San Francisco’s Top Chef Found Dead Mystery Continues


Masa Kobayashi, the head chef, regularly took the long route home on foot. He’d help lock up his namesake restaurant, Masa’s, after dinner service and walk the 10 minutes up Bush Street to his home at 1111 Pine. He returned home at roughly 2 a.m. on November 13, 1983

It wasn’t long after Kobayashi returned home before a neighbor reported hearing what might have been a fight. An apartment worker passed through all 64 units, and the following day, the San Francisco Examiner reported that all was calm on Pine Street.

The manager of Masa’s, John Cunin, felt his heart pounding with anxiety the following afternoon. Cunin saw trouble brewing as 4:30 rolled around. Kobayashi was never even a half-hour late, much less three. With that in mind, he ran up to Kobayashi’s flat and rapped on the door. Cunin went to find the building manager and asked for help opening the door when he didn’t get a response. Kobayashi was waiting for them at the door.

The world had lost one of its finest chefs. Kobayashi, a Japanese native who emigrated to Paris in the 1960s to pursue a career in the culinary arts, was born in Japan. He spent a lot of time at the Louvre during his stay there, where he found a lot of creative inspiration from its many exhibits. A rising star in the culinary world, he became renowned for the meticulous accuracy with which he presented food, to the point where he drew hundreds of sketches to help his staff imitate his techniques.

Kobayashi got his big break at the French restaurant Le Plaisir in New York City. It was the equivalent of today’s French Laundry, adored by A-listers and praised by critics. On the heels of his success there, in 1981, Kobayashi was given the executive chef position at the Auberge du Soleil, a new restaurant in Napa Valley. He agreed, and rather than continue without him; Le Plaisir decided to close. Reports say that when Gael Greene, food critic for New York Magazine, heard the news, she broke down in tears.

Quickly after Kobayashi took over the kitchen, Auberge du Soleil became a nationally recognized dining destination. However, the shape didn’t work as well as he had intended. He told the Examiner, “Auberge was too enormous.” Lunch, supper, and large banquets were all provided for 200 guests. There are too many people for me to help in the way I would like.

Kobayashi was quickly poached by Robert Kimpton, owner of the Kimpton hotels, after working at Auberge du Soleil. He proposed opening a cosy eatery in the Hotel Vintage Court in Union Square. Kobayashi gladly accepted the offer and, in 1983, opened Masa’s. The event sold out in record time. One reviewer labelled his eatery “one of the top French restaurants in the United States,” and the food was deemed “flawless.” Diners enjoyed herb-stuffed chicken breast with tarragon cream sauce and salads made with fresh ingredients from California.

Twenty-four years ago, I decided to make a career out of cooking. “I know, and my body is still strong,” Kobayashi proclaimed to the press in July 1983. “I must take care of myself now.”

Masa Kobayashi was murdered some four months later. Those clues left at the crime scene have a story to tell. Author and former SFPD homicide detective Frank Falzon recently told SFGATE that “in Masa’s case, the story was right there at the entry of the apartment door.”

Falzon, who had worked on cases like the Milk-Moscone murders and the Night Stalker murders before, was in charge of the Kobayashi investigation as the primary investigator. Even though the mystery continues, Falzon is sure he knows what happened that night.

In the weeks following Kobayashi’s death, Falzon and the media speculated that a building resident had an unhealthy obsession with Kobayashi’s minor son. Kobayashi and his wife were worried about their son’s friendship with the man, so they planned to relocate him to a new school outside of town. During that week, Kobayashi was alone while his wife and three children were in the Dominican Republic.

According to Falzon, when Kobayashi returned home, the guy was waiting for him, clearly still disturbed by the boy’s absence. An exchange of harsh words took place, and “[the person of interest] even confirmed that he was there,” Falzon claimed.

The following events occurred relatively rapidly. Falzon said that Kobayashi might have pulled out the revolver he carried with him on his late-night walks alone. Possible counterattack from the martial arts-savvy man. Kobayashi was fatally struck in the neck. The person who grabbed him around the neck likely broke a bone in the area, leading to his death, as stated by Falzon.

Reverberations of dismay could be felt all over the international restaurant industry as the news of Kobayashi’s death spread. Cunin told the Examiner, “He was one of the top chefs in the country.” In other words, he’s famous. The man is a rock star. The situation is tragic, period.

“He set a bar for cookery and, like so many creative people, he stretched beyond what is generally feasible,” said Carlo Middione, chef at Vivande Porta Via. When Kobayashi was murdered, dinner service at Masa’s continued as usual. The team carried on based on his drawings. It wouldn’t make any sense to give up now. Cunin stated that it’s the culmination of his life’s efforts. It’s like we owe Masa something.

In the meantime, the authorities zeroed in on a suspect. He submitted to a lie detector exam, which Falzon said he bombed. The polygraph examiner was “adamant,” as stated by Falzon that they had their man. “I’m 100%. The Examiner remarked, “I’ve never done an exam where I’m 100% positive he’s your guy,” which Falzon remembered well.

But polygraph results can’t be used in court, and the police didn’t have many other leads or eyewitnesses. Kobayashi’s blood was the only one discovered, and the gun was gone. Even though the public was asked to help find the missing Llama semi-automatic pistol with serial number 892272, no luck was found.

According to Falzon, the suspect’s attorney resisted the police’s numerous attempts to bring the man back in for questioning. Cold case inspectors from the San Francisco Police Department have looked at the case occasionally. However, it is still at the point where Falzon left it: with a compelling person of interest but no way to move the investigation further.

What the public fails to realize is that investigators’ options are limited. That’s right,” Falzon remarked. “We lose access whenever it becomes necessary to defend his constitutional rights.”

A public memorial service for Kobayashi never took place. After his death, his wife and kids reportedly made a permanent transfer to the Dominican Republic so they could bury him there.

A new generation of talented cooks who learned from him carried on his dedication to perfection and artistic presentation. Masa passed away only a few months after launching his namesake restaurant, although it stayed in business until 2013. What was formerly San Francisco’s most acclaimed French restaurant is now a sports bar.

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