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Meet Iron-Strong Masaharu Morimoto

6/16/2014 JJ Goode
© Getty Images

Chef Masaharu Morimoto at the Miss Universe Pageant 2012

© Chef Masaharu Morimoto

Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto has garnered critical acclaim for his seamless integration of Western and Japanese ingredients.  His esteemed restaurants in Philadelphia, Mumbai, New York, Napa, Honolulu, New Delhi, Waikiki and Mexico City have won various accolades, including a James Beard Foundation Award for “Outstanding Restaurant Design” for Morimoto New York and Food & Wine’s “Best U.S Restaurant Openings” list for Morimoto Napa.  Next, Chef Morimoto will expand his culinary empire to The Mirage hotel in Las Vegas and The Andaz Maui at Wailea resort in Maui.

© Chef Masaharu Morimoto

After dinner at one of Morimoto’s restaurants, diners often say to him, “We love what we’ve eaten, but it was not Japanese food.” His response, “Why isn’t it Japanese, and why must it be?” The very notion of authenticity stands on shaky ground, too fluid to be useful as a way to characterize cuisine. Things change, cultures meld and shift, foods travel across oceans. Many of the ingredients so closely associated with particular cuisines, like chile peppers for Thai and tomatoes for Italian, were themselves at one time imports, centuries ago. In Japanese cuisine as well, many emblematic foods have a foreign pedigree. Soy sauce, sake, tofu, and ramen all came from China. Many believe that tempura-style fried foods were brought to Japan by the Portuguese. Over the centuries, the Japanese incorporated these foreign foods into their diets, cultural and culinary preferences prodding and tugging at them until they took on new forms. Now Japanese soy sauce is distinct from the Chinese version; the two countries adore tofu, but the ways in which each prepares it differ greatly.

Cuisine, according to Masaharu Morimoto, is specific to time and place. Tastes, cooking methods, and technology change over time—what was once impossible is now quotidian, what used to delight is now unappealing—and diners and ingredients differ depending on where they’re from. So it follows that there is not just one way to make, say, sushi; instead, says Morimoto, there is Tokyo sushi, Osaka sushi, London sushi, and New York sushi. Morimoto likes to say he cooks 21st-century food. His customers are cosmopolitan; high-tech shipping allows him access to nearly any ingredient, including the pristine seafood, aged soy sauce, and special nori, or sea kelp, he buys from Japan. A chef’s location no longer determines his larder, and Morimoto uses this modern access to create new enduring combinations, adding oysters, sea urchin, and foie gras to classic trinities like tomato, mozzarella, and basil. He gears his flavors to the new-world palate: In traditional Japanese cuisine, the quality of a chef’s clear soup is a measure of his skill—the subtle flavors must build with each mouthful, culminating with the final sip that brings everything together. But since Morimoto makes soup for customers who are used to big, bold flavors, he must make sure each mouthful is complete in itself.

Because Morimoto believes that most of his customers will not relate to traditional Japanese rules of presentation and garnish, in his food he prefers to draw on more suitable points of reference for his playfulness. His culinary creations are full of visual puns. Rock shrimp tempura is slicked with a spicy mayonnaise that brings pleasantly to mind the sauce on Buffalo wings. Ruby-red raw tuna resting on a crispy tortilla is a gloriously reimagined version of pizza.

For his Japanese customers, he has created refined riffs on dishes that represent beloved examples of Japanese culinary fusion. For example, he takes kare-pan (Curry Pan), the bread stuffed with curried beef that’s a staple in Japanese bakeries, and makes the texture irresistibly crispy, the meat more succulent, and the flavors more intense. To him, cooking traditionally means making the best meal possible while working under a set of cultural constraints. He respects those chefs who do it—he’s just not willing to be limited by it. And his time in the United States—the great cultural and culinary melting pot—taught him that it was not the only way.

Morimoto is over fifty, but he seems 20 years younger, with an easy smile, mischievous rapid-fire giggle, and dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He is barrel-chested, still built like the baseball player he once planned to be. Just as he has all his life, he plays hard, always choosing the ambitious over the ordinary. This is the only way to be the pioneer Morimoto aims to be. He pairs Indian-inspired crab naan with Italian bagna cauda; matches raw fugu (blowfish) with sweet ripe tomatoes and the best buffalo mozzarella; surprises with bright-red beet soufflé; and turns salmon and squid ink into fluffy gnocchi. Why did he to choose to expand his empire to Mumbai? His answer should not surprise those familiar with this Iron Chef: Because nobody else had.

Yet he does not break rules just for effect or flout tradition willy-nilly—the result must be better than convention. If Morimoto reworks sashimi and his customers yearn for the age-old accompaniments of soy sauce and wasabi, then he has failed. But if he can add new textures and depth of flavor or otherwise up the ante to create a dish that’s more interesting and satisfying than the original, then he has succeeded. Paradoxically, to cook food that transcends the traditional, the renegade chef must return to tradition, to the techniques and ingredients in which his cuisine is grounded but not bound to. For instance, Morimoto makes dashi (stock made from kelp and cured fish) from scratch, something few chefs do in this country, even those who purport to cook straight Japanese food. Where appropriate for the dish, he enjoys using hard-to-find fresh wasabi, grating it on a sharkskin grater to best coax out its flavor. It’s not easy to improve on durable successes, but in this battle, he wields the potential of cuisine unbound by the strictures of tradition. He slicks light-as-air rock shrimp tempura with spicy aïoli, and trades octopus for lobster in his version of takoyaki, the popular Japanese street snack. He pairs Peking-style roasted duck legs with red miso sauce instead of hoisin and swaps out Chinese pancakes for a luxurious foie gras-laced croissant, which sandwiches tender duck breast.

Eating as theater

Such exciting food requires an equally exhilarating setting, and Morimoto’s restaurants oblige. In his Karim Rashid-designed Philadelphia eatery, the room glows and shimmers, the ceiling undulates, and the color of the booths gradually morph from one neon color to another as you eat. In the stunning New York space, designed by Tadao Ando, one of the world’s great architects, a dazzling partition comprised of 17,000 water bottles greets you as you enter, sparkling as if it were made of diamonds. The concrete walls and ceiling ripple like giant curtains—an appropriate setting for the high drama on the plate, the theater that Morimoto believes food deserves. Expect it from waiters, who transform soymilk into delicate, wobbly tofu at your table and unveil neat stacks of layered raw fish—Morimoto’s special sashimi—that line up beside diminutive squeeze bottles, each filled with a different sauce.        

Using theater is just one way that Morimoto helps customers connect with his food. Another is listening to his diners and gauging their desires. This allows him to manage the delicate balance between insisting customers do things his way and letting them do whatever they want. Give the customer too much and you lose who you are and what you’ve worked for. Don’t give them enough and you have an empty restaurant. What works best, he has decided, is doing whatever the customers want but in such a way that never betrays his guiding principle of deliciousness. If they crave ketchup for their crab, he whips up an exceptionally lively seafood cocktail sauce that will satisfy them, sometimes employing fresh wasabi and yuzu, a sweet-tart citron fruit. If they insist on spicy mayonnaise on their sushi rolls, he’ll make sure it’s the best they’ve ever tasted. This allows customers a measure of comfort and control, making them more willing to trust him when he decides to test their boundaries, to show them something new. For instance, when you sit down at the omakase (“chef’s choice”) bar for a thrilling, multi-course meal, Morimoto will ask if there’s anything you don’t like. The most common response, he has found, is, “I like everything but sea urchin.” So what will the chef serve for the first course? That’s right, sea urchin. Yet because this is not your average sea urchin, most customers find a revelation in the sweet, custardlike roe with its tinge of the sea.

His “don’t say no” philosophy extends from his rejection of the dogma of tradition for the principles of pleasure—visceral, giddy pleasure. He embraces his culinary inclinations without hesitation. He did not dither when he thought to pair gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) with tangy crème fraîche and earthy tomato sauce. He did not ignore inspiration when it revealed to him that tasty chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard) would become something divine were it infused with foie gras.

Two dreams

Chef Morimoto at New York's Great Googa Mooga 2012

This pursuit of pleasure at all costs was born out of a childhood of deprivation. Morimoto was born in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1955. His father worked hard as an engineer at a printing company. When he came home in the evening, he frequently drank too much, which did not help his short temper. His mother’s family had been wealthy but lost everything during World War II. They were poor and tensions in the Morimoto household ran high, his father flying into a nightly rage and often becoming violent toward his wife. The screaming and fighting got the family evicted from one apartment, then another. By the time Morimoto was 13 years old, they had been forced to move ten times.

A resilient child, Morimoto had two dreams, two ways to escape. For one, he wanted to be a baseball player. As he sat glued to the television, watching a young Sadaharu Oh hit home runs for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants or cheering for his hometown team, the Hiroshima Carp, his parent’s fighting was forgotten. He also fantasized about becoming a sushi chef. The only happy times Morimoto remembers spending with his family were the days when his father received his monthly paycheck. They had a ritual: First, they would stop at a kissaten (coffeeshop), where his parents would sip coffee while he and his sister dug into a predinner treat: chocolate sundaes. Then, they would head to a sushi bar. To Morimoto, the sushi chefs that served his family were the epitome of cool. Dressed in crisp white jackets, they exuded confidence and control. They moved with speed and precision, turning out morsels of fish and rice that seemed magically to soothe his parents. His father laughing, his mother smiling, Morimoto stuffing himself blithely—sushi represented a night of peace.

By the end of high school, it was clear that his dream of wielding a knife had taken a backseat to that of wielding a bat. He played catcher and batted cleanup for his school team, which was one of the favorites for the national championships that year. Morimoto’s big swing and rifle of an arm brought scouts from the pro team the Hiroshima Carp. That’s not to say that he never made a mistake. When he found out that his team’s first-round playoff game was going to be televised, he replaced his old, beat-up mitt with a brand new one, the precious “made in the USA” mitt that he had treasured but never used. It certainly looked better, but it was not broken in, and in the seventh inning, he dropped a ball, losing his team the game. For someone who hates to lose, this stung badly at the time (and hasn’t fully stopped stinging). To make matters worse, his throwing arm had begun to give out, suffering from overuse. Though he knew that this wouldn’t completely dash his chances of making it to the big leagues, he knew that it would always prevent him from being a great player. But there was no obstacle to his becoming a great sushi chef, he thought, so that’s what he would do. All he had to do was find a job at a restaurant.

Learning the craft

Almost 25 years before Morimoto became an Iron Chef, before he owned four widely acclaimed restaurants and released his own award-winning beers and splendid saké, he washed dishes at Ichiban sushi, a small restaurant in Hiroshima. It was run by Ikuo Oyama, a kind but demanding chef who prepared a wide range of food, including sushi, sashimi, udon (fat, slick noodles), and Japanese curry rice. Morimoto soon became an apprentice to Oyama, living in a room above the restaurant and toiling long hours in the kitchen. Morimoto likes to say that his hours began when he opened his eyes at 5 A.M. and ended when he closed them at 2 A.M. In the morning, Morimoto would accompany Oyama to the fish market, observing vigilantly as he selected seafood and wrangled with vendors. Later in the day, he would learn to make rice and slice fish. In the evening, he would cook, and at night, he would clean. Every October, he was engrossed in the logistics of Oyama’s prosperous side business: selling matsutake, the sought-after fall mushroom, which grows in the forests of Hiroshima. Purchasing matsutake from villagers and helping Oyama determine to what market and at what price to resell them, Morimoto got his first taste of running a business.

Early in his apprenticeship, he resisted giving himself wholly to the restaurant. Some nights, after he had completed his work, he would sneak out to drink with his friends. This was easier said than done, because Oyama lived next to the restaurant and every night locked the doors from the outside. To escape, burly Morimoto had to squeeze through a small window above the kitchen counter. To ensure a silent getaway, he would shift the chef’s van into neutral and push it down the street before he started the engine. Morimoto, it seems, was as conscientious in his mischief as he was in his work.

Soon, however, he gave up partying. If he was going to be a chef, he wanted to become the best chef he could be. He toiled at the craft of cooking sushi rice, aiming to perfect the texture and seasoning. He learned to slice fish not just capably but artfully. He developed a wide breadth of experience, even preparing beloved, humble dishes like hijiki (seaweed cooked with soy and sugar), inari zushi (fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice), and korokke (potato croquettes) for the small food market next door owned by Oyama’s brother.

Morimoto believes that had he apprenticed at a more refined restaurant, such as a place that served kaiseki-ryori, the intricate and obsessively seasonal meals that developed to accompany the formal tea ceremony, he might not have become the same chef he is today; he might have been too deeply immersed in tradition and the strict rules of Japanese cuisine to ever break free. After nearly seven years, his apprenticeship was over, but instead of life slowing down, it sped up. He married a woman whom he had met when he was in high school and working part-time at a coffee shop. (He and a friend had applied for jobs as servers. Because of the imposing effect of Morimoto’s challenging gaze and sun-tanned face, the owner insisted he work in the kitchen, instead.) At 25, he opened his own café in downtown Hiroshima. A far cry from the tony restaurants whose kitchens he now runs, it was a tiny place with a few tables that dealt mainly in delivery to nearby medical offices and a police station. He cooked simple food—soup, rice, pickles, and a rotating roster of main dishes. At night, he labored as a sushi chef in another restaurant, and in what little free time he had left, he delivered newspapers and worked as an insurance agent at Morimoto Agency, a makeshift outfit that he alone operated. Unsure what he wanted from life, he took on this chaotic schedule, because it allowed him to retreat from the questions he knew he’d soon have to answer.

Living in America

However busy he was, he couldn’t keep his mind from wandering, and this wandering typically took it to the United States. By the late 70s, sushi in the United States had taken off, with dedicated restaurants opening at breakneck speed, especially in Los Angeles and New York City. Morimoto wondered whether he should join the action, even going so far as to send away for a California newspaper in order to peruse the classifieds for job openings. He had a choice to make: With the money he had saved from working—having no time to spend any money meant that he had saved quite a bit—he could stay in Japan and buy a house, a BMW, or an izakaya, a Japanese pub featuring small plates of homey food that was growing in popularity at the time. Or he could move to America and toward a life of uncertainty. After much deliberation, he and his wife decided that they would spend a year exploring the United States, visiting New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Hawaii before heading back to Japan. Instead, they landed in New York on March 5, 1985, and never left. He had found his home.    

Converse sneakers, a Yankees’ jersey, and a Rolex watch—these were the three very important purchases Morimoto dreamed about making once he reached the United States. He made them during his first year in New York when he lived in the rough-and-tumble East Village of the 1980s. His apartment on East 6th Street was robbed, so he moved to East 5th Street. When it, too, was robbed, he decided to ditch the neighborhood—his reason, he likes to say, was to protect his new watch. So two years after he arrived, he bought the apartment in which he lives today, even after his rise to fame.

Even the semblance of celebrity was still almost ten years away. Once in the United States, he picked up more or less where he had left off in Japan, working afternoons at one sushi restaurant and nights at another. Yet he had begun to make choices with an eye toward the future. Because he realized restaurants in different areas of the city drew different customers, he made it a point to work at both an uptown and a downtown restaurant. He paid close attention to American preferences, sensing that there must be a way of injecting excitement into what he was serving but not yet knowing what that way should be. After six years of being underpaid and overworked, he began the search for new opportunities.

One day Morimoto saw a job listing in a newspaper for sushi chef at the Sony Club, an exclusive dining room that catered to Sony’s executives and talent. It was run by Barry Wine, a pioneering restaurateur, formerly chef/owner of The Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that was pivotal in introducing “nouvelle cuisine” to the New York culinary scene. Morimoto understood that though he might be good enough to handle the position, he would not likely get it. His resumé, filled with jobs at no-name restaurants in New York and Japan, belied his skill, and in a city that prizes the four-star pedigree, mere talent is not always enough. Nevertheless, he applied. When he didn’t get a response from the manager, he called to follow-up. When he still didn’t get a response, he almost gave up. As it happened, the manager was planning a party and was short a sushi chef, so in a pinch, sight unseen, he called Morimoto. As soon as he received the call, Morimoto knew he would get the job. And, indeed, the party went well—very well—with Morimoto quickly and deftly producing sushi and sashimi for the hordes of big shots. And when the night was over, he was offered the job.

Morimoto enjoyed working at the Sony Club. He liked riding the elevator with the exquisitely suited executives, stepping off onto the penthouse floor to prepare food for other important people. Morimoto presided over the five-seat sushi bar, tucked away in a small room. The sushi bar catered to Sony’s clients and executives and some of their record label superstars. Unlike at most sushi bars in the United States, no glass case separated Morimoto from his customers—they could watch him in action. At first, this made him nervous, but he quickly grew to enjoy the feeling of being “on stage,” as it were.

For almost a year, all was well, until a party changed everything. A manager had asked for appetizers and finger food for the guests, but Morimoto misunderstood and enthusiastically prepared as assortment of fabulous “small dish” main courses in no time, instead. To paraphrase, with the expletives omitted, the boss screamed, “This is not a Japanese restaurant!” Morimoto realized that in that position, he would always be in the background, relegated to sushi and appetizers and never allowed to grow and show what he could do. It was time to move on.

New flavors

Chef Morimoto with Chef Graham Elliot at Vegas Uncork'd 2013

Fortuitously, at the time, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa was planning to open Nobu, the New York sibling of his popular Los Angeles restaurant Matsuhisa. Morimoto decided to look for a position at the new restaurant. 

With his first restaurant, chef Matsuhisa had redefined for Americans the concept of Japanese food, serving Peruvian-Japanese fusion dishes based on his travels in South America that incorporated garlic, lime juice, jalapeños, and cilantro to exhilarating effect. The upshot was so wonderfully disorienting that black cod with miso (miso-marinated fish being a long-time home cooking staple in Japan) came to symbolize a new direction in Japanese cuisine. Nobu restaurant brought that excitement to New York, and in 1994, the restaurant earned two stars from Ruth Reichl, then the New York Times restaurant reviewer. Morimoto was there from the beginning, surrounded by new flavors and working under a mandate not to be limited by the strictures of tradition.

Chef Matsuhisa spent much of his time tending to his Los Angeles restaurant, which gave the chefs at Nobu some room to express their own creativity. Morimoto took the lead, preparing wildly imaginative meals for the customers who put themselves in his hands. Within a year, the restaurant garnered a three-star review from Ruth Reichl in the New York Times. Morimoto felt at least partly responsible and in his elation, took the liberty of having business cards and a chef’s jacket made that referred to him as “executive chef.” No one complained; it was clear he had “earned his stripes.”    

This newfound distinction brought with it new opportunities. When a wealthy Frenchman who owned a summer house in Kenya asked Matsuhisa to come to Africa to cook for him and his family, the chef brought Morimoto along. They flew to Nairobi by private jet and stayed in the Frenchman’s lavish compound. Morimoto had planned a week’s worth of meals for the family, preparing as much mise-en-scene before the trip as he could and taking it all with him. Matsuhisa stayed for only two days, but by the time he left, all the supplies they brought were used up. What was the future Iron Chef to do? He cooked creatively using only local ingredients to rave reviews (although he ultimately decided against using the camel milk and giraffe leg that he found in the family’s freezer).

Becoming iron chef

Morimoto’s big break came during a trip to Japan to see his friends and family. It was the first vacation he had ever taken, and yet he would not leave without cooking one of the most important meals of his career. A Japanese customer at Nobu who adored his food had invited him to cook for a group of her friends in Tokyo. Although he didn’t know it then, this group included a judge and a producer from Fuji TV’s popular show “Iron Chef.” Fortunately, the ever-diligent chef cooked his heart out anyway. Several months later, he got a call from someone from the show. He was sure that he had heard them wrong. Perhaps the man on the phone meant to invite him on as a challenger, he told himself. That would make sense; that he could handle. But the truth frightened him: This man was asking him to be Iron Chef Japanese. For the first time in years, his confidence faltered. Instead of the plucky chef who knew he was skilled enough to work at the Sony Club, who knew he deserved to be executive chef at Nobu, Morimoto suddenly felt provincial and unsure. At first, he declined the offer. But a number of his colleagues started lobbying him, asking him to take the offer because they wanted chefs in their native Japan to recognize the exciting work they were doing in the United States and also to prove how well they cook in a foreign country. (Chefs back home in Japan would often belittle Japanese chefs outside of Japan. Now, various unconventional sushi dishes created by chefs in the United States are adored by people in Japan.) A week later, Morimoto reconsidered and signed on.

He still remembers his first battle. The secret ingredient was tai (red snapper), and his opponent was Hirayama Yukio, head chef of Hanya-tei, a respected restaurant in Yokohama. Morimoto felt a strong need to prove himself, to show the Japanese judges what a chef from New York could do. As he battled Chef Yukio, he also had to contend with the fears that the competition brought. Had he made the right decision leaving Japan, eschewing the traditional route for the unconventional one? Was he up to the task of being unfailingly creative again and again, of executing an awe-inspiring procession of dishes in front of the intimidating stare of the camera? Suddenly, he felt as if he were back in Hiroshima during the seventh inning of the game that would decide his team’s fate in the playoffs.

Sporting a diamond stud in his ear and swigging from a Coca-Cola bottle as he cooked, Morimoto cut an unusual figure in Kitchen Stadium. His food was equally distinctive. For one of his dishes, Morimoto perched tai on top of homemade potato chips, spread with a sauce that combined miso and caviar (an outrageous act in the minds of traditionalists). If you think that took guts, he also served the fish on a bagel. The judges were taken aback but impressed. When they handed down their verdict, it was Morimoto’s cuisine that reigned supreme. Morimoto flew to Japan every month until the show ended, about a year after he started.

It was near the end of the original “Iron Chef Japan” that Morimoto had his infamous battle with Bobby Flay, the pugnacious American chef who leaped onto his own cutting board when their hour of cooking was over. In the heat of the moment, Morimoto declared that Flay was “not a chef,” because stepping on a cutting board, which is a precious tool, is not what a professional chef would do.

This remark caused quite a bit of controversy, which caught the eye of the Food Network in New York. Soon after the original show’s demise in Japan, they decided to produce an American version of the show and asked Morimoto to be one of the four Iron Chefs. This time he didn’t hesitate in accepting. A rematch was set up between Morimoto and Flay, which generated a huge audience. That’s how “Iron Chef America” began.

Yet while his television persona brought him fame, it was Morimoto’s food that truly captivated America. Just as his use of bagels and potato chips captivated the Japanese judges, so did his crab brain dip and caviar tempura bemuse and charm the Americans. He’s proud to think that he played a role in raising the status of unconventional food and bringing recognition to Japanese chefs working in America, who a decade ago might have been automatically derided as inadequate by chefs in Tokyo and Kyoto.

On his own

“Iron Chef” marked Morimoto’s transition from restaurant chef to celebrity chef and made him reconsider his potential. In 1999, after five years at Nobu, he left to pursue opening his own restaurant. He hooked up with Stephen Starr, Philadelphia’s prolific restaurateur, who wanted to add a new Japanese restaurant to his portfolio; all he needed was the right chef. But Morimoto had already cooked at someone else’s restaurant. Now he wanted to showcase his own food. After balking at first, Starr eventually agreed, giving Morimoto free reign on the food and promising him that after they took Philadelphia, they would do the same in New York. In 2001, Morimoto Restaurant opened in downtown Philly to rave reviews. Craig LaBan, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic, called it “Philadelphia’s most exciting new restaurant” and described the food as “wondrous.”      

Yet the opening of his New York restaurant five years later represented the culmination of his career, a triumphant culinary return to the city to which he owes so much. In the city’s red-hot Meatpacking District, his resplendent restaurant embodies how far he has come from his days as a dishwasher at Ichiban sushi. Success has chased many fine chefs out of the kitchen and into an office, but Morimoto refuses to relinquish his true love: cooking. You shouldn’t be surprised, then, to take a seat at the sushi bar, perhaps his favorite place in the entire restaurant, and see Morimoto standing before you. No kitchen door separates you, so you can watch as he makes magic with fish and rice. For customers, sitting here provides an opportunity to see a master at work. For the chef, working this close to his customers lets him see the blissful grin that follows every bite. –JJ Goode

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