Take Five With Masaharu Morimoto, On His New Svelte Figure and New Napa Restaurant

A trim Chef Masaharu Morimoto. (Photo courtesy of the Food Network)

Masaharu Morimoto, the star of the original Japanese “Iron Chef” and the newer Food Network version, “Iron Chef America,” may be sporting a trimmer physique these days. But the celebrated chef, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan, is still one commanding presence.

Morimoto visited the Napa Valley last weekend for the 12th annual “Worlds of Flavor” conference at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, the theme of which this year was “World Street Food, World Comfort Food.” The chef, who was there to do cooking demonstrations, drew crowds wherever he went, especially at the marketplace, where his crew cooked up okonomiyaki (a Japanese savory pancake layered with noodles, pork and a fried egg) and takoyaki (a Japanese octopus donut hole).

During a break, I had a chance to talk with the 54-year-old chef about his sixth restaurant that will open next summer in the Wine Country — Morimoto Napa.

Q: What made you choose Napa as opposed to San Francisco for your restaurant?

A: Two years ago, I came here for the “Worlds of Flavor” conference. It was my first time in Napa. I liked it. It is a special place. It’s a culinary place.

Q: What will Morimoto Napa be like?

A: Thomas Schoos, who did Tao in Las Vegas, is the designer. There will be three components — a fine-dining room with a sushi bar and omakase, a late-night lounge, and a retail store. People will be able to buy fish and Wagyu beef from Japan to take home to cook. We may sell bento box lunches and do catering for parties, too.

Q: Will the restaurant look like a piece of Japan? Or a piece of Napa?

A: It will look like a piece of Morimoto.

Morimoto supervises his crew at the "Worlds of Flavor'' conference.

Cooking up a Japanese savory pancake.

Tender octopus donuts get flipped so they're golden all around.

Q: With so many restaurants already, how often will people expect to see you actually in the Napa restaurant?

A: I will be there as much as I can.

Q: Will we be buying a place to live here? Perhaps a house with its own vineyard to make Morimoto wine?

A: Depends on price. (laughs)

I am thinking of getting a place here. Maybe.

Q: What would you enjoy about living in Napa?

A: I like that there’s no night life. (laughs)

Here, after I eat, I have total relaxation. I could have a personal life. I could see stars, I could see nature. And unlike New York, there are no sirens all the time here.

Q: Where do you like to eat here?

A: Thomas Keller is doing such a good job. I went to Bottega last night. It was unique. And I went to Ubuntu. I like his (Chef Jeremy Fox) concept, and he plates so carefully.

Q: So I can’t help but notice how trim you look. How many pounds did you lose?

A: Forty pounds in four months. It was simple. I did a lot of exercise and I stopped drinking alcohol.

Q: I hear you exercise by running backwards on a treadmill?

A: Yes. I wear long sleeves, and I sweat.

Q: I hear you’re also a very good golfer.

A: I was last time at Pebble Beach (Food  & Wine event). That was the last time I was a good golfer.

Q: You originally wanted to be a professional baseball player. Do you ever wish your life had taken you down that path instead of cooking?

A: If I had another life, I would try baseball again. Or I would want to be a lawyer. (laughs) I spend so much money on legal fees.

Q: How many knives do you have?

A: I use only three knives now. But in my hobby collection, I have about 150 knives worth more than $200,000. Maybe half of the hobby knives I use on very special occasions. Or when I’m stressed, I pull my knives out of their cases, look at them, and go “ahhhh.” It relaxes me.

Q: Have you ever had a problem when you’ve traveled with your knives?

A: Only two times. Once, I was at a cooking school in New York. They gave me a knife as a gift. I put it in my bag and forgot about it. I had to fly to Boston the next day. At the airport, the security guard finds the knife. I say, ‘Oh my god, oh my god.’ I forgot it was there.

They didn’t know who I was, so I tried to explain that I was a chef. Then someone walked by, and said, ‘Oh, he’s a very famous chef.” So the security people just took the knife. I never got it back

Q: And the second time?

A: I was at the airport in Korea, checking in my luggage. I had just bought some expensive knives from Japan. The security people saw the biggest knife. I told them I am a chef, that I use it to cook. They didn’t believe me because the knife was so big. They say, ‘I don’t think so.’ I guess I’m not famous in Korea. (laughs)

They sent a translator over. It turns out he had gone to school in Pittsburgh. He says, ‘Oh, he’s a famous chef!’ They called the police and they took photos of all my knives. But then they let me go with my knives. I almost missed my flight!

Q: So you know you’re one of the few people who are so famous that they can get by with using only one name. Kind of like Madonna. How do you like being such a rock star — well, everywhere but Korea?

A: In New York, I walk from my apartment to my restaurant. It takes maybe 10 to 15 minutes, and people always say, ‘Hi, Morimoto!’

People come into the restaurant and say, ‘My kids love you!’

It feels good. I feel like a role model.

Morimoto takes a breather.

More: My Q&A last year with Cat Cora of “Iron Chef America”

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Date: Tuesday, 17. November 2009 5:15
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: "Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, Enticing Events, Food TV, General, Restaurants

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19 comments

  1. 1

    Nice to read that he’ll actually be AT his restaurant!! I hate it when chefs put their name on restaurants, and then are never present.

  2. 2

    Great interview! So he’ll be serving omakase sushi, eh? His restaurant would be something to look forward to when we get back.

  3. 3

    Can’t wait for his restaurant to open. I hear his Philadelphia restaurant is doing really well. Hey, so did he have captions when he was talking?! ;-) I always think it’s so funny how he speaks English on Food Network shows but they always have a voiceover.

  4. 4

    Single Guy: Hah! I laughed at your comment. I know what you mean. It was ludicrous that on “The Next Iron Chef,” they used both subtitles and a voiceover interpreter for Morimoto. Gee, every time I’ve seen him at the “Worlds of Flavor” conference, where he’s done demos in front of huge crowds, he never needs a translator of any sort. Yes, he has an accent, but he speaks perfectly fine English, for gosh sakes.

  5. 5

    I love Morimoto and I can’t wait to visit his Napa restaurant. Thank you for this interview!

  6. 6

    Cannot wait to check out his restaurant, another fun interview – love the personal connection with all these talented folks.

  7. 7

    40 lbs in 4 months? That’s crazy & then he said it was simple? So not fair!!
    I can’t wait to try his restaurant in Napa next summer!

  8. 8

    Great interview! I like the concept of his restaurant and all the different components. It’ll be interesting to see how much time he’ll spend in the Napa Valley…

  9. 9

    If I walked backwards to California, I would not be able to lose 40 pounds in 4 months. Great interview – I hope to get to one of his restaurants someday.

  10. 10

    I can’t even begin to described how much I adore Morimoto’s cooking style. He is just so talented.

  11. 11

    I love Morimoto! I will definitely try to visit his restaurant ASAP!

  12. 12

    Ahh, I thought he looked skinnier in some candid shots I saw of him recently. I’ve never eaten at any of his restaurants but would love to someday. And I’d choose Napa over San Francisco, too, i think.

  13. 13

    [...] part of the interview Food Gal did with Morimoto cracked me [...]

  14. Bessie Yap-Sarmiento
    Thursday, 19. November 2009 23:39
    14

    I like him a lot! I am very fond of Japanese cuisine and he is one of my biggest influence. I’m pretty sure Morimoto Napa will be a success! :-)

  15. 15

    He lost 40 lbs in 4 months by just cutting alcohol out of his diet, plus a little exercise? He must have been drinking like a salaryman!

  16. 16

    I saw him last night dining at Bottega in Yountville. Michael Chiarello was there too, bringing over a special fish dish to his table. Very exciting to be in same room with such masters!

  17. 17

    Lisa: Whoa! That is soooo cool! I wonder what kind of fish special it was. Was it cooked or raw?

  18. 18

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  19. 19

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