Beloved sushi chef Ben Tong learned the traditional art of sushi by studying comic books. He trained beside a man named Jaro and worked behind the counter for only two weeks before landing his first job with a lie.
“I practice[d] every day so when I go[t] in[to] the real world, and the owner ask[ed] me how long I’ve been working, if I said six months [he’d] say no—[owners] always want[ed] three or four years,” Tong said.
The fib paid off. Tong has spent more than two decades in the business, 20 of them at Matsuya in Great Neck, where he is famous for greeting his customers with a smile, sake shot toasts and food they didn’t order (but end up loving). He serves fish with an unparalleled kindness and skill. Some advice: sit at the bar, introduce yourself and let the master introduce sushi to you like never before.
What is your favorite food? If it were your birthday what kind of food would you eat?
I like all kinds. Italian. Chinese. Japanese. I like seafood, like king crab, lobster. That’s my favorite.
If you ordered one thing what would it be?
Goose leg well done, cooked with oyster sauce. On the bottom they put some spinach and the sauce is like a creamy brown sauce and the goose leg has to be nice and soft. That’s my favorite. When I go out to eat I always order this at high-class Chinese restaurants, like Cantonese style restaurants.
How did you decide to be a sushi chef?
When I came to the United States I did a lot of jobs, but here if you have one skill it’s easier for you to find a job. In the beginning, I learned in the kitchen. I learned to cook—the best way to learn sushi is to kitchen cook, too. I learned [how to be a] sushi chef from this old man Jaro, maybe 75 years old at the time. I asked him: “Can you teach me sushi?” He said, “Oh yes.” When I worked in the kitchen I would have two hours for a break—that’s when I learned with him. That was 25 years ago.
What’s your favorite fish?
I like shellfish. Geoduck—a giant clam, orange clam and uni. I also like toro and yellowtail.
Where were you before the United States?
I was in Malaysia. When I was young and I finished my schooling I [went] to Brunei and worked for two years. Then I came here. There were a lot of jobs overseas.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
My father was in construction so I wanted to be a businessman, maybe open a store. When I was a kid I worked with him a lot, we built all the buildings—apartments—in Malaysia.
What’s your favorite roll to make?
A special soft shell crab with some spicy eel sauce, some fish eggs, some eel. Sometimes I put in some salmon eggs.
Who is your favorite person to cook for?
Everybody is my favorite person. When you [are] happy, I’m happy. I have a lot of loyal customers that have been coming here for 20 years.