A passionate cook and world traveler, executive chef Alex Chase is cooking his heart out at Masu Sushi and Robata in northeast Minneapolis. Despite a growing stack of positive reviews and the steady hipster-approved buzz, Chase still prefers the lick of an open grill flame to the press-the-flesh meet-and-greet some young chefs embrace.
His love of Japanese language, culture, and food was fostered from an early age by his father, while his Puerto Rican mother fed him dishes from her homeland, rooting him in his heritage.
He took a few moments from his busy day in the kitchen to talk about growing up in St. Paul, eating fish in Japan's rice bowl, and why more chefs in the kitchen actually make a better ramen broth.
Where did you grow up? In St. Paul, near Grand and Lexington.
What was the first thing you learned how to cook?
Probably my mom's rice and beans. She's Puerto Rican. Mom's the cook in the family.
Where was your first job in the industry?
Saji Ya. I started as a busser but wanted to get into the kitchen. Eventually, they let me in.
Is that where you really became interested in Japanese cuisine?
Actually, that was after I'd already lived in Japan as an exchange student. That was when I was 16.
I was always interested. My dad was the one that initially got me interested in sushi. Dad's a bit of a linguist, and he was taking a community ed course to learn Japanese. This was when I was about 13. I liked the food and the language, it was interesting.
Where were you when you were in Japan?
In Kantō, near Tokyo, in Japan's rice bowl.
What did you bring home with you from that experience? How did it inform who you are?
It was my first adventure and set me on the path to traveling and exploring. And my love of the culture and cuisine. When I went I could barely speak Japanese, but was immersed.
How was your Japanese when you left?
Mostly fluent. I've lost a lot now. I try to speak with Asan [Masu's executive sushi chef Katsuyuky (Asan) Yamamoto] every day.
When did you know you wanted to cook professionally?
When I was 15 and living in Japan, my best friend was in his 20s and worked at his family's fish market. He was third generation. His family worked the market, lived above it, and the "scraps" that they would eat were way better than anything. We'd hang out, and he'd take me to the best restaurants and all over. I'd watch him work at the market, and I thought, "I want to do that."
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of Arts in New York, you came back to the cities. What brought you back?
New York is crazy. I like the wilderness. I missed my friends. It's great, but this is home.
You've worked with some of our best chefs, from Vincent Francoual to Don Saunders and Tim McKee. Are there any local chefs you'd like to work with that you haven't yet?
Oh yeah, Alex Roberts. I love Alma. Isaac Becker, Lenny Russo. I was just at Heartland, and he gave me a whole tour of the place. He is really going for it. It's great.
You know, there's an adage about too many chefs in a kitchen not exactly being a good thing. How does it work here with two executive chefs, a corporate executive chef [Sushi Avenue's Stephan Hesse]?
It's easy--don't believe that adage. The more good chefs, the better. Plus, the people I've got in that kitchen come from a bunch of great restaurants, Lucia's, Corner Table, Sea Change, Barrio, the Smack Shack--there is a lot of talent in that kitchen. It's about the whole team.