Chef Masaharu Morimoto is one of the most internationally renowned Japanese chefs, well known for his time competing in the Japanese TV cooking show Iron Chef and its spinoff Iron Chef America. Since then, he’s gone on to open numerous restaurants that serve Japanese fusion cuisine all around the world, while continuing to hone his craft. Now he re-enters the cooking competition scene, but this time as head judge of Morimoto’s Sushi Master, the first competition show to put sushi-making front and center.
Chef Morimoto shares with APA his journey, from pursuing his dream to become a sushi chef to learning from his experiences as Iron Chef, as well as his perspective on culinary mentorship and creativity on Morimoto’s Sushi Master.
APA: I heard that when you were young, it was your dream to become a sushi chef. Can you share the story behind what inspired you?
Morimoto: After my shoulder injury ended my dream of becoming a professional baseball player in Japan, I began to study sushi in my hometown, Hiroshima. When I was a young boy, I idolized all of the sushi chefs working behind the counter at the restaurant my family and I would often visit. I would watch every move the chefs would make, and eventually one day I tried doing it myself. I began to study all the techniques of creating the perfect sushi dish, and one day it just clicked. I opened my first sushi restaurant at 24 and the rest is history.
APA: As an Iron Chef, you’ve spent years competing in both the Japanese and American versions of the show. What does being an Iron Chef mean to you? Is there anything you’ve learned from that experience that you incorporate into your career as a chef?
Morimoto: Being named the Iron Chef has always been such an honorary title. It carries so much responsibility, and it allows me to act as a mentor to young chefs looking to break into the culinary world. After being on Iron Chef, I was exposed to a whole new level of focus that has helped me in my career. Working under stress and pressure isn’t always an easy task, but my time on Iron Chef taught me the importance of staying focused while under intense pressure.
APA: Now you’re serving as head judge of Morimoto’s Sushi Master, and you challenge contestants to “break sushi rules.” What is your criteria for judging sushi?
Morimoto: Presentation is so important when making sushi. Combining some of the most top-notch ingredients in a roll but it isn’t plated correctly can completely throw off the entire dish.
APA: You’re known for having an encouraging style when it comes to people learning how to cook or refining their cooking skills. Why do you think that’s important?
Morimoto: It’s easy to get discouraged when you’re struggling with a dish. It wasn’t an easy journey for me to perfect the art of Japanese cooking, especially a sushi roll, but I tried and tried until I was happy with my work. Japanese food is one of the most popular cuisines of food in the world, but it can also be the most intimidating. While it’s an intimidating fare to perfect, it has brought me so much joy and pleasure, and I love encouraging eager chefs to face and overcome the challenge.
APA: Do you feel that creativity comes from freedom or from limitations?
Morimoto: I think creativity comes from both. When you have full freedom to make a dish, the options are endless on what you can create. When I have full freedom to create a new dish, I use this as an opportunity to experiment with a different taste palate that I might not be used to. When cooking with limitations, you have to be creative in a different way. You have to look at the ingredients in front of you and really test yourself to see what you can come up with. You might be surprised at how hard you’re able to push yourself to create such a high-quality dish. I always say, the great thing about food is that the options are limitless for new creations.
APA: In honor of your new show premiering on June 16, what would you prepare as a celebratory dish?
Morimoto: One of my favorite dishes is temaki which is nori rolled by hand into a cylinder or cone shape around vinegared rice and a filling. It’s the only type of sushi—perhaps the only dish of any kind—that the chef’s hands pass the dish directly to the diner. There’s a reason — passing it directly to the customer is meant to encourage them to eat it immediately, so the nori is super-crispy and crackles under their teeth as one bites. This is a fun dish for celebrations as it’s easy to pass around, and gives you all the flavors and notes of an authentic Japanese dish.
Morimoto’s Sushi Master is free to stream on The Roku Channel starting June 16.