Chef Morimoto
Masaharu Morimoto: An Iron Chef with a soft spot for sushi

Published in ASIAN GOURMET MAGAZINE, Spring 2008

Masaharu Morimoto loves sushi, not only because the food represents Japanese cuisine at its finest, but because of childhood memories.

Morimoto, the 52-year-old star of the Iron Chef series on the Food Network, has a more profound connection to sushi than you could imagine. Growing up poor and unhappy, he remembers the serenity that would arise during his family’s infrequent journeys to a sushi restaurant. This precious memory prefaces his first cookbook, Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking.

"In my 34 years, it is always about twisting"


The long introduction describes the chef's food philosophy (his "new-world palate" and love of visual puns) and then moves into his origins.

I discover that he grew up in a household in which his father could be found "flying into a nightly rage and often becoming violent toward his wife." By the time the chef-to-be was 10, the family had moved a dozen times. The fights were sometimes so explosive that their landlords would kick them out.

What sustained the young Morimoto through this nightmare were those rare nights out to eat. At the sushi bar, "morsels of fish and rice … seemed magically to soothe [his] parents," and so, "sushi represented a night of peace."

Starting as a dishwasher at a small sushi place in Hiroshima, Morimoto learned his craft through chef Ikuo Oyama and opened his own place after eight years of apprenticeship. Remarkably, he juggled two other jobs on the side: delivering newspapers and selling insurance.

When Morimoto turned 30, instead of buying a house or opening another restaurant, he and his wife decided to travel the United States for a year. Since landing in New York in March 1985, they haven’t looked back.

The couple eventually settled in New York City’s East Village, and Morimoto was hired as head chef of the exclusive Nobu restaurant in Manhattan. There his talents blossomed, earning him a reputation as a maverick who fuses Eastern and Western ingredients and cooking styles.

He was offered the Japanese Iron Chef role on Iron Chef in 1999, and later moved to its spinoff, Iron Chef America. Now a globally recognized name, Morimoto has restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo and Mumbai.

The impressive chef dropped by Toronto on his book tour last October. As one of only a few journalists awarded some time with him, I’m nervous.

I’m reminded of the first Iron Chef in America show, which pitted Morimoto against the swaggering Bobby Flay. Flay was declared the winner and celebrated by climbing on top of his kitchen counter, punching his fists in the air. Morimoto stood back, seething, and declared that Flay was not a true chef for standing on his chopping board. Yikes. Would Morimoto find me out and proclaim me a fake journalist? I bring two recording devices and a list of questions.

The Iron Chef in person
He greets me curtly. We’re in one of the cooking studios of George Brown College in downtown Toronto. He's dressed as he is on the show, in a traditional Japanese top. I'm unsure whether he's tired, indifferent or arrogant. I take out my two recorders and comment that I do not trust technology. "Oh, me too, me too," he laughs, leaning forward and uncrossing his arms. Ah, we have a break.

I take a deep breath and ask him how he selected the recipes for his book.

"Oh, no one ask me this question," he admits. On my first query, the Iron Chef is stumped.

The pause seems to last as long as it takes a pot of water to boil.

"Mostly, I try edge, edge, edge," he says, referring to his fondness for pushing the boundaries of food. "I try to think of [taking] my popular recipes from my restaurant to your kitchen, so that is my base concept. But I choose things [that] are not too easy, not too difficult."

The sensually photographed book runs the gamut between simple and complex dishes – from Morimoto Chicken Noodle Soup to Orange-Roasted Seafood and Caviar Tempura. Throughout, Morimoto lends his advice and commentary, as if he is there in your kitchen to provide support.

"You know the question, about the last meal of your life? I say sushi. Sushi, I make myself to eat." Morimoto talks in fits and starts. While his English isn't smooth, he expresses himself through his hands. He tells me that he had to adjust the recipes for smaller portions because when he makes sauce in the restaurant, "it is for this bunch of sauce," spreading his arms wide as if ready to give one a giant hug. His face comes alive.

The book gives ample evidence of his innovative fusion style. "This is about my 34 years of experience. It's about twisting things," he says, using his right hand to punctuate the point as if screwing in a lightbulb.

"I have King Crab with black pepper. It is inspired from Singapore, but it's a little too spicy for me, so I add black sesame. That's the twist, you see?"

The culinary contortions are everywhere in the cookbook: Sushi Rice Risotto, Lobster Masala, Daikon Fettucine, Blowfish Carpaccio and Sweet Potato Cake. He delights in opposites, in impossible pairings.

"Ninety-eight people go this way [he motions both hands to the right], and I go this way [he motions both hands to the left]. Hah!" The chef, hands on thighs, looks amused.

Finding a balance
While Morimoto's offerings have been deemed "a wild fun house" in the mouth by fellow super-chef Mario Batali, there is nothing pleasant about the Japanese chef's past.

I feel a sense of familiarity, as if we have shared a cup of tea, and so I mention that I am moved by the description of his childhood.

His response is a loud "Oh." He looks down. Perhaps this was a mistake, a rude comment. Many Japanese do not like unpleasant things to be mentioned, especially during a meal.

The indomitable Morimoto re-inflates and starts to speak. "That is why I am doing sushi. It is my favourite food in the world," he declares. "You know the question, about the last meal of your life? I say sushi. Sushi, I make myself to eat." His hands are pressed against his chest.

"We have no money [and] we save a little, a little every month. Then we go for sushi. It is... memorable." Morimoto's eyes shutter downwards.

"Trauma, trauma, trauma." He squeezes out the words, shaking his head. There isn’t much more to say. We're silent for a moment.

I ask whether he considers himself an artist. He lights up.

"Chef has to be an artist but artist is not a master... just see and watch. No, chef has to have life balance, not this artistic focus. We have to be controlled, to have balance."

Morimoto places his right hand over his heart. He nods and smiles. "Good food is about peace. The food is my peace, my family. I am sharing this with you."

Iron Chef Morimoto has come full circle.