At the Grouchy Chef restaurant, great food — served his way

Before you get to the menu, you first have to get through the manifesto.

It’s a binder of rules presented to diners at Mukilteo’s Grouchy Chef restaurant.

No shoveling food in your mouth like at some cheap eatery (or at home).

No blowing your nose or fixing your makeup at the table. No clinking crystal glasses. No shorts. No sandals. No personal requests. No frills. No substitutions.

Don’t like it?

Eat elsewhere, said Takayuki Masumoto, the chef with the curmudgeonly persona.

“This is not a mess hall. You don’t have to come.”

But people do come — and have for 12 years — to the nine-table eatery that’s now boxed in a nondescript suburban business park on Russell Road, away from the clamor of Mukilteo Speedway.

The chef’s reputation for serving beautiful, hand-crafted French cuisine attracts diners, albeit nervous ones, from all over the state.

What up with this place?

It’s a unique and unflinching vision of what a restaurant, and a restaurant patron, should be. There’s a reason it’s called Grouchy Chef. Just don’t confuse the person with the place, as hard as this might be.

“I don’t call myself ‘grouchy chef.’ My name is Mr. Masumoto. Grouchy Chef is the name of the restaurant,” Masumoto told me.

“If you see an obese person, do you call them ‘Chub?’ Or to an unattractive lady you don’t say, ‘Hey, unattractive lady.’ I never expect people to call me ‘grouchy chef.’ I disagree with that.”

Masumoto minces garlic, not words.

He also greets, seats, cooks, serves, buses. It’s a one-man show.

“Many people think my place is a freak show,” he said.

Online reviewers have compared him to the Soup Nazi a la “Seinfeld.” I found him to be a man who takes extreme pride in his work and means well. He’s actually a bit of a softie inside.

“One thing that gets on my nerve is when people come in, looking at me and laughing,” he said. “They try to push my button. It is disruptive. When I work I need to focus on what I do. Some people try to relax, I’m not that type.”

That’s part of his charm, and how he creates tasty, imaginative groupings of foods and flavors, presented with an artist’s flair.

“I used to work for expensive restaurants,” he said. “Some of my ex-workers told me, ‘You look grouchy.’ That’s why I pick that name. Also it sends a message, ‘I am not flexible for what I do.’”

His voice is gruff and forceful. His movements, swift and purpose-driven.

“It’s not OK to say, ‘I don’t want to eat a carrot, so can you change it to zucchini?’ ” he said. “I don’t do that. I’m not able to comply with individual requests.”

This keeps prices reasonable. Ridiculously reasonable.

A four-course dinner starts at $15. For real. Two people can easily have a gourmet meal on nice china for $50, including wine. Tipping is strictly forbidden.

Entrees include grilled duck breast, chicken burgundy and seared wild salmon. What you see is what you get.

Payment is cash-only: first, not last. It goes with the method to the seeming madness.

“If I’m working on somebody else’s table, I need to focus on that. I’m not able to deal with somebody coming to the counter saying, ‘OK, I’m ready to pay.’ It ruins the moment of the timing of the food,” he said.

Sit up straight, keep your elbows off the table, use the proper utensil and enjoy the meal as it is executed in grand style.

Masumoto has expectations for patrons.

“This is America. You can dress any way you want, but I take offense when men come in here in beach sandals and shorts. I do not refuse those people, but I do mention how I feel,” he said.

Those who wear sandals are admonished to walk carefully, because he keeps his floors polished and clean. Pick the wrong fork and he’ll politely point out the correct tool to use.

Manners, please. “It’s not a hamburger, it’s not ‘put your hands on it, bite it with ketchup.’ ”

Not satisfied? “I give full money back,” he said. “You should consider not coming back here.”

Love your meal? Don’t heap on the praise.

“Words mean nothing. The plate tells me everything.”

Good etiquette gets rewarded. “There’s one lady, I was so appreciative I gave her a dinner certificate,” he said.

He welcomes teens on dates or prom night. “To me, that’s an honor.”

Little kids, not so much. “I don’t have a kids menu. You can bring your kid. Probably not twice.”

Masumoto, a bachelor pushing 60, came to America 30 years ago.

“I worked at many different places. It took a long time, 18 years and 7 months, to open a restaurant. You struggle.”

He opened his first Grouchy Chef in a busy strip plaza on Mukilteo Speedway. The rent was high and he said the lunch crowd drew too many “bozos.”

When he moved to his current spot, at 4443 Russell Road, he limited service to dinner only. Reservations are required. Don’t even think about just showing up.

Inside, you’ll find a mixed dining ambience with candles and soft music, against a backdrop of paper cranes, customer snapshots and some Americana thrown in.

The entry has a shrine to the America of the 1950s and ’60s when men wore suits and walked on the moon.

The chef’s sister’s kimonos are displayed in glass shadow boxes in the dining area. She died from cancer at age 32. “I just wanted her to be here, that’s all,” he said.

Masumoto offers “Grouchy Chef” logo T-shirts for $10 to raise money for cancer research in her honor. Wear the shirt on vacation (not to dinner) and snap a photo for the gallery of hundreds of pictures covering the walls.

The logo is all we could use for this story. Masumoto refused our requests to take a picture of him, saying he doesn’t want photos of him floating around the Internet (good luck trying to find one).

“Once the picture goes in the public, people use it without any responsibility,” Masumoto said. “Pictures of the food is OK. Food is a merchandise. Once I sell it to you, it’s yours.”

What does he do for fun? I just had to ask.

“Yesterday a lady in the bank said, ‘How was your weekend?’ I don’t have a weekend. I work everyday, ma’am. What is ‘off work?’ When I’m off work I go to Japan for my duty,” he said.

“My accountant tells me to quit operating the restaurant. He says I should work for someone. He knows how little I make.”

He turned the table to me: “You work for the newspaper. No matter how unappreciated you feel, you get paid for it,” he said.

He had some advice for this story: “I just want you to be fair. Don’t try to kiss me up.”

Does he ever smile?

“If I want to,” he said.

Dining review

For a dining review of the Grouchy Chef, see Friday’s A&E section.

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