Chef Masaharu Morimoto / Not that the opening of Morimoto Waikiki will need extra publicity, but is it too much to hope that it will open with a throwdown between Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa? Probably. Honolulu will perhaps have to settle with the two duking it out on opposite ends of Waikiki, in their respective restaurants that showcase upscale Japanese cuisine with international influences.
Morimoto will, however, take the stage at this weekend’s Made in Hawaii Festival. No word yet on what he will be demonstrating. Maybe it’ll be a prosciutto-wrapped white-and-green asparagus sushi assembled to look like a stained-glass window, like the one in the Iron Chef asparagus battle. Or possibly the sweetened natto soaked in Coca-Cola and served in coconut milk from the natto challenge? More likely will be the incorporation of local ingredients into the final dish.
Between prepping for dinner service at his new restaurant in Napa, Morimoto answered some questions via e-mail and an interpreter.
Why are you opening a restaurant in Hawaii?
This opportunity came to me a few years ago. I couldn’t resist the idea of opening a restaurant in Hawaii where I found local seafood fantastic. Besides, any Japanese person loves Hawaii.
Any ideas on what dishes we can look forward to at your new restaurant?
I will try to use a lot of fresh local produce, which will make my Waikiki menu different from that of other Morimoto restaurants. Also, I’d like to introduce interesting seafood from Japan to the guests.
What first inspired you to cook?
When I was a kid, my family would go to a sushi restaurant on my father’s pay day. Then we would sit at the sushi counter where I watched a sushi chef making all kinds of delicious sushi for us. His magical hands literally inspired me.
How did you come to be an Iron Chef?
When I was working at Nobu in New York, a friend of mine asked me to come to her house in Tokyo to make some dinner for her friends. She told me she would invite very affluent people. I served my omakase courses to them. Later I found out that all the guests who ate my food were the producers and directors of the (original) Iron Chef show. That dinner turned out to be a test, which I passed!
Was the transition difficult, going from behind the stove to in front of the camera?
Especially sushi-making is like a TV show because it’s done in an open counter in front of the guests. So in a way it’s similar setting. Of course, I got very nervous for the first filming, but not because of the camera, but because of the competitive concept of the show.
Are you more comfortable as Iron Chef or in your restaurants?
Definitely I’m more comfortable in my restaurants. After so many years as Iron Chef, I still feel tremendous pressure. There is no fun at the Cooking Stadium! It’s a real nerve-racking battle. In my restaurants, I can enjoy interacting with guests and then feel more motivated by their reaction toward my food. But having said that, I actually like doing the Iron Chef battles, too. It’s not fun, but the challenge, which I like.
Do you put on a different persona on Iron Chef? Is it true that your glasses are purely aesthetic?
Whatever I appear to be in the show, that’s me. Then whatever I appear to be in person, that’s also me. I don’t try to change my persona in any way. But the glasses being fake is true! Yes, it’s about fashion.
You’re known for “dishes that come out of left field.” What are some of your most left field dishes? Can you explain the creative process behind one or two of them? And what are some of the most left field dishes that just didn’t work?
I often came out with a unique idea from a pun. For example, looking at prosciutto and toro, I came up with “toroscuitto.” This is very Japanese: We pronounce prosciutto as “pu ro shu to.” Therefore, “to ro shu to” sounds like a pun to me. The sound of a word sometimes gives me a strange idea, which eventually works. Basically, I love to try something that is not conventional or established. No rule is my rule. In the past Iron Chef shows, there might have something that didn’t work, but I cannot remember which one.