Chef Takayuki Masumoto is the frowning face of the Grouchy Chef, a fine dining French restaurant in Mukilteo.
But he’s no grouch.
Or so he says.
What’s up with that?
“I’m focused,” Masumoto said. “Not grouchy. That’s the name of the restaurant.”
Masumoto is the chief cook and bottle washer at the tiny eatery that embodies his unflinching vision of what a restaurant, and a restaurant patron, should be. It’s open seven evenings a week. Reservations only.
Diners get fancy cuisine for cheap — and a crash course in manners.
Sit up straight. Use the correct fork. No clinking crystal. No shoveling food in your mouth. NO jeans!
“I don’t have rules. It is common sense,” Masumoto said.
His manifesto is in the menu binder. It’s required reading before the entrees, which include grilled duck, beef tenderloin and seared salmon, each with a paired sidedish. No substitutions.
A four-course meal starts at $14 for braised chicken. Score a gourmet meal for two for $50, with wine. You might need a glass or two to relax.
No tipping. Don’t even try.
“Tipping is for the waiter,” Masumoto said. “I am not a waiter. No matter how much work I do, I’m a chef.”
Masumoto, who is in his 60s, opened the first Grouchy Chef about 16 years ago a few miles away on Mukilteo Speedway before moving to a space more to his liking inside a metal warehouse.
The name came from a kitchen co-worker back in the day who told him he looked grouchy when he was cooking.
“I’m not the type of guy who kind of relaxes and does a little singing,” he said.
“I don’t like people to try to chat with me. That’s your culture. Hey, how are you doing, that kind of thing. That really bothers me to break my concentration,” he said.
No happy meals here
The blue warehouse at 4433 Russell Road is where utilitarian meets authoritarian. The outside looks more menacing than fine dining. It’s marked by a Grouchy Chef cartoon of a frowning face and outstretched hands wielding a pan and spatula. The door is covered with handwritten warnings about what not to wear and where not to park and how not to act.
Inside, on polished floors, nine tables are immaculately set with fine china in an ambient lit dining room.
You forget it’s a warehouse — but not that the warden is watching.
Masumoto sternly points out etiquette infractions and shushes those who talk too loud.
You can laugh about it later. Not here.
Want a fun place? Go to Red Robin, he says.
Grouchy Chef isn’t Masumoto’s revenge on bad manners and sloppy dress that he says has ruined society.
It’s a tribute to this man who came to America more than 35 years ago from Japan, where he was a chef, with the dream of being his own boss. He achieved it by working hard, first for others, while saving up for nearly 19 years.
Meantime, Masumoto helped support his parents back in Japan. “I did my dutiful duty as a family member. I worked hard every day. I gave up all the having-fun stuff,” he said.
In a display case is a kimono worn by his sister, who years ago died of cancer. He offers Grouchy Chef logo T-shirts for a $10 donation to cancer research. Guys, wear it with your shorts and sandals to the beach, but not to dine here.
And, ladies, please don’t use the linen napkins to blot your lipstick.
Have mercy. Masumoto is just trying to make a living to the best of his exacting, eccentric ability.
“Ordinary people, no matter how hard you work or how little, you get paid,” he told me. “You get that vacation. You get the sick time off. Small business, you don’t.”
He doesn’t advertise. His livelihood depends on word of mouth.
There are a number of people brave enough to come back.
“The food is absolutely terrific,” said Roger BelAir of Edmonds. “After you get used to what it’s like out there you just kind of accept it. I get scolded every time I’m there, because I clink the glasses or I’m a couple minutes late.”
The way to get on Masumoto’s good side is to clean your plate, properly. Speak up if something is not to your liking.
“There are a bunch of critics on the computer,” Masumoto said. “Some make nasty comments. Not in front of me. That is a cowardly act. If you have a problem just come up and say something to me.”
He won’t let anyone take a photo of him. That’s why there’s not one with this story, or anywhere online, for that matter.
He doesn’t often grant interviews.
His demeanor is the subject of speculation.
As an online reviewer put it: “Hard to tell if the Chef has a mental problem or if it’s an act.”
It’s not an act. It’s just how he’s wired. Don’t take it personally.
Masumoto doesn’t have time for gimmicks.
He does everything: shop, cook, serve, bus tables, clean, decorate.
He designed the opulent floral arrangement that says “Do Not Touch.” He crafted the fabric tablecloths under plastic. Those linen napkins artfully folded into the shape of a tuxedo are his meticulous doing.
If you jokingly refer to him as Martha Stewart, he snaps: “She has a staff. I do it all myself.”
He’s a confirmed bachelor. “Women have too much luggage,” he said.
“Friends call me a loner. I’m not good at communication, with humans anyway.”
No bozos welcome
Masumoto’s first Grouchy Chef site was a luncheon in a busy strip plaza on Mukilteo Speedway, where the name was part of the draw and he was part of the entertainment. They’d try to get him riled up, which is easy.
“I got a lot of bozos,” he said. “They loved to push that button.”
He wanted his food to be the attraction, not him.
“You probably won’t understand that people cannot just live with money,” he told me. “I need pride as well, as a human being.”
After a few years, he moved off the fast-food grid into the warehouse with dinner only.
“This is not a first-class restaurant, with a pretty host waiting for you near the entrance, then you come in and she gives a business smile and she takes you to the table and again a business smile. And sometimes the executive chef comes and holds your hand and says, ‘Mrs. Brown, nice to see you. Thanks for coming.’”
The menu has a dozen choices. It irks him when people waste time asking what is most popular.
“What do you care what other people like? You are old enough to decide,” he said.
He’s on a tight schedule, so do him (and yourself) a favor, skip the niceties.
Just know that inside that gruffness is a not-so-grouchy chef.
“When I’m working, some people give me a friendly comment and it bothers me,” he said. “It’s kind of overreacting, I know that. But I can’t help the way I (am).”