He may be best known as the most serious and stern of the Food Network's Iron Chefs, but Masaharu Morimoto has a playful streak that comes through in just about every dish he serves.Morimoto has defied the notion of traditional Japan cuisine, crafting a culinary fusion of East and West in which tuna sashimi becomes the basis of a tuna "pizza" and red miso paste flavors a French-style dessert soufflé. These days, the 53-year-old, Japanese-born Morimoto, who got his start as a celebrity chef on the Japanese version of Iron Chef before bowing on the Food Network's American version, continues to be a TV fixture. We caught him recently at the Food Network-sponsored South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. His culinary empire includes Morimoto restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, plus a third eatery, called Wasabi, in Mumbai, India. He also has a line of custom-made knives (up to $5,000 apiece) and a line of specialty beers through Rogue Ales, a microbrewery in Newport, Ore. But Morimoto has long resisted cashing in on his celebrity by writing a cookbook, perhaps because his meticulously crafted food isn't about the 30-minute meal, prepared on the cheap at home. It's more about the theatricality of the restaurant experience. Which is what comes across in Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking ($40, DK Publishing), the chef's newly released, long-anticipated cookbook. True to form, Morimoto doesn't offer dishes that are always easy for a home chef to master, but the coffee table-worthy book gives you a sense of his finely honed culinary skills -- just look at the pictures of him demonstrating the Japanese art of cutting a vegetable into paper-thin slices -- and his relentless imagination.
Even if you don't try a single recipe, the book is a worthy primer on Japanese cooking (and Japanese foodstuffs and drinks, from nori to sake) of today and tomorrow. After his presentation at the South Beach festival, we spoke one-on-one with Morimoto to find out more about the book, his life as an Iron Chef and even his past as a professional baseball player. Here's some of what he had to say: On how he tried to bring his cooking down to the level of home chefs: "I wanted to bring more edge (to the book), but my publisher said, 'Calm down, calm down.'" So he tried to focus on simpler preparations and more commonly available ingredients. And what about trying to make those paper-thin slices of vegetables? "I do my carving with a knife, but you can use a vegetable peeler. I make it a bit easier for you," he says. On what he learned as a baseball player: "Baseball training came easy," Morimoto says, noting that it's a game that doesn't necessarily require speed or endurance. But it does require discipline, which carried over into Morimoto's work in the kitchen. "My power and passion, I
got it from that," he says. On why he got involved with creating a signature line of beers: Several chefs have partnered with winemakers, Morimoto notes. "But beer, not many people have." On the diverse palate of Japan today: Dining in Tokyo is not all about sushi bars, Morimoto explains: "They have a lot of different restaurants ... European, South American, every food." He adds that such diversity is one of the key reasons he began combining culinary traditions.
On the limits of mixing Western and Eastern cuisines: There are almost no limits, Morimoto says. "Anything" is possible, he insists. What about, say, Mexican-Japanese fusion? He's already working on it. On a culinary experiment that didn't work: A dish of smoked asparagus. "Too much smoke," he says. On his reputation for being a no-nonsense guy: That's an image crafted for television, Morimoto hints. "I'm more charming than people think," he concludes.