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Talk Asia

Interview with Chef Masaharu Morimoto

Aired June 01, 2012 - 05:30   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): Meet one of Japan's finest culinary masters. Known for fusing Western ingredients into traditional Japanese cuisine, his Michelin Star-winning creations have endeared him to an array of famous figures, foodies, and culinary counterparts. Born in Hiroshima, Japan, he owned his own restaurant at just 24. Later selling it, he became a protege of the famed Japanese chef, Nobu Matsuhisa. And the head chef of the acclaimed "Nobu" restaurant.

It wasn't until 1999, though, that Morimoto stepped in front of the camera, appearing on the competitive cooking TV show, "Iron Chef, Japan."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Morimoto picks up the pace.

STOUT (voice-over): Three years later, he opened his first of eight international restaurants.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto.

STOUT (voice-over): And continued to flex his culinary muscle on the American version of the "Iron Chef" show. Revered for his skills by his peers, American chef, Anthony Bourdain saw that Morimoto's expertise, on his "No Reservations" show in Japan.

GORDON RAMSEY, CHEF: Please welcome Masaharu Morimoto.

STOUT (voice-over): And the internationally renowned chef, Gordon Ramsey, had Morimoto challenge contestants on a sushi-making episode of "Hell's Kitchen."

This week on "Talk Asia", we're with the Japanese ambassador -- chef, Masaharu Morimoto, on a quick stop through Hong Kong, to find out what it is that makes him a cut above the rest.


STOUT: Masaharu Morimoto, welcome to "Talk Asia."

MASAHARU MORIMOTO, CHEF: Thank you having me.

STOUT: Now, you are the Iron Chef, and Iron Chef is no ordinary cooking show. I remember when I first watched the Japanese version. It was in the 1990s and I got a bootleg video copy from a friend, watched it, and I thought, "This was incredible." And it became a cult hit in America. Why did it become so popular in the U.S.?

MORIMOTO: So there you have kind of serious cooking problem. That cooking show say hey, this, this, this, this. But this is a very totally new concept. And then very refreshing for them. And then, you know, so, the return chef come in, they cook in different cooking style, different food never seen before. Oh, what is this, this, this, this, this? And the new concept from one ingredient to making different, you know, like dishes. And the more -- it's like being a Western, you know --

STOUT: Like a showdown. Yes.

MORIMOTO: Yes, right.

STOUT: I think of gladiators. You know, there's this scene in the beginning --


STOUT: -- where you slowly rise from this platform and this dramatic, operatic music is playing in the background.

MORIMOTO: I believe in the idea from the beginning. Iron Chef in Japan. They started, I think, 1994. I'm the third generation of Japanese Iron Chef in Japan. Still, there can be an Iron Chef. That's the man to beat. If challenger come in and beat Iron Chef, they can have their own restaurant somewhere in Japan. (INAUDIBLE)

STOUT: Now, on the show --

MORIMOTO: On the show?

STOUT: -- you have the secret ingredient.


STOUT: And that's revealed. And then you have just one hour to create a menu of three to six dishes.


STOUT: And it's all done on camera.


STOUT: How nervous and how do you feel during that process?

MORIMOTO: So, I have a lot of experience including the U.S. -- American version and Japanese version. But still, I'm shaking before every single hearing. So before that, I'm shaking. Because I try to, you know, challenge as much as I can. I do menu of six dishes, but in the six dishes, I will do a lot of, you know, a lot of dishes -- a lot of different things come in one dish, one dish. So, I try as much as I can. So, no, I get nervous every time.

STOUT: But, once you hold the knife --


STOUT: -- you're clam, you're focused.


STOUT: Have you ever had a terrible disaster during the show?

MORIMOTO: This is taping, but whatever, no stop. So, if I tell myself that it burns -- if the (INAUDIBLE), I can be creating. So, it means life. So that's a pressure, there.

STOUT: Now, "Iron Chef, America," and "Iron Chef" came out way before "Top Chef", "Master Chef", "Hell's Kitchen", etc.

MORIMOTO: So maybe -- that's a kind of the old kind of reality show.


MORIMOTO: Including, you know, not just cooking, I think.

STOUT: Were you in the Team Iron Chef -- you were the first.

MORIMOTO: I don't know first. But I am the only one came from original from Japan.

STOUT: Do you like being a celebrity chef?

MORIMOTO: A lot of people call me a celebrity chef, but I don't think that I'm a celebrity. So I want to stay keeping just a chef. That's more comfortable.

STOUT: But you get recognized on the street in Japan, New York, India -- where you have restaurants.

MORIMOTO: Japan? I don't think a lot. U.S.? Yes. But Japan starts the air 1999, maybe September 21. Something, there. So, (INAUDIBLE) thirteen years ago. Then I was more young and not a ponytail. I had more hair in the show. So my looks change. And then people doesn't recognize me. So, Japan's very comfortable with me. No, "Oh is chef -- take a picture and take autograph", you know.

STOUT: So you opened your first restaurant, "Morimoto" in 2001, in Philadelphia.


STOUT: Why did you choose Philadelphia?

MORIMOTO: So, I have two reasons. First reason, a lot of people know about I'm an Iron Chef. I'm still doing. And all is not chef from "Nobu." So I went out independent from everything. I want to do with yourself, Masaharu Morimoto, myself.

Then, I choose a city -- independent city. Philadelphia. It is my independence. Means I move out to New York to second or third, whatever. So, I did it.

STOUT: So, you wanted to open a top-notch restaurant in a second or third-tier city in America. That was your goal.


STOUT: And what does it take to run a successful restaurant?

MORIMOTO: It's a very difficult question. But I'm not thinking the lot of successful Morimoto, but I try my best. You know, as much as I can. Then, TV stuff helping a lot. So, "Iron Chef" -- so, fortunately, I can get the a lot of customer from (INAUDIBLE). And the traveler coming, you know, from outside -- from New York and Philly and Napa and Hawaii -- Waikiki, and Mexico City. So I'm lucky.

STOUT: How many restaurants do you have around the world, now?


STOUT: Eight.


STOUT: And how do you make sure that your mark -- your signature - - is on every table, on every dish around the world?



MORIMOTO: I still have the people who I can trust. The chef -- at least the chef and the manager. So I can send them and then, you know -- so my team try to check on all the quality and the quantity and everything. But tough.

STOUT: Now, a number of chefs have gone global, right? You have your Nobu, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon. Do you look at what they do and are you ever afraid of over-extending yourself and over-extending your brand? Becoming too big?

MORIMOTO: So, I want to keep my -- I don't want to say "bland", my quality -- the restaurant called "Morimoto." But I can't open the "Morimoto" everywhere, maybe 10, 20, 30. I'm not running the chain. So, I have to create a different concept.

New York is my, you know, second hometown. But pretty tough. Even New York -- pretty tough to keeping Morimoto quality there. And then go to some different city -- different country -- I need the kind of partner with who I can trust.


STOUT: Coming up, we go into the kitchen with Chef Morimoto, to discover some of the secrets to his success.




STOUT: So, this is a master class in sushi with Chef Morimoto.

MORIMOTO: OK, so I'm going to show you how to make sushi and sashimi. The important thing is how to eat sushi.

STOUT: I can do that.

MORIMOTO: OK. I'm going to give you different fish -- different, you know. So this is a Nero (ph) fish.

STOUT: You've already filleted it.

MORIMOTO: Yes. So this is -- I'm taking the skin off. This is one little fish. I'm going to give you this and this is there. And then, this is a sharkskin grater, and this is fresh wasabi.

STOUT: Yes. That's a fantastic tool.

MORIMOTO: Yes. Wasabi. You want to do?

STOUT: Yes. OK. And this is sharkskin, you said, this tool?

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes.

STOUT: And you just grate it?


STOUT: And I love -- this is what wasabi looks like, right here.

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes, yes.

STOUT: The original horseradish, wasabi.

MORIMOTO: Yes, wasabi.

STOUT: Oh, you make it look so easy. You have to put a lot of muscle in.


STOUT: There we go, there we go. I got it, I think so. No, this isn't working. No, I'm not doing it. There you have it.

And you prefer using these old, traditional tools -- using a Cuisinart, or something like that.

MORIMOTO: Yes. So far, traditional, you know, that's good. OK, this is a shiso leaf.

STOUT: And what type of rice to you usually use?

MORIMOTO: Well, this is rice from Japan. Put the wasabi between fish and rice. OK, you have to remember this amount.


MORIMOTO: OK? I have two different type of soy sauce. This is lighter, so this will be thicker.


MORIMOTO: Lighter fish --

STOUT: Light sauce.

MORIMOTO: Light sauce. Eat one bite. Whole thing, eat whole thing, whole thing. See? Be good. Sauce on the bottom, from the rice. Fish. You saw the wasabi in between. No matter how -- no guarantee wasabi which side. So I control the wasabi amount --

STOUT: Whole experience in one bite.

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes. OK, this is toro. Fatty, fatty, fatty.

STOUT: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

MORIMOTO: See? This amount -- woo.

STOUT: But because of the fat amount, it can handle more wasabi, right?

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes. Then, of course, we take the soy sauce. There you go. So this is one bite.

STOUT: I can't believe this is happening. I'm being served -- hand served -- sushi by Master Chef Morimoto. This is amazing.


STOUT: I'm looking at the menu, here.


STOUT: And there are so many Morimoto classics. But which one is your signature dish? If you had to choose one?

MORIMOTO: So, very difficult point. OK, a lot of people come in to my restaurant take a look the menu, "Oh, chef, can you recommend what dishes should we have?" Then I say, "Oh, very difficult." OK, for example, if you have ten kids, OK, and I'm going to ask you, "Which kids are your favorite?" Can you point?

STOUT: No, of course not.

MORIMOTO: Very difficult. Some would say, OK, I can point, but very difficult make decisions. But all the menu -- this is only ten course, this event here. But in restaurant, maybe, you know, 30, 50, 60, even 70 dishes come in. And then -- that's the menu made all from my bottom of the heart -- my spirit, kind of kids. I can't go, "Oh, this is good, this is good, this is good." So I say, I can't say with you.

STOUT: Yes, yes. Now, you've embraced fusion food -- Japanese fusion -- in a big way. You take Japanese color, Chinese spices, Italian ingredients, French presentation style, and you put it all together.


STOUT: And -- but some people might say fusion food can be confusion food.

MORIMOTO: Yes. I was going to say that.



STOUT: And do you agree -- I mean, at what point do you stop and say this food needs to have an identity -- we can't mix it up too much?

MORIMOTO: OK, fusion -- what do you think it to be? Fusion, you know, confusions.


MORIMOTO: So, fusion means some easy -- "Oh, I can cook that, OK." So, slice sashimi with something dressing, you know. But, OK, sashimi is (INAUDIBLE) because it's good. If you do sashimi or raw fish with some different sauces besides soy sauce. So you have to win -- you have to beat the soy sauce. So that's kind of things -- oh, this is good, oh this is good -- you kind of you all new thing. But cuisine called "fusion" has to being like original. Or, at least be, you know, like a tie -- fusion. Because the original one's better, because original. We have to do something better than that.

STOUT: So you have to have that core foundation -- that classical training before you can play and dabble in fusion food?

MORIMOTO: Yes. Yes, yes.

STOUT: Of course, you are classically trained in sushi -- in kateki (ph).

MORIMOTO: Yes. In the technique. I know better than the foreign people, Japanese ingredients.

STOUT: And the tools, too.

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes.

STOUT: What is the future of Japanese fusion food? Do you think it will continue to be popular? Because there seems to be this movement for back-to-basics and back to traditional cooking and preparation.

MORIMOTO: Actually, maybe split away. People, they're going to have, "This is bad, I want back to the normal." Or, maybe the other half people -- not half -- but the other people find out the possibility to try new things. So maybe it split.


STOUT (voice-over): Coming up --

MORIMOTO: You hear that?

STOUT: I do. Pop.

STOUT (voice-over): Chef Morimoto opens up about the injury that changed the course of his life.




STOUT: OK, if I wanted to make something at home, what can I make at home?

MORIMOTO: All the American people think, "Oh, very difficult to cooking rice." So, you going to buy, you know, like a rice cooker -- that's bread and butter -- that's it.


MORIMOTO: Then, so any rice cooker -- so we have. So, see? This measure here. Two cup for two, three cup for three cup.

STOUT: Yes. I can use it.

MORIMOTO: Yes. So that's kind of easy.

STOUT: Yes. Oh, thank you.


STOUT: All right.

MORIMOTO: Rice some up, like this. A little bit to go on the lemon. You can take the -- like, longer, longer, as much as you can. Long, long, long, long. This one go in the corner. Pull, push, pull. Then all this one goes down. So, sesame seed?


MORIMOTO: Now plastic wrap.


MORIMOTO: This. This. Then you come out here. Maybe cucumber, or avocado, anything will get put in here. This over here -- then roll over. Then -- hai.

Same amount outside. And then the center. OK, that's your turn.

STOUT: OK, it's my turn.

MORIMOTO: You don't push.

STOUT: Push, pull. Oh, goodness. You make this look so easy and elegant.

MORIMOTO: Cat hands.

STOUT: Cat hands.

MORIMOTO: Cat, cat, cat.

STOUT: I'm doing the cat hands. All right.

MORIMOTO: This one goes here.

STOUT: This one goes here.

One bite?

MORIMOTO: One bite.


STOUT: We're going to go back to your early years, now. Way, way, way back. You were born in 1955, in Hiroshima.


STOUT: Just 10 years after the end of the war.

MORIMOTO: Right, oh yes, 1955.

STOUT: Yes. And I wanted to ask you, what was it like to grow up there?

MORIMOTO: You know, they don't have the TV game like that, no game. No internet, no computer, nothing. So just playing, you know, like -- so running in the mountain, swimming in the river, and the -- also taking some fruit for eating the sweetnesses. But I was pretty wild.

STOUT: You were a free-range kid.

MORIMOTO: Kind of, yes.

STOUT: And when did you discover a love of cooking and food?

MORIMOTO: When I was a kid, I have two dreams. I want to be a baseball player. Hometown, Hiroshima, has a Japanese baseball franchise team called Hiroshima Carps. You know, and then I want to be a sushi chef. I want to make own restaurant -- sushi restaurant -- called "Sushi Masa (ph)." Yes.

STOUT: And you achieved both dreams? Because you were a professional baseball player, right?

MORIMOTO: A little bit before that -- before that, I injure the shoulder. Did you hear that?

STOUT: I do. Pop.

MORIMOTO: I broke my shoulder -- I gave up.


MORIMOTO: So, before that, I was pretty good. In high school.

STOUT: You opened your own restaurant in your hometown when you where, what, 24-years-old?


STOUT: That's pretty young. So, were you ready to own and operate your own business? What was it like?

MORIMOTO: Right after I graduated high school, I joined a sushi restaurant to learn how to make Japanese food. And then spent seven years. Then that time -- that's enough. Then sushi restaurant -- butchering fish and they make your body smell like fishy. And then Christmas, Valentine's Day -- nothing. OK, I have to work. And then, now with my wife, we decided to open the coffee shop. Coffee shop is not just Starbucks things. More fusion, more food. We have a sandwich, a spaghetti, curry rice, and then kind of pizza, and, of course, coffee, juice, stuff.

STOUT: So, your first restaurant that you opened, it was simple Western snack foods?

MORIMOTO: Yes, yes.

STOUT: Now, you eventually moved to America. It was just when sushi was getting big and mainstream America were beginning to understand, you know, Japanese culture and Japanese food. Do you think you played a major role in evangelizing and selling Japanese cuisine to Americans?

MORIMOTO: Yes. As you said, just -- you know, it happened at that time. So I was expecting the, like, sushi restaurant in Manhattan -- each single corner. Like a pizza -- pizza restaurant have each corner. Supermarket have SushiBento. You know. So --

STOUT: So, during the sushi boom, there was a lot of competition?


STOUT: So, how were you able to stand above the rest?

MORIMOTO: I don't know. I want to stay just a chef. So I have to try my best my way. You know, I'm taking fish from Japan as much as I can. And then rice, again, getting -- using the California rice, the brown rice with the skin. OK, and then, I'm pushing the skin from the brown rice to white rice. Polish every day, each restaurant. That's the kind of -- you know, like stuff that the normal restaurant doesn't do.

STOUT: To stand out from the rest?


STOUT: And were you also exploring and learning about Western cooking styles?

MORIMOTO: Now, no. I'm traveling a lot. And then, I'm enjoying meeting different culture, different industry. And then (INAUDIBLE) like Hong Kong or maybe Europe, South American, Indian. So (INAUDIBLE)

STOUT: Could you tell me about the moment when you were selected to become head chef at "Nobu"? Because that was really a career-breaking move for you. That also got you recognition among foodies and also recognition by the producers of "Iron Chef." So, how did you get that job?

MORIMOTO: When I get to New York, of course, I'm sous chef. Then I saw the advertising (ph) from Sony Company. And they were looking for the head sushi chef at the Sony Club.

STOUT: Which is for the top executives of Sony in America.

MORIMOTO: Yes. Yes. Michael Jackson came, and Mariah Carey was there almost every day. And, you know, I didn't know even all the celebrity. So, then, this one called the (INAUDIBLE), who was a four-star restaurant from "The New York Times." All French style. I work with them. Oh, this is the French cooking now. Oh, it looks good, looks good. I cannot beat them, because I have to learn from scratch. And I decided that my cooking style with their technique, so their ingredients, their essence. So that's I'm tried to making my own style, now.

STOUT: Now, you have a very distinct style and presentation on the plate, but also in person, too. How important is your own style -- your own presentation, which you wear as a chef and as a celebrity chef?

MORIMOTO: I don't know what's the difference between other celebrity chef. I don't -- you know, people call me "celebrity chef." But, I'm only thinking about the -- how can I make the customer happy? That's the only thing. My food is -- I have no rule. People think, "Oh, what should I eat first?" No, no, no. That's -- you are the king. I have only one rule in my food. It's my, you know, concept and philosophy. No rule, is my rule.

STOUT: Well, it's been an absolute delight talking to you, Chef Morimoto.

MORIMOTO: Thank you.

STOUT: Thank you so much.

MORIMOTO: Thank you much. Thank you.