We’re giving our “Meet the Chef” series a different twist with this story. Perhaps we should call it “Meet the Family”. The story begins back in the 1970’s when Ryoichi “Richard” Matsushima arrived in New York City and met a gentleman by name of Mr. Sato; a meeting that changed his life. Sato owned a restaurant and one day asked Richard if he’d help out on the weekend. Before long, he was Maître d’ and his restaurant career was launched.
He moved to Vestal and opened Kampai in Vestal in 1975. He began with hibachi grills, featuring Japanese chefs cooking, chatting with customers and providing entertainment, all at the same time. Ten years later he introduced Sushi to the community, presenting new challenges. It meant finding the right chef, arranging for shipments of the best quality fish available and importing unique products from Japan. Another ten years go by and Richard expanded the menu to include traditional Japanese entrees. The change meant that the restaurant had to operate three separate kitchens to accommodate each of the specialties, but it was just another challenge for Richard.
But Richard’s life didn’t center on just on the restaurant. He has always been a strong believer in family. As his three children were growing up he made it a point to always be home for dinner, even if it meant leaving the restaurant to do so. That commitment to family extends to all of the loyal Kampai staff, some of whom have been with the restaurant for years and includes a couple of brothers, a father and son and brother and sister. And as you might expect, that feeling of family extends out to the loyal cadre of customers, now serving the 4th generation in some families.
So it’s no surprise that sons Michael and Andrew are active in the business and their sister Katherine, even though living in Barcelona, Spain, is also in the hospitality business. Growing up in the Matsushima household meant learning how to wash dishes and stack linens at an early age. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has expired on child labor, because the kids were doing these things at a pretty tender age. But there were treats too, like a “Shirley Temple”, which before long the boys were taught how to make their own. The interesting thing is that Richard never asked the kids to help out in the restaurant. They did it simply because they enjoyed being a part of the restaurant scene. After high school the boys went off to college, Michael and Katherine to Villanova University to study mechanical engineering and communications Andrew to the University of Rochester majoring in bio-medical engineering. After a stint in those professions the boys couldn’t resist the call of the restaurant business and were soon back behind the sushi bar.
They have immersed themselves in the business, learning everything from rolling sushi to cooking intricate traditional Japanese dishes. And perhaps most challenging of all is following their father as the beloved host and front-of-the-house master.
There are a couple of reasons for over 40 years of success in an incredibly challenging industry and they tie together. It starts with family and the guidelines that were laid down by Richard years ago where his personal family, his employee family and his customer family are all valued and respected. That flows from Japanese culture which might be summed up with the word “respect”, which is how Richard, Michael and Andrew live their lives. The good news for the region is that the Matsushima family is committed to continuing the tradition that has thrived since 1975.