The Pastry Chef Behind L.A.'s Super-Instagrammable Japanese Desserts

Gemma Matsuyama makes cream puffs, roll cakes, mochi, and more

If you're a fan of Japanese desserts, chances are you've seen one of Gemma Matsuyama's creations on social media. There's the video of her carefully bisecting a strawberry daifuku into two perfect halves with a string; a behind-the-scenes look at her cult-favorite cream puffs; closeups of her intricate rolled sponge cakes. 

Matsuyama is the pastry chef at Ototo and Tsubaki in L.A.'s Echo Park, side-by-side sister restaurants owned by husband and wife team Courtney Kaplan and Charles Namba. Pre-Covid, the restaurants didn't have an official pastry program, but after pivoting to a takeout-friendly marketplace model last year, they wanted to amp up the sweet offerings. The timing was perfect for Matsuyama, who had parted ways with her previous employer, Japanese fine-dining star n/naka, after they, too, switched to a takeout-centric bento box setup that left little room for her intricately constructed desserts.

At Ototo and Tsubaki, Matsuyama leans in to her natural interests — Japanese puddings, jellies, "farmers markets produce with a Western twist," she says. She draws inspiration from Japanese pastry books and YouTube videos. "Even on Chinese platforms, they go really in-depth with different techniques," she says. "Even without knowing the language, the visual aspect really helps." 

Despite her current station, Matsuyama is relatively new to the world of Japanese pastries. 

Growing up with a Japanese father and an Italian mother who was an avid home cook in New Jersey, she says she "felt like an immigrant in the back of my head." She attended a vocational high school focused on culinary arts in Italy, where she fell in love with the countryside and its accompanying produce. She also experienced racism: "I was the only Asian person in my town. I cried a lot," she says. "But I wanted to experience what it was like to be in a drastically different place than what I knew, and see how thick my skin could get."

She returned to the States and began building an impressive resume in New York City: learning bread-making at Sullivan Street Bakery (she describes founder Jim Lahey as an early mentor); working at Locanda Verde under pastry veteran Karen DeMasco; spending two years at Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns. 

Six years ago, she relocated to Los Angeles in search of more sun and started a food truck with some chef friends. After the truck catered a Netflix-sponsored event promoting their show Chef's Table, chef Niki Nakayama of n/naka approached Matsuyama, complimenting her cream puffs and asking if she was looking for a pastry job. "I'd never worked in a Japanese restaurant before," says Matsuyama. "It was a great experience because I really got to tap into that side of myself, and dig into all these different ingredients and techniques."

As the increase in hate crimes against the AAPI population has escalated over the last year, Matsuyama has been an active participant in several fundraisers and community-led awareness efforts, like this recent star-studded bake sale. "I think a lot of my peers have been struggling to feel like they don't know what to do or how to make a difference. But seeing more action, even if it's small, is the way to have more conversations, which is the ultimate goal," she says. "We can't really change the way people think overnight with a pastry, but we can trigger some thought-provoking conversations, and I think that will lead to a  positive outcome," she says.  

In coming weeks at the restaurants, Matsuyama plans to play around with cherry blossoms, more cakes (both roll and slab), and some Italian-Japanese-inspired pastries, along with her now-signature cream puffs and mochis. 

"Life is short," Matsuyama recently posted on her Instagram. "Don't forget to snack on tasty things."