Shaun Motoda, chef of TAG|RAW BAR, on the perfect bite and his obsession with Taco Bell
This is part one of my interview with Shaun Motoda, chef de cuisine of TAG|RAW BAR; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Shaun Motoda, the chef de cuisine at TAG|RAW BAR, grew up wanting to be an architect. But the 33-year-old sultan of sushi, who was born and raised in Hawaii, admits that his math skills were less than desirable, so he ditched that idea in favor of culinary school at Kapiolani Community College, realizing that he could he could parlay his passion for design to the plate. "I knew that being an architect wasn't going to work out, but I love food, I'm obsessed with where it comes from, and I was aware that I could translate my love for architecture to creativity and artistry on the plate," he explains.
That love started at Taco Bell, his first job. "Believe it or not, we actually got innovative, especially late at night, when we'd experiment with taco pizzas, or buy fries from McDonald's and make chili-cheese fries," he recalls, adding that he still has a fetish for the fast-food joint. "I was a dedicated worker -- I stayed there for a year and a half -- and I still go once or twice a month to get my fix."
He worked at a family-run Italian restaurant while in culinary school and wound up spending more time in the kitchen than in the classroom, so after two years he dropped out and secured a gig as a line cook at Outback Steakhouse, where he catered to carnivores for almost three years. Then he got a lucky break: "A friend of mine from culinary school was working at Roy's on Oahu -- it was Roy Yamaguchi's first restaurant -- and he needed help with pastries, so while I knew very little about pastries, it was a foot in the door," says Motoda. He did the pastry gig for just over two years, then moved into the kitchen as a line cook. About that time, Roy's was beginning to roll out sushi -- and that, says Motoda, "really intrigued me, especially since my cultural background is Japanese."
Motoda was a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he could from Yamaguchi and his staff, and he began practicing at home, buying his own ingredients at the market. "I wanted to do fusion sushi -- things that people had never seen before -- so I started experimenting, and then I brought one of my rolls to Roy's and told the chef that I wanted to step it up a notch and do some really creative things," he remembers. And the kitchen gave him a shot. "I got to create new rolls every day; I learned how to break down fish, perfect rolling techniques and perfectly slice sashimi," he recalls. By the time he left, almost nine years later, he'd been given the opportunity to open another Roy's on Waikiki, where he became the sous chef.