A love to eat and drink was a good enough reason for John Lee to start his own restaurant in the middle of Sydney’s Chinatown.
Since swinging the doors open in February, Masu Izakaya has been dishing up yakitori, with tsukune (chicken meatballs) being the specialty, and pouring a selection of imported boutique sake for Sydneysiders.
Lee said aside from seeing a gap in the Sydney food scene, which is evident by the Dixon Street affair of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine, he was always impressed by Japanese food.
“I just like the flavours; they keep it simple, they don’t do too much, it’s not too complex, and everything is always fresh. I think their cooking techniques are one of the best in the world, and the way they match ingredients is just amazing and it’s stuff you never think of,” he said.
At the same time, Lee, who has travelled a handful of times to Japan including for “research” purposes, has a fond appreciation for sake, with it being his drink of choice, because “it goes with everything”.
“I find that with wine, for example, there is too much of ‘you shouldn’t have it with this’ or ‘you shouldn’t have it with that’. There are just too many rules. But with sake, you’re friends with everyone: You can eat it with salty stuff, raw stuff, grilled stuff, spicy stuff, and it’s easy to drink,” he said.
But Lee said he won’t be pouring the popular sake, he’s more interested in specialising in sake from boutique brewery companies, as an attempt to replicate the experience people would get in Japan.
“I’m not a very conventional guy and I think my restaurant is the same,” he said.
While Lee is no chef, and admits to cooking very little – aside from dishes in the oven and stews because they’re easy – he recruited chef Yujiro Kuremoto for the job in the kitchen after realising they both shared a common interest: Lee wanted a restaurant, and Kuremoto wanted to be his own boss.
“I’ve given him creativity in the kitchen. I’ve told him he can do whatever he wants to do, but let me taste it first and the rest I leave it up to him.”
Although opening up his own yakitori joint wasn’t an overnight decision for Lee, rather it was an idea simmering for years. Lee said even his mum acknowledged that plans were going to see daylight.
“She said to me, ‘You’re finally going to do it.’ That’s because when I was younger,
I use to say I wanted to open up my own yakitori bar and sell lots of sake,” he said.
Singaporean-born Lee grew up eating plenty of humble Singaporean street food, such as oyster omelette and curry puffs.
“Singapore is really a mix of food: Chinese, Malay, and Indian. But it’s still very original because they don’t tweak it. For example, the Chinese like to use the chilli the Indians use, but they use it with different ingredients. So growing up was a lot of quick, cheap, good, and tasty food,” he said.
But of course nothing could ever beat mum’s cooking, especially her version of popiah that uses bamboo shoots instead of turnip, Lee said. He recalled if there were any leftovers, it’d be frozen, and then later taken out and deep-fried.
“I miss my mum’s popiah. If I have the choice to eat out or eat at home, I’d choose to eat at home,” he said.
But upon discovering Japanese food, he came to realise how quite the opposite it was to Singaporean food. He said unlike the way Singaporeans eat where it’s often one plate before you dash, Japanese are well paced where “you can take your time, eat, drink, and order a bit more”.
But not too slow like a degustation, Lee reassured. “French and all is way too long for me. I’ve had a few in my life…like what do you talk about for six hours, you can only carry a conversation for an hour. Even before the bread comes, you have to sit there, make conversation, and then by the time appetiser comes, you think about what do you talk about next.”
As for what he has learned since opening his own restaurant, with a background in economics and as a co-owner of an import, export business in Taiwan, China, and Australia, Lee said the hospitality industry is completely different.
“This is totally new to me. I’ve learnt that if you’re an employee you come into work, you get ready for the stuff in the kitchen, and you clock out. But here, when you’re done cleaning, you check stock, order stock, and then we do schedules for next week, count pay. I went home quite early yesterday at 1 a.m.,” he said.
But lessons like these won’t dampen Lee’s ambitions to open a second, third, and even fourth restaurant.