- Culinary Innovation - Gemma Matsuyama
Finding Inspiration in Diversity and Locality
Gemma Matsuyama was born in Chiba, Japan but grew up in New Jersey where she attended an international Japanese school. Gemma learned to cook from her Italian mother and loved to bake cream puffs for her Japanese father. At 16 years old, while visiting family in Italy, Gemma spontaneously enrolled in a culinary high school in Abruzzo. Feeling destined to become a chef, Gemma finished the program in 4 years and stayed an extra year to work at a small farm-to-table restaurant. After returning to the U.S., Gemma worked at a bakery in New York City before moving on to a restaurant in Tribeca and finally to a farm-to-table restaurant in Upstate New York. By then, Gemma was completely immersed in the world of pastry.
Gemma eventually moved to Los Angeles and opened a food truck with her roommates. Pico House was a delicious wholegrain bowl concept that existed for close to two years before Gemma and her partners parted ways. Soon after, Gemma was contacted by Chef Niki Nakayama of N/Naka, who was looking for a pastry chef, and thus, Gemma became a pastry chef for a fine-dining restaurant. They received their first Michelin stars just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, Gemma helped an Izakaya restaurant, called Tsubaki and Ototo, start a dessert program for their To-Go orders. She then worked privately on making Japanese wagashi until she opened Kimochi, a fruit daifuku concept for which she hosted many pop-ups in different areas of Los Angeles. Gemma loved meeting clients directly and also began working with brands like Ritz Crackers, Buzzfeed, and KiwiCo.
Gemma and her husband, also a chef, took the opportunity to travel throughout the summer of 2022 as borders opened back up. They let go of all of their belongings and even their apartment in Los Angeles and backpacked Europe before visiting their families in Japan. They went to 14 different countries in just 5 months of travel and really embraced enjoying new foods and seeing the culinary world in a new light again. As people who consistently create celebratory moments for their own guests, it was a pinnacle experience to be on the other side. When they returned to the US, Gemma and her husband decided to move to Portland, Oregon where they could be surrounded by nature. Gemma is currently cooking in a professional kitchen again with a newfound appreciation for her path as a chef and also for her path’s freedom and flexibility.
Iroha: What projects are you currently working on? What have you most recently completed or plan to do soon?
Gemma: I recently just moved to a new city, Portland, Oregon. I am spending my time exploring the new neighborhood I am in. There are many outdoor activities like hiking, viewing waterfalls, and much more. I want to experience it all! Other than that, I like to bake bread or make pizza at home and try to create foods I am craving.
Iroha: What are your thoughts regarding Asian hate and Asian glass ceiling issues?
Gemma: My thoughts regarding Asian hate are mixed. I definitely experienced many instances in my life when I was called out for being different and was a victim of verbal abuse and harassment because of my gender or race. It is very unfortunate that I worry about my Japanese father living in the US as he is growing older, as he too has experienced being the target of theft and harassment.
Ideally, we can realize as a collective that we are not really separate from one another, that we are all connected. It is hard to make people see your perspective, and a lot of times, the more I voice my opinion of how I think things should be, the more pushback I get from those who see it the other way. I have been doing my best to act through love and kindness and not put any opinions about what I think is right in people's faces.
Through my work, I love to feature Asian flavors and techniques and to input cultural stories to pique a positive interest in whoever is new to trying the food item. I believe food, art, and culture are crucial parts of connecting different cultures. I hope that people will continue to share through many different forms of storytelling and that they all have grace in doing so.
Iroha: Based on your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Gemma: My heart goes out to anyone who is going through life, but especially to someone who is younger in age and goes through so many changes every year as they grow. If you are interested in something and want to pursue it, nothing is really impossible. Where there is a will, there is a way. Discovering how to move closer to your goals and having patience are key. Enjoying the process is really important too. We only get to experience one lifetime in our human bodies, and the journey can be hard work and challenging, but if it is too painful for whatever reason, it is okay to talk about it with someone you trust and change directions too. I love to write out anything that goes through my mind, meditate, and speak to the universe. I try my best not to worry about negative outcomes and to instead focus on staying grateful for the positive aspects of situations.
Iroha: Outside of work, what are you most interested in right now?
Gemma: I am expecting my first child this summer, so I think I am more excited to meet the little person that has been growing in my belly and to experience motherhood.
written by Jessica Woolsey photography: Karina Vaca(portrait)
Gemma Matsuyama : Instagram | YouTube