No rules, no limits
On 'Iron Chef,' Masaharu Morimoto is known for cooking outside the box. His new book encourages you to do the same.
NEW YORK - He's best known as Iron Chef Japanese, a man unafraid to make a frozen dessert out of squid and strawberries, or to coat fish liver in chocolate. Masaharu Morimoto is also a restaurateur, with establishments in Philadelphia, New York, Tokyo, and Mumbai, but no Boston outpost - yet. And now he's a cookbook author. The photos in his new volume, "Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking," qualify as sushi porn; recipes range from homey (tofu and spicy pork sauce, see E5) to innovative (a clam chowder using rice instead of potatoes) to esoteric (blowfish skin caprese, though the home cook can substitute nontoxic monkfish). On Tuesday, he'll appear at the Radcliffe Gymnasium as part of a panel exploring Japanese cuisine. The following day he'll give two cooking demonstrations at Boston University. We sat down with the chef recently at one of his namesake restaurants to talk about the book, baseball (back before the Sox clinched the division title), taking risks in the kitchen, and the TV show "Iron Chef."
Q. Your book is called "Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking." What's new?
A. Culture and tradition have to change little by little. So "new" means a little twist, [like] a marriage of Japanese technique with French ingredients. My technique [touches on] Indian food, Korean food; I put Italian mozzarella cheese with sashimi. I don't think "new new new." I'm not a genius. A little twist. I'm saying twistable.
Q. Why did you decide to do a book?
A. I want to bring my experience doing my job to your kitchen through doing my book. A lot of people think Japanese food is difficult, a lot of work. But you don't have to buy the knife I have. You don't have to train as long as I have. You can do my cooking in your kitchen. I want to expand my cuisine to this country. I love America. I have been here 22 years.
Q. Are you a citizen?
A. I'm a permanent alien.
Q. How would you define your cooking style?
A. No rules. Don't be afraid to do whatever you want. Cooking doesn't have to have rules. I don't like it that way. I have gyoza in my cookbook. Dumpling to me is a pasta, so I made a tomato sauce. It's usually vinegar or ponzu [a soy and citrus sauce]. I want to say don't hesitate to do different challenges. Also, I'm always thinking about the customer. How can I make the customer happy? That's the goal. Sometimes you make a new thing for them. People say they don't like this, this. I have a tasting menu, omakase. People say "no uni" [sea urchin]. So the first course will be sea urchin. I have the best sea urchin in this country. Eight out of 10 love it. Another one didn't touch it. Another ate it but still hates it. Eighty percent are going to be uni lovers. I have to spread Japanese cooking through my arm, my technique.
Q. On "Iron Chef," how does competition affect your cooking?
A. I want to make something fun. I'm not cooking for the judges because there are only three. If two people like my food, I win. If two hate it, I lose. I want to win, but I'm not cooking for them, I'm challenging myself. An "Iron Chef" battle is exactly one hour. I'm a chef, I'm not a TV star. I don't wear makeup. I'm just cooking on TV.
Q. You and fellow Iron Chef Bobby Flay have a history, stemming from the time he jumped on his cutting board when he finished cooking; this led you to declare he was not a chef at all. Are you still rivals?
A. Me and him have a good understanding. He came [to Morimoto] a lot, and I came to his restaurant a lot. He's a good friend.
Q. Your book compares being a chef in New York to being a samurai. What are the similarities?
A. I wear a kimono. This is basically a samurai sword. [Gestures to his knife.] I'm not a fighter, but in my mind I'm fighting every day. "What's new? What am I doing?" I'm fighting myself. My soul is samurai. My roots aren't samurai, but my soul is.
Q. How did you get your start?
A. Sushi is my dream. When I was little, I had two big dreams. One is baseball player, the other is this. My family was not rich, but maybe once a month we went to a sushi restaurant, all the family - me and my sister and parents. It was a happy time. [The chefs] were very busy working together. They're wearing white starched clothing, white hats. I'm eating sushi, and it's so good. I feel so happy. So I wanted to be a sushi chef. It's a dream come true.
Q. What happened to baseball?
A. I got an injury, so I gave up baseball. I was a catcher.
Q. Are you a fan of Daisuke Matsuzaka?
A. I am torn, because I am a Yankees fan. But when Daisuke pitches, I root for him. Ken Oringer invited me to the Yankees game Friday [Sept. 14]. Daisuke is pitching. It's the last [series between the teams in the regular season].
Q. Are you going?
A. Unfortunately I have to be here. Maybe I can come for the playoffs. I think the Yankees will be the wild card.
Q. So you and Ken Oringer are friends.
A. I've known him a long time, since I cooked at Clio one time for a Beard House event. I respect his skill. I went to his tapas restaurant [Toro].
Q. What did you think of Boston?
A. Boston is a very interesting city. It has a lot of seafood - tuna, scallops, sea urchin. Is Boston conservative [for food]?
Q. It can be, more than New York, but diners are becoming more adventurous all the time. Does it seem conservative to you?
A. Philadelphia and Boston I feel are the same. Between New York and Boston, it's different. New York is metropolitan. Boston, there's a very long history there, it's independent.
Q. Hmm, you have a restaurant in Philadelphia. Does this mean you're thinking of opening one in Boston?
A. I will try.