Q&A With Masahiro Urushido - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Q&A With Masahiro Urushido

When Masahiro Urushido opened the West Village bar Katana Kitten in the summer of 2018, he was already well-known in the industry from his seven years behind the bar at Saxon + Parole. The following summer, Katana Kitten was named Best New American Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail, and it had landed on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. A loving amalgamation of American dive bar and Japanese culture, the bar—and its cheeky name—represents Urushido’s own approach to the industry, equal parts precise and playful. This June sees the release of Urushido’s first book, with co-author Michael Anstendig, The Japanese Art of the Cocktail. We connected with Urushido to chat about the inspiration behind the book, how he interprets the Japanese style of bartending, and how the hospitality industry has defined so much of his life experience.

You began bartending while still living in Tokyo. What hooked you about the profession?Masahiro Urushido: I’m from a small town called Minowa in Nagano Prefecture in the countryside, but I moved to Tokyo when I was 18 to finish high school. One of my first jobs was delivering pizza, but I got a job interview at a fine-dining restaurant called Tableaux, which was one of the most popular restaurants for international clientele in Tokyo at the time. A place like that requires not only skills and knowledge about fine dining, but maturity. But I was just 19 years old and had no idea what I was doing. What hooked me was the professionalism—all these servers and maître d’s and sommeliers—it was just a glamorous environment. I went from delivering pizza and pouring from a soda gun at a karaoke bar, so it was a 180-degree shift. Everything was preparation. It was like a theater to me. I just tried to make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid.

What, to you, defines the Japanese approach to bartending and cocktails?Something that comes to my mind first is called kaizen. It’s a Japanese word that is best described in English as “continuous improvement.” Kaizen is something embraced by many companies, from whiskey makers to car manufactures to a bakery in your neighborhood, and individuals like my dad, who was a strong influence. To me it is a constant (self) reminder about what I do day to day, particularly the same task, but to make it better than yesterday, or to just try to notice small differences or a defect that can be improved. In the book, I emphasize that I’ve only been in this industry for 20 years, and so many people came before me—bartenders and bar owners who know and have done better than myself. I feel fortunate to have my Japanese countryside upbringing as a background. The Japanese approach really looks at the details and the story behind something, while respecting the existing conditions. So, without being disrespectful to that, I try to look at how I can make it better, and carry the integrity of the product and give it to people.

How did it compare to the cocktail scene you experienced when you moved to the U.S.? And how did your time behind the bar at Saxon + Parole influence your approach to bartending?It was completely different! When I was in Japan bartending, it was all classic cocktails and reading and following the classic recipe from the book. It was 2008 when I moved to New York, and I was mesmerized by so much diversity in terms of style of different bars and restaurant bars. And there were already places like Milk & Honey, Pegu Club, and Angel’s Share, which had been around a long time. I got a job at a place called Kingswood, which is where The Happiest Hour is now in the West Village, thanks to my friend Paul Franich. It was a very high-volume, late-night space. But Saxon + Parole changed everything for me. It used to be about how we can make [a drink] faster and easier, and then what makes something fresher and more delicious. Saxon + Parole was all about Naren Young and Linden Pride, these very unique talents from Australia. Joining Naren’s team at Saxon + Parole was my turning point, going back to school from comfortably slinging vodka soda and Jack and Coke. I’m grateful for the opportunities that Naren and the Saxon + Parole bar team brought to me. That’s where I met and got to work with Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, who still constantly inspires me today.

What was your aim for the bar when you opened Katana Kitten in 2018?I have so much love for American cocktail culture. I love dive bars and my neighborhood bars, so that’s what I wanted to do. I can give a guest a proper Martini and other classic cocktails like in a fine Ginza cocktail bar in Tokyo, and at the same time, we can serve a simple drink like a boilermaker. It’s everyone’s everyday bar. It’s a place that combines Japanese culinary and drinking culture—that authentic experience—in an American dive bar setting. We execute a minimal menu with 15 signature drinks, and we’ll rotate some seasonal drinks. But we keep it minimal—that way we can spend more time entertaining guests. This past winter, it wasn’t easy. It was cold, and we had limited resources including a few spots on the sidewalk. But I realized sometimes I don’t need to try so hard to make it a Japanese American concept; sometimes I can just make my grandma’s recipes. So we served oden, which is a Japanese wintertime stew. I don’t need to look at the recipe, I just called my grandma. I served it to our outdoor seating during the winter, and I got such a sense of fulfillment. I explained to people, “This is exactly what it would taste like if you visit my family in Japan.” That’s what I want to do.

What was the inspiration for the new book, The Japanese Art of the Cocktail?I really owe this to Hanna [Lee] and Michael [Anstendig], because they’re the ones who reached out to me. Hanna Lee Communications did our opening PR for Katana Kitten, and our sister bar, Existing Conditions. They knew me well and the story of Katana Kitten, and they said they were launching a book imprint and wanted to write about Katana Kitten and me. I said I wasn’t sure; who is going to read that? Then I thought this would be a great opportunity to share how special this bartending community and hospitality industry is—it’s about sharing and generosity. The hospitality industry gave me a shot when I was literally a stupid kid with no talent or skill set. I have been inspired by so many people, and now, 20 years later, I get to work with one of the best bar teams in the world. My co-author, Michael Astendig, is a great writer. I’m not an articulate person, so Michael got to extract the story of where I come from. And then there are 20 bartenders, some Japanese, some from the U.S., who contributed cocktails for this book based on their interpretations or inspirations from Japan. So many wonderful people. This book is an homage to the industry and the bartenders.

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