Toranosuke “Tora” Matsuoka looks like he just got off the Jitney.
Tall and handsome, with a slick of black curls, he glides through the dining room of his Flatiron restaurant, shirt over-unbuttoned in that Hamptons way.
Mr. Matsuoka, 32, co-owns Sen, the seven-month-old sushi den that has become the social center of Silicon Alley’s cool crowd. The son of a New York artist working for Vogue magazine in Japan and a sumo wrestler, you could call him a poster-boy for globalization.
He calls himself “Jew-panese.”
On any weeknight, Sen is a start-up-heavy blur of sleeve tattoos, plaid shirts and librarian glasses, disrupting each other over cocktails. Recent parties have been held for the tech incubator General Assembly, Buzzfeed and their fellow click hustlers the Daily Mail (they’re both on the block), the Webbies and the hot-ticket PR and media mixer, Newsmakers.
“We had looked around New York City for five years prior to committing to this area, not knowing it was Silicon Alley,” said Mr. Matsuoka. “After we opened, it became very clear very quickly that there were a lot of young people working at very big, up-and-coming tech companies. It’s very young, very bright, very fun crowd that sits in line with the restaurant. We’re about having fun, eating well and drinking well.”
New Yorkers tend to think that money and success flow east from the city to the Hamptons. But this hotspot was imported from Sag Harbor.
Mr. Matsuoka’s father, Kazutomo, was a top-ranked sumo wrestler in Japan before making his reputation as a chef in America. He acquired a half-stake in the original Sen in 1994, and Tora bought him out eight years ago, continuing the partnership with Jeff Resnick. Younger brother Ryunosuke “Jesse” Matsuoka, 27, serves as general manager of the Hamptons Sen and their other Sag Harbor restaurant, the Cuddy.
The brothers went to high school in Honolulu, but returned to Long Island in the summers to learn the business “not even from the ground, from the basement up,” says Mr. Matsuoka. “It was physically demanding, sweat-inducing and usually involved some form of bleeding.”
Still, it had its perks. All those years at Sen has put the ambitious restaurateur on friendly terms with a celebrity clientele including Kelly Rippa and Mark Consuleos, Andy Cohen and Jimmy Fallon. “Alec Baldwin has been dining with us since he came in with his wife, Kim Basinger,” recalls Mr. Matsuoaka.
Now, with the sort of good luck that sometimes follows 19 years of hard work, he finds himself the social chair of the hippest industry in New York.
Keoni DeFranco, founder and CEO of Lua Technologies (“we provide a communication platform for a mobile workforce”) regularly drops into the scene at the restaurant. He said he has “met future clients and potential investors” at Sen.
“The location is great. It’s across the street from Tumblr and Union Square Ventures is around the corner, and it has the sort of vibe you want to take investors to,” said Mr. DeFranco.
“There’s not that much great Japanese in the area, and they use unique ingredients or ingredients that are unusual in this country,” he said. “Even the way they create drinks is in direct parallel with how we’re utilizing technology. They’re always trying to develop something that no-one’s thought of before.”
On a recent evening, as the front of Sen was occupied by a large group from block start-up Noise New York (“we invent new ways for brands to grow business among young adults”) Mr. Matsuoka explained the evolution of his 12. W. 21st St space, which in previous lives has been the Cheetah Club, Sound Factory Bar and Private Eye’s.
“This was nightclub row,” he said. “When I went for the liquor license, they showed me all of the information that lead up to the code change, including bullet holes in windows on second floors.”
“People have been killed on the street, old-timers in this area would remind me that only ten years ago [the police] would shut it down and ride horseback because there was so many people emptying out all of the nightclubs.”
“You just didn’t come here,” he said. “I wish I was smart enough to have picked it, but the Flatiron area has gentrified over the past ten years. Now you can’t touch an apartment here for a million dollars.”
And this summer, flush with success, Mr. Matsuoka and his brother are planning on getting around to having their bar mitzvahs.
“The rabbi at the South Hampton chabad reminds me it’s never too late,” he said cheerfully. “As many of the local tribesmen say, I’m 100% Jewish and only half Japanese.”
That he is planning a bar mitzvah came as news to his Jewish mother.
“If he’s made an appointment for this, dammit, I want to know about it!” she said over the phone. “Did he give you a date?”
I told her he was thinking late August, early September.
“Can you call me every week and tell me what my sons are doing?” she muttered, good-naturedly. “I have to find out from other people and news reporters.”
She is proud, of course, to have children in such demand.
“When he was six months old, I went to see a very powerful psychic and she said to me, ‘you have a young boy who is a very old soul and you will learn a great deal from him,’” she recalled. “After 32 years with this guy, I have to tell you she was spot on. He gives me guidance when I can reach him on the phone, but good luck with that.”
An artist known for her swift studies, Lynn was invited to Japan in 1973. She was drawn to emerging fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo and Issey Miyake and was soon under contract to American Vogue, which published her renderings of Japanese runway collections.
But it was her fascination with sumo that made her name.
“She was able to get access behind the scenes of that world, where she became famous drawing sumo wrestlers doing things that the outside world had never seen before—sleeping or training or eating,” Mr. Matsuoka explained. “Some of her most famous pieces are of top-ranked sumo wrestlers playing Gameboy.” A report on CNN described her as so well-known in Japan that her name was “synonymous” with sumo in that country.
Along the way, she married and had two sons with Kazutomo Matsuoka, a top-ranked sumotori. Fragmented years followed. The couple moved to New York to have their children, but split. Mother and sons returned to Tokyo, leaving their Japanese father to his new career on Long Island. She re-married.
“Then,” she said, “I moved the circus to Hawaii.”
Cue surf guitars.
“I feel like I became who I am today in Hawaii,” the strapping, 6’2″ Mr. Matsuoka said. “I studied Hawaiian language and dance and my brother and I were professional hula dancers when we lived there.”
“It just so happened that the only school in Hawaii that had a dormitory also had the best kumu—hula instructor,” he said. “All the coolest guys in school were hula dancers and it just so happened I fell in love with it.”
Mr. Matsuoka practiced traditional hula, sometimes wearing only a loin cloth that is “enough to cover your junk and your butt and that’s it,” he said. “Hula is a very sexual, sexy thing.”
So, is this a skill he might trot out for the bar mitzvah?
“According to the traditions of hula, you are only allowed to dance under the direction of your kumu,” he replied soberly. “So, the last time I danced was right before I left Hawaii.”
Given his bohemian upbringing, that seems kind of a let-down. His mother has a theory.
“Tora says all the time that I have helped him in life by showing him what not to do,” she said.