Seijiro Matsumoto and Annie Zheng at Mizu Yakitori
Seijiro Matsumoto and Annie Zheng at Mizu Yakitori Credit: Eric Futran

At the age of 12 Seijiro Matsumoto began his apprenticeship at a ryotei in Fukuoka, Japan, by wiping individual bamboo leaves in the garden of the private dining club every morning. In return he was given food, a place to sleep, and precious little else. It would be three years before he was permitted to wash the soup pots.

When Mizu Yakitori owner Annie Zheng was 12, she flat-out refused to work at her aunt’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago. But a few years later, while studying film at Columbia College, she did deign to answer phones at Jia’s on Halsted.

She ended up working at Jia’s on and off for the next ten years, and by 1998, when Matsumoto (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) came on board as chef, she’d been promoted all the way up to manager. Thirty-one years her senior, Matsumoto had already scaled professional peaks, having become head chef at a hotel restaurant in Kyushu, where he’d prepared the seasonal multicourse meals known as kaiseki, before emigrating to the U.S. in 1982.

In Chicago Matsumoto had become a respected member of the small, tight-knit, and often itinerant group of chefs who catered to expats working for Japanese companies, flush from the Japanese bubble economy of the 80s. For a time, beginning in 1986, he owned Daruma, in Schaumburg, but he also served stints in local Japanese restaurants like Honda, Hatsuhana, and Sakura as well as restaurants in Detroit and Saint Louis.

After the bubble burst, Honda and places such as Suntory and Benkay closed. Similarly, in the late 90s, says Zheng, Chinese restaurants were slowly dying “because Thai food was taking over the market. So all the Chinese restaurants started adding sushi bars.” Which is how Matsumoto wound up at Jia’s.

There he worked strictly as a sushi chef, but Zheng says she was awed by his mastery of other styles, his commitment to food, and his attention to detail. They talked about Japanese cuisine and culture, and he often made special dishes such as stir-fried duck liver and green tea rice just for her. Matsumoto told Zheng that in his early years he and his fellow cooks aspired to be like the head chef at the ryotei where he got his start, decked out in an expensive kimono, accepting stacks of yen from grateful customers, and commanding an unseen battalion of cooks.

Even though his tenure at Jia’s was short—he left for Kamehachi after six months, and from there moved on to Dee’s—he and Zheng stayed in touch. Five years ago, when she began planning to open her own place specializing in yakitori, skewers popular as a drinking food in Japan, she visualized Matsumoto at the helm. But when she asked him to come on board, she learned he’d already joined forces with his old friend Isao Tozuka and his wife, Chiyo Kim, owners of Albany Park’s Chicago Kalbi, to open the city’s first kaiseki restaurant, which they named for the chef.

Zheng says she was “traumatized” by this development, but because running a kaiseki restaurant was what Matusmoto was born to do, she couldn’t fault him. “That was exactly the restaurant he’d always wanted,” she says. “I couldn’t ask him to leave his dream for me.” She submitted her first chef for Matsumoto’s approval and consoled herself by indulging in a number of trips to his new restaurant.

Originally a light meal to accompany the centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony, over the course of 400 years kaiseki has evolved into an elaborate ritual of its own, an 8-to-14-course meal meant to harmonize with the season. Depending on the time of year and the number and even the gender of the diners, kaiseki may include one or more sushi and sashimi courses, soup, pickled vegetables, broiled fish, a hot pot, something fried, something grilled, and a dessert. Matsumoto briefly won a small but passionate following fixated on the rare ingredients, often sourced directly from Japan and arranged in dishes that maximized elemental textures, temperatures, and flavors, some of them unfamiliar to Western palates: mucilaginous mountain yam and shot glasses of deeply funky fish entrails might precede ornately plated, superfresh sashimi or hot pots of fat oysters bobbing in a simmering house-made miso broth.

But Chicagoans failed to flock to Matsumoto en masse, and by early 2006 the partnership had dissolved. The restaurant morphed into the more conventional Chiyo, and Matsumoto took a job at a restaurant owned by Toyota near one of its manufacturing plants in Kentucky.

Over the years Zheng called him frequently to solicit his advice and vent her frustrations. “Whenever I have any problem I tell him,” she laughs. “I bark in the phone. He says, ‘You are a tiger lady. It’s OK.'”

In May Matsumoto quit his job in Kentucky, and not long after, during one of Zheng’s calls, he surprised her by agreeing to return to Chicago and take up a position as her executive chef. He immediately began putting his own specials on the menu—paper-thin sliced hirame plated to look like a flower, jellyfish salad with an ume miso sauce—and tweaking existing dishes.

The chef also took an inventory of the plate collection in the basement of Zheng’s restaurant and rejected every piece as inappropriate for kaiseki service. New ones were ordered and Zheng began taking reservations for parties of six at a minimum five days’ notice.

I made mine a few weeks ago, and during a busy Friday-night service Matsumoto knocked out a ten-course meal of cool, refreshing dishes that couldn’t have been more different from the heavy, hearty kaiseki I ate at his old place in September 2005. It began with a selection of five small bites, including a quail egg in a shot glass of slippery seaweed, an emulsion of shrimp, fish, and egg yolk wrapped in a cylinder of cucumber, and a second glass with jellyfish and buttery, delicate salmon roe. A mound of sashimi followed, covered by an intricate lattice of carrot carved like a strand of DNA, and then a squash soup with tiny nameko mushrooms topped with fresh seaweed, the broth bolstered by a combination of emulsified fresh and smoked salmon.

A cube of cooked daikon came next, served with minced chicken and green ginkgo nuts, followed by a plate of radially arranged slices of cold duck breast marinated in its own stock and dabbed with hot mustard, and then a sandwich of grilled pike eel on spongy yellow cake made from pureed and sieved egg, fish, and shrimp. From there Matusmoto veered sightly out of season with a pyramid of asparagus spears crowned by thick slices of raw scallop in a spicy plum sauce. The final main course was a mirin-and-soy-braised seasonal fish called ayu, fat with roe, atop shredded tamago, shiitake, and rice. A martini glass of sweet red beans and longan finished the meal.

Zheng thinks it’s degrading for Matsumoto to work primarily as a sushi chef. “For him it’s too simple,” she says. So far he’s only prepared kaiseki about every other week. But these days that’s just fine with him.

“He doesn’t care about money,” she says. “He just wants to work and party. He’s been to the top already. He said, ‘I have the spirit of the samurai. I don’t care if I die.’ You go into battle, you die. Good. For him there is no baggage. If people approve of his work he is happy.”

Matsumoto will prepare a special nine-course kaiseki with seating limited to 20 on Thursday, October 1, for $110; sake pairings are an additional $55. “That is the best season for kaiseki”, says Zheng. “Monkfish liver, crab, and lobster will be in season. All the fish are fat and juicy. He will have a lot more hearty braised dishes.”