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.
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?
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.