Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is as tough in his kitchen as he is chilled outside of it. He is talented, humble and has a serious sense of humour. He’s 62, and far more stylish than anyone else in the restaurant (us included). So we take this opportunity to savour the story of how his famed international chain of Morimoto restaurants came to life, with a side of his quick wit and the month’s worth of laughter than ensues.
The restaurant is absolutely stunning – it’s reminiscent of Japanese temples in Nara. Our interview, frankly, starts oddly, with us touching his broken shoulder and hearing and feeling the cracking noises from inside – the kind you get when you crack all your knuckles together at once (satisfying though we can surely all agree that is). Morimoto's had an injury, and has seen the last of his dreams of being a world-acclaimed baseball player drift into the dust. Which may be tough for him, but is only good news for our bellies.
How did you become a chef?
I was born in Japan, and it was just my parents, my younger sister and me. We lived in a tiny apartment with just one room for all four of us. My father used to drink and, growing up, I always saw domestic violence. Payday was always once a month, and during that time, all my friends in school would go to nice restaurants, department stores to shop and even go on short vacations. Our story was different. Maybe once or twice a year, after payday, we would take the train, walk together and first go to a coffee shop. Then, we would go to the same sushi restaurant, every time. It was a really cool one – amazing interiors and great sushi, of course.
I noticed something different. My father was happy. We had two glasses of [Japanese drink]. My mother would pour him some, he would give us some, everybody was sharing and we were all happy. It was a different world for me, every time I entered this sushi restaurant. It felt like we were a family, and it was never this way at home. It was terrible there, but here we were happy. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a sushi chef.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you have become?
A baseball player. I’ve always had only two dreams – to be a baseball player or to be a chef. From the time I was young, I was always into soccer, baseball, swimming and running. I’ve always been athletic. In my hometown, Hiroshima, we had a professional baseball team. When I was 18, I was almost picked by my high school but unfortunately, I had a shoulder injury, and that was it. I had to give up my dream of being a professional baseball player. After this, I didn’t speak to anyone or ask anyone’s opinion. I just decided to become a sushi chef, and that’s why I am here today.
When did you start training?
I worked for seven years in a sushi restaurant. I didn’t want to stay in my house after graduating from high school, so I stayed in the restaurant, upstairs. I worked really hard and stayed focus on learning and perfecting all the sushi-making techniques. I did this for seven years. Then, I quit.
What happened? Why did you quit?
Because I got married!
So it’s true, then! Marriage really is the end of it all…
No! In fact, it was the beginning. My wife owned a coffee shop, so we started managing it together. By the second year, we started serving food as well. There was a lunch set, dinner set, a delivery menu and we were also serving sashimi. Yes, at a coffee shop.
How did you manage that?
That is actually nothing. A friend of mine had his own sushi restaurant nearby. It was a nightlife street and the spot was super busy. My coffee shop used to close by 8pm and I used to go there after closing the shop. So every day, from 9pm until 2am, six nights a week, I used to work there. My coffee shop was still seven days a week. The building right next to my restaurant had a security insurance business. I studied there, got the license and started selling insurance as well. And on the other side, there was a paper company…
Yes! I was also selling newspapers every day, early in the morning.
So you had four jobs?!
Well, because I had four jobs, I had absolutely no time to spend any of the money I made. That’s how to get rich – just don’t spend anything. I was then faced with four choices. Having my own restaurant, buying a new house, buying a BMW or going to the United States of America. No points for guessing what I chose. I bought a one-way ticket, all the way from Hiroshima to New York.
How did you feel when you saw New York for the first time?
The answer to that is in the fact that I never left. It’s been 32 years! The only two cities I’ve ever lived in are Hiroshima and New York.
Tell us a little more about Morimoto Doha. Have your incorporated anything from the local culture?
I always love adding local elements to my restaurants, in whichever city I open them in. So my concepts are always localised in a way, including the chef. I’d prefer a local chef with skills to do the kind of work I want him to. There are no rules for me. For example, if someone wanted to work with me, I’d tell them: “What can you do? Show me your skills!” It wouldn’t make sense for all my menus around the world to be the same. I do have some signature items, though. When I am in a new location, I like to go out and see what local produce I can find, and figure out creative ways to incorporate them. Dates are really popular here, for instance, so I’ve used them a lot in Morimoto Doha’s menu.
What has been the most challenging part for you?
I guess it was adapting to the local culture. Before coming here, I watched a couple of videos and stuff, to get a feel of what it would be like. When I came to the hotel, there were so many multi-cultural people around me, I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to greet them. Now everything is okay. Now, I just wave. Or just do the “Namaste” to be safe. As for the restaurant, it’s all just been really exciting.
What aspirations do you still have?
Nothing. I just do my own thing. Like I said, no rules. I don’t mind stealing anything or copying anything, or being inspired, but I always add my own touches too.
How did you learn to cook?
I wasn’t afraid to copy. Going to a school – you copy from the teacher. It’s not easy to copy, though. You have to perfect it. If you take a tried and tested technique, and make it your own, you have something great.
Does your wife like your food?
I don’t cook anything! My wife is the one who cooks, and I eat whatever she makes. No complaints, even if the food is bad. And I don’t even prefer to eat in restaurants. I'm always travelling, visiting my restaurants. So when I can, I like to eat at home.
What can customers expect at Morimoto Doha?
It’s not just good food, we’re looking at giving them a great experience. The service should be a big part of that. It doesn’t matter how much money you have in your pocket – if you come through our doors, you will get the best treatment. I know this isn’t cheap, but there will be something for everyone.
Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight. Mondrian Hotel, West Bay Lagoon (4045 5555).