“Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto Has Big Plans For 2020—Including The Concept He’s Launching In Miami

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BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
PHOTOGRAPHY SCOTT MCDERMOTT
STYLING SHALA ROTHENBERG
GROOMING CHICI SAITO
SHOT ON LOCATION AT MORIMOTO NEW YORK

At the age of 64, Masaharu Morimoto has perfected many things in his lifetime… including the art of avoidance.

Though he built his empire in America, the Japanese-born “Iron Chef” doesn’t always feel comfortable speaking his adopted tongue, and as such, has developed a quirky coping mechanism. “[I can still be] a little bit self-conscious about my English in very large settings,” he says, before confiding, “In such cases, I sometimes get away with it by saying that I don’t speak English very well, and will instead sing one of my favorite songs.”

We’ll be waiting with bated breath to see if Chef Morimoto spontaneously bursts into his tune of choice—what he refers to as a “Japanese Fisherman’s Song”—this month at Miami’s 19th annual Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Massive crowds here are a prerequisite, especially at the events he’ll be attending: Burger Bash, an evening soiree hosted by Rachael Ray on Feb. 21 and the Goya Foods Grand Tasting Village on Feb. 22.

As a man who’s always on the move, flitting among his 18 restaurants like a social sushi-making butterfly, he’s over the moon to land in Miami, even if it’s only briefly. “South Beach Food & Wine is one of the best culinary events in the entire world,” he enthuses. “I love the city of Miami and all of the culture that I see when I’m here. And being at South Beach Food & Wine is also a chance for me to see the people that come to my restaurants or have watched me compete on shows like “Iron Chef America.” It’s also a great place to reconnect with so many of the chefs that I have worked with or competed against over the years. It’s just really a lot of fun, and I enjoy my time here very much.”

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He loves it so much, in fact, that the Magic City is about to become another of his global homes away from home. Along with a previously announced location in Boston, the Iron Chef star will open a Miami outpost of his new Momosan concept later this year. The first of his modern Japanese ramen houses—Manhattan’s Momosan Ramen & Sake—opened in 2016 to much fanfare; outposts in Waikiki and Seattle followed suit in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

“I think Momosan is such a great [idea] because it’s the kind of food that people really want to be eating right now. It’s delicious, satisfying, fast and is at a very good price point,” He says, adding, “We recently announced Momosan Ramen Boston at Hub Hall, which is near the TD Garden. So, we feel we can scale this from smaller, arena-sized restaurants to stand-alone restaurants, like the one we just opened in Seattle; it’s a very customizable operation. We also plan to open in Miami [this year], which is exciting!”

And this much is clear: Morimoto is a man who thrives on excitement. And as we’ve discovered, this, coupled with his unwavering work ethic and ability to roll with the punches, are the truest secrets to his success.

Case in point: When a shoulder injury abruptly ended his burgeoning professional baseball career in Japan, he didn’t lament the loss of his dream—he found a new one. Instead of kicking rocks, he focused on a different passion and began studying sushi and kaiseki cuisine in his hometown of Hiroshima.

“The only other job I ever wanted was to be a sushi chef, so I focused all of my energy [on being] the best that I could,” he recalls. “My end goal was always to try and be the best; that’s it.”

His diligence and dedication paid off. In 1980, at the tender age of 24, he opened his first eatery. But it wasn’t enough for Morimoto, who was in search of something more. So, five years later, he shuttered his restaurant, bid farewell to the only home he had ever known and set sail for the bright lights and big city of New York. He was ready to explore the opportunities and possibilities he saw for a cuisine that would combine the best of both Japanese and Western cultures.

Morimoto
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Lo and behold, he quickly found a kindred spirit in a man who was doing virtually the same thing: Nobu Matsuhisa. After a brief stint working at the legendary Sony Club (where he secretly served the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, who was so enamored by his Chu-Toro that he ordered it three times in one sitting), he was recruited to join the very first Nobu—owned, as they all are, by icon Robert De Niro—in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood, where he rapidly climbed the ladder, rising to the rank of Executive Chef within a few years.

But it wasn’t until he competed on the Japanese culinary competition show Iron Chef in 1998 and the Food Network’s ensuing 1999 adaptation—Iron Chef America—that Morimoto became a household name. While both series were entirely dubbed in English, we haven’t heard evidence of his vocal skills… yet.

Morimoto dominated that series. He ruled the kitchen. He was a winner. And so, it isn’t surprising that to this day, more than 20 years later, he’s still predominantly referred to as the Iron Chef, or that he wears the moniker like a badge of glory. “I’ve actually embraced the nickname and use it across my social-media channels and website,” he says. “I’m very proud to be called Iron Chef Morimoto and feel a certain responsibility when people call me that.”

It’s understandable, considering that both series propelled his career forward by leaps and bounds. He became a celebrity chef at a time when the term’s full impact hadn’t been realized, using his media savvy and raw talent to create an entirely new business structure.

Morimoto
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Needless to say, after winning Iron Chef America, his star rose rapidly. He opened his first eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia, a collaboration with restaurateur Stephen Starr, just two years later in 2001, followed by the 2004 opening of Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, then a second Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi in 2008, and his flagship restaurant, Morimoto New York, in 2006. Outposts in Napa, Calif., Mexico City, Las Vegas and Maui, as well as the Morimoto Sushi Bar in Boca Raton, Fla., Morimoto XEX in Tokyo and Morimoto Asia Orlando at Disney Springs followed suit. In the past two years alone, he has opened branded eateries in Waikiki, Dubai, Doha and Kyoto.

In addition to their popularity among the masses, Morimoto’s restaurants found critical acclaim as well, earning him several mentions on San Pellegrino’s “Top 100 Restaurants in the World” list, a James Beard Foundation Award for “Outstanding Restaurant Design” for Morimoto New York, and in 2010, an accolade from Food & Wine, which referred to Morimoto Napa in the magazine’s “Best U.S. Restaurant Openings.”
But as a man with vision, he didn’t intend on stopping with restaurants alone. His first cookbook, “Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking,” won two International Association of Culinary Professionals awards, including the Julia Child Award for Best First Book. He released a second cookbook, Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking, in November 2016.

And still, he wanted more. The Morimoto Signature Series of beer was launched in 2003 in partnership with Rogue Ales, as well as a line of premium sakes produced in collaboration with the prominent Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery in Kanazawa, Japan. In 2016, he added a grape seed oil to his repertoire, closely followed by a wine label, produced in collaboration with Michael Mondavi.

Then, there was the knife collaboration with Zwilling J.A. Henckels, a perfect pairing that merged authentic Japanese-blade styles with Western-inspired ergonomics. And there’s his latest venture, a Morimoto-branded line of signature products such as instant ramen and miso soup.

Morimoto
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Photo Credit: Morimoto
Clearly, Morimoto is not just a name, it is an empire. And let’s be honest, there aren’t many Japanese sushi chefs who have achieved Morimoto’s level of fame. Only one other truly comes to mind: his quasi-mentor, Matsuhisa. Though the two seem to run in the same circles, they also both have substantial worldwide holdings, which doesn’t allow for a meeting of the two, much less their minds.

Not that it couldn’t happen one day, of course. “I have the utmost respect for Chef Nobu, but like me, he’s constantly travelling around the world, so we aren’t often in the same place at the same time,” he notes. “If we were to see one another, it would be a very friendly reunion for us.”
Matsuhisa has grown his own business to include hotels. That is something Morimoto is considering, too. “Right now in my career, my focus is expanding my restaurant to include multiple brands that work across a variety of situations,” he says. “We often partner with luxury hotels around the world, and that has been a very good plan for us. Would I ever consider a Morimoto Hotel? Sure! I like to try many challenges if there are right opportunities and the right timing.”

At the moment, though, he’s looking at expanding on a slightly smaller scale. “I have many ideas now because the Morimoto brand has become so diversified,” he explains. “As the brand develops, there are many things I’d like to challenge. [For] my next cookbook, [what] I’d like to write will focus on the basics for an at-home cook to bring convenience.”

In the near future, he’d love to write his autobiography, and while he doesn’t “think it is the time yet, as I have more to do,” he wouldn’t turn Netflix down if they came calling, ready to produce a series based on his life. “My life has been full of surprises and excitement, as I said earlier, so I will be very interested in doing it if someone approaches,” he notes. Hear that, Ted Sarandos?

Morimoto
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For now, Morimoto is still reveling in the fact that this is his life. “I was born, raised and finished my education in Japan,” he says. “My entire family is Japanese, and I still have family and relatives in Japan. Coming from this background, I never imagined the lifestyle I now lead and feel very fortunate to have met so many great people from different cultures who have helped me create the life I lead today.”

In addition to recognition and respect within the culinary industry, his life also includes the spoils of wealth and fame. He has a luxury car collection of sedans, SUVs and sportscars, of which include brands like Porsche, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. He keeps one of each at his various homes around the world—which he drives to relax and escape from his daily pressures. He golfs. And while that professional baseball career is no longer in the cards, he is still a die-hard fan whose fame has allowed him to throw out the first pitch at many Major League Baseball games (and truth be told, he sometimes pretends that he’s still in the game, making a big hit in an important game in front of thousands of screaming fans).This year, in May, the “Iron Chef” will turn 65, a milestone year. Many of his peers might have retired, relaxing in the knowledge that they had made it and no longer have to work quite so hard to enjoy themselves. Not so for Masaharu Morimoto. “Despite the rigors of constant travel and now being in my 60s, I am very proud of being full of energy, being able to lead the team and always looking forward to working with our talented team members,” he says, noting that slowing down is not an option. His eyes are firmly forward, looking toward the future.

“We have so much happening over the next few years,” he declares. “Much of it is not confirmed, so I can’t reveal too many details right now, but we will be announcing several more restaurants around the world. I’m also working on additional items for my at-home line of cooking products to complement my Morimoto-branded sake, ramen and miso soup. 2020 will be a very busy year for me, which is how I like it!”

Personally, we can’t wait for all of his future endeavors, as much as for his exquisite fare as to hear him sing. And just saying, if he ever starts taking requests, Gunnarolla’s “I Love Sushi (Let’s Get Fish-Faced)” is a really good way to go.

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