“One of the first drawings I can remember doing as a little kid was an infinity bowl of curry and rice, and in my imagination every time I’d get to the bottom, it would magically fill up again,” says Sen co-owner Ryunosuke “Jesse” Matsuoka with a smile. “Definitely a sign that I just loved food!”
With a deep respect for tradition and a love of sharing culture, Matsuoka will giddily get granular when it comes to food and drink. “Being that I grew up in Japanese culture, it’s something that’s too cool to not show off,” he says. “I always want to share that experience and history and knowledge with people. And I have the vessel of the restaurant to do it through food.”
Born in Manhattan and raised in Tokyo, Hawaii and Sag Harbor, he began gravitating toward the culinary world at an early age, fascinated by chefs when he’d tag along for meetings over meals with his artist mother, Lynn, managing to charm his way into kitchens with a cute kid smile and eagerness to help and learn while the grown-ups talked at the table.
By the time he was in his early teens, he was all-in, starting in the kitchen of his father “Tora San” Kazutomo’s Sag Harbor sushi star, Sen, working his way up to sous chef, then to head chef. He worked the sushi bar, studying under the talented chefs at Sen. Then in the off-season, he’d work under other talented toques in the U.S. and Japan. Around age 24, he had a life-changing four-month stint working the restaurant in a high-end Japanese hotel 4 to 10 p.m., and then alongside a respected fishmonger from 4 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.
“I got three hours of sleep a night for months. It was rough, but one of my most educating experiences, and truly building of the soul and skills,” he says. “I was humbled and it taught me so much. One of the first lessons: I will never stop learning until the day my heart stops.”
Next year, Sen celebrates 30 years, and Matsuoka has some big, fun plans in store to mark the occasion. Between that, his other restaurants (Sag Harbor’s K-Pasa, Manna at the Lobster Inn and Kumiso, which opened in July), his work as the co-founder of the American Sake Association, and co-parenting a toddler, among a multitude of other endeavors, the Sag Harbor resident is a pretty busy guy. He’s never too busy to talk about his favorite things on the East End, though — and he’s got opinions! But they come from a really good (and often delicious) place.
Grindstone’s iced redeye, black. It’s strong, to the point, refreshing and flavorful.
Sagg Main Beach is a place where I grew up, playing beach volleyball and having wonderful relaxing days of R&R between working restaurant shifts. I have some fun memories from there. Now that I have a kid, Long Beach is definitely easier and the sunsets are epic.
Favorite cocktail spot
I don’t get to go out that much, but when I do go out, I go to Lulu. I enjoy the overall atmosphere there, and the cocktails bring it to the next level. I love the food, too. The octopus is so tender. Usually, I will have the oysters, too — always — and then their skirt steak is just easy, delicious, juicy and filling. And I’m the kind of person who always wants to know the specials. You can count on them to have something great to order. I order one to two dishes off the menu and one to two specials. I like smorgasbord eating.
Favorite family-friendly restaurant
Number one is Estia’s Little Kitchen. We go there consistently. To the point where when we go for breakfast, we sit down without saying a thing, and scrambled eggs land in front of my son, Kenzo, and two cups of coffee for me and my wife.
We’ve had a fantastic relationship with Asa Gosman since I can remember. Over the years, the Gosman’s team were able to understand our type of quality and wouldn’t dare send anything else. They know we need sushi quality fish. We utilize local bounty as much as we can — white fish like fluke, sea bass and striped bass and tuna, which is really good and fatty in late August until nearly November.
My absolute favorite to visit and enjoy is Wölffer. I want to give love to everybody [in the Long Island wine industry] but I kind of grew up with the daughters, Georgie and Joey, out here. But Wölffer is gorgeous, and the feel there is that you’re able to a escape from the craziness of town, with all that beauty and the breezes. It’s breathtaking there.
We utilize a lot of different local farms in the restaurant, but I like that I can bring my kid to Amber Waves. They have a fun toddler education program not just on what gardening is but the worms and soil and what they’re doing and how essential to a full ecosystem they are. My 2 1/2-year-old does not totally understand it all yet, but so long as he doesn’t put a worm in his mouth, I’m cool with it.
Favorite toy store
The Wharf Shop — it’s magic. It gets dangerous going in with a child, but Kenzo hasn’t figured out that he’s allowed in yet. He stops in front and plays with pinwheels with my wife and I’ve successfully been able to not be seen going inside. It’s only until I emerge with a toy that he notices I was gone — I don’t know what I’m going to do when he figures out he can go inside!
I’ve become good friends with Rory [McEvoy of Kidd Squid] and I’ve been supporting them at all our restaurants. I truly enjoy the consistency but also the constant creation of products and tastes. They’re fun as a brewery and super cool as people. Combine those things and it’s just wonderful.
Favorite sandwich spot
Cromer’s Market, the steak and egg sandwich with cheddar cheese and mustard on a Kaiser roll. It’s juicy and yummy. And I have to get the delicious fried chicken on the side! And chips. I’m a chip guy — sour cream and onion.
Favorite time of year on the South Fork
September, because I have a moment to breathe. Usually, I have another notch of a fantastic, successful summer on my belt, so it’s the time me and my family can be a family. In September, there’s a little bit of everything. I still have year-round clientele but I get to spend time with my family and my friends. In fall, that’s when I get to be a little bit normal and share in those experiences.