Grit and thirst for learning are Chef Mateu Villaret's keys to success

The chef and owner of Spanish restaurant Masia in Tokyo had an event-filled journey from west to east. His hard-won success began with a lot of inspiration from grandma.

TableCheck

TableCheck

Feb 21, 2024 - 4 min read

Grit and thirst for learning are Chef Mateu Villaret's keys to success

It is safe to say that Chef Mateu Villaret's storied career started in his grandmother's kitchen. He is able to create and elevate delectable Catalan dishes because his palate was honed by the tasty dishes his grandmother prepared.

He finds it both amazing and amusing that, back then, he did not realize how much of a genius she was in the kitchen until, as a young boy, he started venturing out and eating at friends' houses.

Grandma's kitchen magic: Not your everyday Catalan fare

“We just thought that what we had every day at home was the norm,” he says. “As the years went by, we found out that her way of cooking was stellar. But even before I knew that, I was already obsessed with her food. I was always excited at the end of the day when school was finished and I'd get to go home to see what she was making.

He was astonished at how his grandmother made cooking look easy and how much of a natural she was in front of the stove. It did not occur to him then that preparing a meal required several steps, both simple and complicated. 

“She never used a recipe,” he narrates. “Through the years, I got obsessed and that obsession was borne out of admiration and awe.

Because of the food wizardry he was exposed to, young Mateu knew from the start that he was meant to be a chef. His mother was not too enthusiastic about his career choice and wanted him to take another route, but he was resolute. 

“My grades were not bad but, for me, there was no turning back. That was the only thing I wanted to do – cook,” he says.  

Humble beginnings in kitchens

Food creativity is not the only inheritance he got from his grandmother, Chef Mateu says. Through her, he also learned how to be patient.

“Grandmothers have so much knowledge to share and they have patience,” he says. “Because when you become one, you learn to be patient. I have a huge attachment to grandmother figures.”   

His patience and ambition got him through the rough-and-tumble beginnings of his apprenticeship in restaurant kitchens. In Spain, the legal working age is 16, but he started learning the ropes of a restaurant's back-end a little earlier to get a leg up on the art and business of food.

“The summer before I turned 16, I met someone who had a friend that owned a restaurant, so I started washing dishes there,” he says. “The chef always saw me looking into the kitchen. He asked, 'So, do you want to cook?' I said 'Yes, of course.' One day, he gave me a chance and had me cook a meal.”

From there, he went from restaurant to restaurant, not so much for the money but for the experience. He carefully chose which establishments to work for, looking to learn a specific skill. In an Italian restaurant, for example, he started out as a pizza delivery boy and, eventually, through his enthusiasm and dogged curiosity, once again ended up in the kitchen and learned to make pizza and other menu staples from scratch. He went on to work for a decades-old Catalan restaurant and there he learned to make sauces and the other foundations of Catalan gastronomy. 

“We were not wealthy and I had no money to pay for culinary school. I thought that if I worked very hard I could find a way to go to culinary school, but my mentor told me, 'You're wasting your time. The last three years have taught you so much already,'” he says. “He told me, 'You already know what they're teaching there and will only get frustrated.'"

Masia restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo
Masia, a Catalan restaurant in the heart of Ginza, Tokyo

From Europe to Asia: Working in Michelin restaurants

That mentor opened an avant-garde Catalan restaurant in the Netherlands and had the good sense to bring Mateu, the protege, with him. There, Chef Mateu's talent reached its full potential and prepared him for his eventual move to Asia.   

“I got to intern in Serre at Hotel Okura in Amsterdam and (two-Michelin-star restaurant) Ciel Bleu as well. That was a game-changer. They worked with ingredients from Japan that I'd never seen before, with techniques that I didn't know about,” he marveled. “I had no idea then but, at that time, my brother was working at Ciel Bleu full time as a pastry chef. He was the one who introduced me to them. During my time off, I'd go and work there.” 

It was then that he set his sights on Asia, with Japan as the ultimate destination. As fate would have it, his mentor would once again pack up, move east – to Singapore – and bring Chef Mateu closer to his dream destination. 

“Singapore was a bridge; a very important time for me because it had a lot to offer. There, I made connections that would promote me to establishments in Tokyo. Actually, my favorite restaurant in Singapore was a Japanese restaurant,” he recalls.

Dishes in Masia restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo

Japan, at last: Opening Masia in Ginza, Tokyo and the Michelin Guide

Singapore was the jump-off point towards bigger things, specifically, his entry into the Japanese culinary scene through his introduction to Hajime Yoneda, the famed owner of three-Michelin-starred Hajime in Osaka.   

“There were nine people in the small kitchen, but so organized. It changed my view of what a small kitchen can do. I learned a lot about organization and planning,” Chef Mateu says.  

After his stint at Hajime, Chef Mateu took the boldest step of all and opened his own Catalan restaurant in Tokyo called Masia, which means “farmhouse” is Spanish. He was so committed to charting his own path that even the challenges of being both the chef and owner of an authentic Spanish restaurant in Japan did not deter him.

“It's tough to be a chef and owner, more so in Japan if you're a foreigner,” he says “I speak some Japanese but not as good as I should, which makes it twice as difficult. There are many laws, regulations and things but I truly wanted to have my own restaurant.” 

He does see more similarities than differences between the Japanese and Spanish food cultures. Both share an affinity for aesthetics, for example. It's what he calls eating with one's eyes. Attention to detail is another thing Spanish and Japanese food enthusiasts have in common, he says. Every time someone takes a pretty photo of their food and posts it on social media, it's free marketing. Masia is a young venture but it has already made huge strides towards greatness. 

“It's just the beginning. I just got here as the restaurant has been around for just one year. And we recently had a meeting with someone who works for the Catalan government in Tokyo,” he says. “I'm building a network between us and the Catalan government so they can be the connection between us and producers in Catalonia. I'd like to import ingredients so I'm working on things outside of the kitchen. I also want to  bring Catalan gastronomy and food culture here.”

Chef Mateu dreams big and works tirelessly to make his vision come true. His efforts are bearing fruit as Masia was already included in the Michelin Guide for Japan – a feat that surprised him.     

“When the best of the best are able to appreciate you, it's beautiful – a big motivator. People who come here seek quality so you have to deliver. It's huge when you see the reservation coming in through  TableCheck. You feel a bit under pressure but it's good,” he says. “There are a lot of restaurants with beautiful food in Japan and in the world. I think our purpose is to spread Catalan and Spanish gastronomy.”

We are certain his grandmother would approve. 

Masia

Address: Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, Chuo City, Ginza, 2 Chome−4−6 ベルビア館 8階
Website: Masia
Reservations: TableCheck

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