The Soul of a Culinary Samurai
A culinary interview with Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
Chef Masaharu Morimoto — known to many as the star of Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, now has more than 10 restaurants around the world, and has written a best-selling book called Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking. He is one of the key players in creating the appreciation, bordering on veneration, of the flavoured nuance of Japanese cuisine worldwide. He was the original chef at Nobu in New York in 1994, and opened his first namesake restaurant in Philadelphia in 2001. Locations followed in New York, Mumbai, New Delhi, Boca Raton, Waikiki, South Beach, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. His most recent restaurant opened in Las Vegas.
Like Morimoto himself, the menus and the combined ingredients at his namesake restaurants are surprising and memorable. Chef Morimoto’s taste combinations are sometimes characterized by using vapours, or subtle forms of smoking. As an example, with yellowtail Hamachi, he collects vapours in a wine glass from the cooking of brown sugar, coriander, anise, hibiscus, and pink peppercorns, and with the vapours he smokes the fish, and afterwards, the glass becomes the vessel for his own Morimoto Sake.
There are more vapours with the cocktail called Fool Me Once. To prepare the drink, Chef Morimoto torches hibiscus and pink peppercorns in a bowl and places a glass on top to catch the smoke. Then he combines chilled shochu, a distilled liquor made from sweet potatoes, barley and rice, with Amaro Averna, an Italian liqueur made from, among other things, citrus peels, with a dash of walnut bitters. The mixture is poured into a rocks glass and garnished with a wheat sprig and citrus peel.
Then there is a signature/showcase dessert called the Fiery Salty Caramel Chocolate Tart. The dish is a sphere of dark chocolate filled with marshmallow and salty caramel ganache. It is covered in a spiced rum and then lit ablaze tableside. The creation eventually melts down, exposing the marshmallow and mixing the ingredients together. Such smoked, fiery visions create the most memorable culinary drama.
I was honoured to speak with Chef Morimoto recently, and I asked about his background. Surprisingly, he had never dreamed of being a chef at all, but a professional baseball player. However, a shoulder injury kept him from continuing his sports dream.
“Every once in a while,” he said, “my family would go to a sushi restaurant to have family dinner, and it was the most warm and comforting time of my childhood. That experience left a very strong impression on me, and that’s why I originally thought of becoming a sushi chef.”
I said that he had become much more than a sushi chef. He has become a well-known international brand, which first commenced with his appearances on Iron Chef. “Oh yes, I know,” he said, “but there are lessons I learned at Iron Chef that were very helpful in my later work. You see, I never cooked for the judges or the audience. The true opponent I challenged was myself. I pushed myself to the edge, in order to raise the bar. I saw that every small thing counted and could be the determining factor of winning and losing. I wanted to put this kind of effort to all the dishes I make, regardless of location or quantity.”
I sensed, however, that the issue of self-challenge could be considered more of an internal culinary dimension, and is but one part of creating a compelling, dynamic cuisine. The other is the external dimension, that of cooking for others. I asked Chef Morimoto about what he learned from Iron Chef, as well as his later culinary experience, in determining if his cuisine was successful.
His answer was immediate: “Observe the guests.” He said, “If you do this, you can start profiling their dining expectations. This is possible only when you cook at the counter, not in the back kitchen where you can’t see the guests. That’s one of the reasons I like to cook at the counter, face-to-face with my guests. I want to see what they feel, how they feel, when they eat.”
Finally, I had heard before about his love for the Japanese knife, and I asked if that was the most essential tool in the kitchen. He smiled and said, “A kitchen without a knife is not a kitchen. The Japanese believe that our soul goes in our knives once we start using them. So we are kind with them, but cautious.”