If you’ve ever eaten at the James Beard-nominated Aburiya Raku, or iconic ramen spot Monta, or beloved neighborhood sushi joint Sen of Japan, or tried the exotic fusion pastas at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya — basically, if you’ve eaten at pretty much any of the buzzworthy Japanese restaurants in the valley — you can thank Martin Koleff. He’s not a chef, manager or owner, but rather a restaurant consultant who specializes in Japanese cuisine. Actually, make that restaurant stylist.
“I call myself a restaurant stylist because I consult on so many different things,” he explains. “I consult with some restaurants on training, I consult with some on menus. Some of the owners lack a marketing plan, some just lack the power to move onto their dream, so they get stuck selling sushi all the time.” Fluently bilingual, Koleff is one of the key figures who’s brought Las Vegas’ innovative Japanese culinary scene to national attention. When a restaurant needs help spinning a new concept, they call Koleff. When GQ or Bon Appétit wants a short-notice photo shoot for a feature spread, they call Koleff. “I’ll make sure the answer is yes.”
Koleff’s path to the restaurant industry was a long and winding one. He grew up in Japan, the son of an American GI and a Japanese woman. (“My father proposed through a translator.”) At the height of the disco craze in 1976, an 18-year-old Koleff began DJing at Tokyo nightclubs. Being half-Japanese made him a novelty, and it helped propel him into a music career, during which he released several albums and appeared on late-night Japanese pop shows. From there, he moved into nightclub management, and eventually began managing bars and restaurants, inspiring him to launch a food-and-beverage industry design and management company in Japan.
In 2005, Koleff was hired for a bilingual management position at Okada (now Mizumi) at Wynn Las Vegas. That was his springboard into the Las Vegas dining scene. “When you’re with Wynn, you meet everybody,” he says. And Koleff met lots of restless, ambitious chefs and executives who wanted to strike out on their own off the Strip.
A case study of a Koleff success story: Sweets Raku. The high-concept, desserts-only restaurant, brainchild of Mitsuo Endo and Mio Ogasawara, was a startling first for Las Vegas when it opened in 2013.
“The concept was almost too … city, too … futuristic,” Koleff recalls. He helped parlay the Raku brand connection into a surge of early and enthusiastic press, while marketing the avant-garde menu by, well, not marketing it. “We made the message, ‘I can’t explain these desserts to you — you just have to come in and see them!’”
Koleff’s culinary ambassadorship goes both ways. He also writes a restaurant column, in both English and Japanese, for the Las Vegas Japan Times newspaper. The goal is to introduce Japanese locals (he estimates there are about 14,000) to restaurants outside their comfort zone.
What’s next for Koleff? He hopes to open a sake retail venue at the beginning of next year with a food component. “It’ll be retail, and we’ll have fun in a lounge. There might be food, and I might call it a restaurant.” Since he’s currently a sales rep for World Sake Imports — yet another way he’s plugged into the Japanese food scene here — it sounds like he’s perfectly suited for it. “I want everyone to experience sake. And to pair it with food. It’ll be my hobby; it’s not going to be my main gig.” Knowing Koleff, the project is sure to appeal to a wide audience without compromising authenticity. “I want to educate America that Japanese is so much more than just sushi, tofu, teriyaki chicken,” he says. “Here is robata, here is curry, here is kaiseki. There’s so much more out there.”