Chef and Owner Spotlight – Masatoshi Tsujimura at Waraji Japanese Restaurant

While many Triangle area sushi and Japanese restaurants are just young bucks in the industry, Waraji Japanese Restaurant has had its hand in the game since 1997.  Chef and Owner, Masatoshi Tsujimura, has been crafting and creating delicious Japanese eats since he landed here in the states in the early 1980s.  Chef Masa, as he’s known, grew up in Japan and considered cooking to be a hobby.  As his father owned a machinery company, Chef Masa was encouraged from a young age to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.  Despite this, Chef Masa still enjoyed cooking, making family meals on Saturday until he graduated high school and moved on to pursue engineering in college.  Chef Masa finished undergrad and applied to graduate programs to pursue operations research in the United States.

Chef Masa landed in Florida, ready to tackle grad school and find a part time job, as many college students do.  Chef Masa found himself working in a Japanese restaurant, at first only during the summer breaks.  As his kitchen knowledge increased, the demand for him in the restaurant increased, too.  Soon he was going to school during the day and working evenings. Chef Masa credits many mentors along the way for training and showing him how to make sushi.  He says, “I was lucky to have such great sushi chefs willing to teach me.  I asked questions constantly and learned the skills from practicing with them.”

Chef Masa soon found himself facing another career opportunity.  This involved a promotion, but also a big move to open a new restaurant.  Chef Masa jumped at the chance to be a part of this, moving to Raleigh to help open Kanki in 1984.  With much experience working on the hot food sides, Chef Masa continued to build his sushi skills during this time and eventually was promoted to Head Sushi Chef.  After 12 years, Chef Masa felt, “There was no room to grow at a certain point, so I knew it was time to move on.”

Waraji - Chef Masa

Waraji – Chef Masa

Chef Masa’s next adventure involved opening his own restaurant.  Chef Masa had a partner for the first 10 years, but has been operating and running things on his own for the past 9 years.  Chef Masa says being able to work for another restaurant had given him much experience, at someone else’s cost.  Once he opened Waraji, he says, “I finally realized and understood how much it takes to own and operate your own restaurant.”  However, Chef Masa is quick to give his wife and restaurant staff ample credit in helping to maintain and keep Waraji running at the level it always has been.  Chef Masa says, “I want my employees to know they’re working with me, not for me.  When you share your passion with them, it’s incredible to see the growth they experience and pass that on to enhance the customer experience.”

Waraji Japanese Restaurant has a fun and exotic-sounding name that makes you dream of the endless sushi possibilities and hot entrees that are just inside the doors.  Waraji, as Chef Masa explained to me, means “straw sandals” in Japanese.  However, when you break down the word into its individual syllables and subsequent Japanese words, it becomes “gather around, enjoy, taste.”  Chef Masa says, “We’re a food oriented restaurant so it makes sense literally, but it was also a fun play on words.”

Chef Masa may be playful when it comes to menu items and names, but he takes his food and beverage seriously.  This was evident when he told me, “If you cannot taste, you cannot create.”  This theory is transformed into practice when it comes to Waraji’s beverage pairings.  Waraji boasts an astonishing 60 choices of sake.  This is the biggest sake selection in any restaurant across the entire state of North Carolina.  Chef Masa and his team offer monthly sake flights for people to taste and try out new styles of sake.  Chef Masa says, “Sake is like wine.  Not every sake tastes the same and not every sake pairs well with each food.  We like to educate our customers on the different types of sake so they can expand their knowledge and develop their own palate for sake.”  Not only is their sake game on point, Waraji offers Asahi Japanese beer from their state-of-the art keg operating system.  Again, Waraji is the biggest seller of this Japanese beer in all of North Carolina.  Chef Masa, still concerned with running his operation with utmost efficiency, worked with his beverage distributors to have this keg system installed that pours a virtually perfect pour of beer without a huge head and without excess beer wasted when having to clean the lines and change out the keg.

Despite the success of independently operating a restaurant for nearly two decades, Chef Masa is incredibly humble.  He says, “We are a business that really has a sense of family to it.  We treat our employees well and value them for being a reason why we have such a loyal base of regular customers.”

As if the legit sushi and mouthwatering Japanese cuisine weren’t enough, come into Waraji just to truly experience great customer service and a welcoming environment.  As Chef Masa says, “We like to consider ourselves a friendly, approachable and affordable restaurant.”  Waraji really gives a sense of home with its service, but tantalizes the taste buds once you see the menu and impressively extensive sake selection.

 


Tessa Nguyen is a chef and registered dietitian working in the Triangle area. She is an alumna of Johnson & Wales University and Meredith College. When Tessa isn’t traveling and discovering new food spots, she teaches culinary nutrition cooking classes at Duke and works as a consultant in the health and wellness industry. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @ChefTessaRD.

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