doesn't mean I have a love for it. A big part of it is that I grew up in Japan, so I am different from everybody else here. I know something people don't know, and I take an advantage from being Japanese."
Although he refuses to profess a love for cooking, Muramoto clearly takes pride in the restaurants he's created: "I believe we are a lot better than other restaurants. The kitchen staff and the front of the house get along. Typically the kitchen and the front of the house fight each other."
When asked what other Madison kitchens he'd consider on a par with his own, Muramoto pauses - for a long time. He finally says, "That's a good question. I can't think of any."
It's not that he doesn't like anyone else's food - he names Lao Laan-Xang and Lombardino's as regular dinner destinations - but in terms of running a solid business, he remains largely unimpressed by what other restaurant owners are doing.
Muramoto struggles for words when he tries to describe what's lacking in other places. "I just feel it. I can tell when I go to a restaurant if the front of the house can't talk to the kitchen people."
The lack of communication between kitchen and front is a persistent issue in most restaurants, and in Muramoto's opinion, the results always end up on the plate. "It always comes to the customer. The easiest example is that the server brings to the table something wrong. But the customer already touched it, so they have to send it back to the kitchen, and then the kitchen guys get mad."
What's different in Muramoto's restaurants? "I think it's because I'm a chef-owner," Muramoto says. "The front of the house has more respect for the kitchen guys [because I'm part of both areas]."
Architecture also plays an important role. Muramoto alludes to Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain's memoir about the sturm und drang of restaurant kitchens. "This is why all of my restaurants have open kitchens - I gave the cooks a big part of our show. The restaurant has to provide good food, good service and a good atmosphere, but the food we make is on the main stage." The reason might be even simpler, though: "Because we have an open kitchen, we cannot fight in front of customers."
Would he ever open a traditional Japanese restaurant in Madison? "No," he says flatly. "There's no demand, and I'm not that good." He wasn't trained as a traditional Japanese cook, and whenever he has tried to introduce traditional Japanese dishes here "they never sell. The true Japanese cuisine is very simple: vegetables cooked in dashi stock, salt, very plain, pale."
Muramoto thinks cultural differences prevent Madisonians from warming to traditional Japanese cuisine. "In [school in] Japan we get a monthly lunch schedule and it's different every day. In Japan, when you are growing up, all the adults are trying to make you eat as many things as possible, but here it's pizza or a sandwich every day."
Muramoto's young family - wife Kimiko, son Kai and new baby girl Coco - is a major part of his decision to step away from center stage in his restaurants. There is another family, though, driving this decision: his restaurant family. Muramoto wants to help all his cooks achieve every cook's dream: their own restaurant.
"Shinji is an owner who offers to give," says Restaurant Muramoto chef Carlisle. "Most owners just want their business to succeed, because if they're doing well, they're happy and comfortable. They don't want to go out and take more risks."
Dan Almquist adds, "Shinji's said to all of us, 'I've made enough money for myself. I want to make money for you guys now.'"
Now that the Haze is open and Muramoto has his leaders in place, it's finally time for him to direct his energies to other places besides the kitchen. "[Last week] I didn't work in the kitchen at all," he says. Indeed, he seems to prefer simmering ideas to simmering pots on a stove. His plans for the future aren't concrete - golf was longingly mentioned - but the possibility of opening a deli/bakery and an upscale seafood market weaves its way through Muramoto's conversations with staff, and there are no doubt other ventures in his mind as well.
The monotony of local school lunch menus is one challenge Muramoto wants to tackle. He makes a traditional Japanese bento box lunch every morning for his son, and recently decided to branch out. "Last week I made lunchboxes for my son's class, 20 of them. I actually went there, made lunch, gave it to the school, and explained what everything is. The teacher told me that except for three kids, they all ate them."
"After having two kids," Muramoto notes seriously, "I'm concerned about what they're going to eat in school." He has his work cut out for him: his 3-year-old, he says, is "the toughest guy to cook for in this town. It seems like a lot of customers appreciate what we make, but he doesn't care." Muramoto laughs.
While the cooks of Restaurant Muramoto move around, focused and efficient as they place finishing touches on the wedding banquet, I observe Shinji Muramoto several times just standing there, leaning against a counter or gazing across the empty restaurant with arms folded. He doesn't seem anxious or even as if he is thinking about much at all. He is present amid the fast flow of the kitchen staff but not part of it. When I ask how it feels to look out from a kitchen that's no longer his kitchen, he says quickly and definitively, "Good. I feel good."