Born in Hiroshima, Japan, globally renowned chef Masaharu Morimoto has won widespread acclaim for his award-winning creations from foodies and culinary critics alike, and global recognition as one of the most endeared stars of Food Network’s Iron Chef. A protégé of famed Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Morimoto had his first restaurant at just 24 years old. Since that time, he’s received numerous accolades for his cuisine, including two James Beard Awards, authored several books and opened restaurants worldwide, from his debut namesake eatery in Philadelphia, to an outpost in Mumbai, and now, Miami. We recently talked with the Iron Chef about his beginnings, his newest eatery — Morimoto South Beach at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand — and what you can expect at his much-anticipated SoBe Wine & Food Festival fête later this month.
When you came to the United States, what sort of chef did you envision yourself being?
Actually, when I came to this country, I was going to stay temporarily. So I wasn’t thinking I would become a chef at all. Because of the Plaza Accord during my stay, the value of the U.S. dollar suddenly declined so much that I realized I could not go back to Japan anymore. That’s the reason I stayed in U.S. So, the only possible job I could do was to become a sushi chef as I had been in Japan.
Where do you find your inspiration for your dishes?
Anywhere. Sometimes I find inspiration from a street vendor, or from a book, or from ingredients.
Most people are going to recognize you from Iron Chef. What are some of your most memorable face-offs?
The first battle for the original Iron Chef in Japan was the most memorable for me — not so much as the battle itself, but how I felt before the battle. On the way to Japan for the battle filming, I was in the airplane and thought about my airplane breaking down and falling into the ocean so that I didn’t have to do the battle. I was that scared and nervous about the first battle. Even if I got into a plane crash, I thought I would survive, so that would make a good excuse not to participate in the battle. I was thinking about that sort of stupid thing. The other memorable battle was also one in Japan: the battle against Bobby Flay. The one in which I lost against him and got mad at him stepping on the cutting board.
Is there something about your personality you feel people might not see on TV?
Looking at the Iron Chef battles on TV where I fiercely battle against challengers or other Iron Chefs, people think I am an intimidating, aggressive person. In a way, I am during the battle, but not all the time. I enjoy cracking jokes and trying to make other people laugh, but all the funny side of me is cut from the show.
How did Miami’s culture and cuisines influence the menu for Morimoto South Beach?
I wanted to come to Miami for a long time, but the timing and luck didn’t come. But finally they did. I like the energy, the climate and the sexy atmosphere in Miami, and they are reflected on the menu. Although the menu has many of my signature dishes, the ingredients each restaurant gets are slightly different in each location. The guests who have visited other Morimoto restaurants can still enjoy my signature dishes with new expectation. I also added a few more dishes that reflect Miami culture and cuisine.
What is your favorite dish to make and eat?
It is always sushi. I love eating and making sushi.
What makes something a “Chef Morimoto place” for you?
A lot of energy and teamwork in the entire restaurant.
What are your thoughts on the Miami dining scene?
Very exciting and sexy. The food is sophisticated and creative.
This will be your second SOBE Wine & Food Festival. Last year your late-night party, Mix It Up with Morimoto & Friends, was one of the best events. What can attendees look forward to this year?
Last time, the hotel and my restaurant weren’t open, so we had to do with minimum equipment and staff. However, this time we are fully operating; therefore, we will be able to do a lot better than last year. I’d like to make our events most memorable and exciting for all of the guests. The attendees can expect a lot more than last year. Last time, I wasn’t able to get a chance to do karaoke, but I will this time. We will provide better food and drinks and more fun entertainment for sure.