But he acknowledges there may be more personal reasons for his success. "I think today I have a lot less ego and am a lot more focused on the food than maybe I was before," he says. "When you're young, you always have that ego challenging you to do more. You have to be better than Wolfgang [Puck] or something."
Indeed, Puck played a huge role in Matsusaka's career. He hired him for his first non-Japanese job. In 1978 Matsusaka, who was born in Kumamoto, Japan, and drifted into cooking as a way to make a living, was doing Benihana-style teppan cooking at a place on La Cienega called Pear Garden, when his golfing buddy Hideo Yamashiro (later to open Shiro in Pasadena) called him.
"At that time I had only been in this country long enough to get my green card," Matsusaka says. "The only English I knew was 'Hello,' 'Thank you very much' and 'How do you like your steak cooked?'
"Shiro called me and said, 'Kazuto, you don't want to be doing teppan when you're 30 years old, do you? I'm at a place called Ma Maison, and I'm talking to a guy named Wolfgang Puck. You need to talk to him.'
"Shiro-san always had a vision; he was always thinking about 10 years ahead of everyone else. He knew that French restaurants were going to be big in Los Angeles and that that would be a good business to be in. And I knew that I didn't want to keep doing the same thing. If you do that, you're not gaining anything; you're not growing. I still remember that day. That call changed my whole life."
Cooking at Ma Maison was definitely something different. Matsusaka had never even eaten French food before going to work there. The rich cream-, cheese- and butter-laden dishes served in those days were as foreign to his Japanese palate as wasabi, shoyu and shiso were to the French.
His first job was making the restaurant's famous salmon en croute. "That's basically butter, butter and more butter," Matsusaka says. "There's salmon mousse, which is about 90% butter, wrapped in puff pastry, which is about 90% butter, and served with beurre blanc. We sold something like 60 of those every night."
After that introduction to French cooking, Matsusaka moved to L'Ermitage. Though legendary founder Jean Bertranou had recently died, it was still regarded as the best French restaurant in the city under Bertranou's successor Michel Blanchet, and possibly one of the best in the country.
Matsusaka began hearing rumors that Puck and his sous-chef, Mark Peel, might be leaving Ma Maison to open a place of their own up above Sunset Boulevard. His offer of help was quickly accepted. "They gave me the menu and said, 'Here it is. We're going to open tomorrow.' There was no practice, not even a cocktail party or anything. I was the pantry chef, and I just read the descriptions on the menu and made everything up."
Occasionally those improvisations would veer off into experiments with Asian flavors -- some of the first attempts anywhere at what would come to be called fusion cooking.
"One day Wolfgang said he wanted a tuna sashimi salad," Matsusaka says. "I said, 'How do you want me to do this?' And he just said, 'Kazuto, use your imagination.' " Matsusaka tossed thinly sliced tuna sashimi with some mixed greens and dressed the salad with ginger, soy sauce and olive oil. That dish stayed on the Spago menu for years.
There was definitely something in the air in Los Angeles at that time. Besides Spago, there were La Petite Chaya, Ishi Grill, C'est Japon and Restaurant Lyon, all of which were experimenting with cooking French food from a Japanese point of view.
When Chinois opened the next year, it took fusion in a slightly different and much more dramatic direction -- centered on Chinese and Southeast Asian influences. Puck and Richard Krause, who was the head chef for the first year, would talk about ideas for dishes and then leave most of the execution to the talented team of Matsusaka, Makoto Tanaka (now chef at Mako) and Takashi "Fred" Iwasaki (now chef at the Highlands in Hollywood). (Matsusaka is aware of the irony of three Japanese, an American and an Austrian cooking Chinese fusion: "Chinese customers never said it tasted Chinese; they always said it tasted American.")
After a year, Matsusaka was named chef, a position he held for eight years. "I thought I would never leave that restaurant," he says. "I thought I'd stay forever. The way Wolfgang treated me -- the freedom and the creativity I had. That was a great experience. I got to travel, and I got to meet so many people. Without that I wouldn't be where I am today.
"But eventually it was time for me to step out of that comfortable chair and challenge myself.... To cook the kind of food I wanted to, I'd have to leave. Chinois' food is not exactly light cooking. There's a lot of butter, cream and spices, and as I was getting older, I realized that was not the kind of food that I wanted to eat or cook every day. My vision of food is clean, light and simple."
A taste of reality