Guinness World Records and Omotenashi with legendary Iron Chef Morimoto
Portions of this article previously appeared in Orlando Sentinel’s Signature Magazine, September 2017 issue. I was so proud to write this cover feature but even more thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with the legendary OG Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
He chatted with me for 45 minutes, answering every one of my 22 questions and then some. (crazy!) Then he proceeded to wash his hands and step behind the sushi bar to do what he does best. Put together a gorgeous sushi platter and ham it up for the camera.
It’s no secret his Morimoto Asia Florida restaurant is one of my favorites at Disney Springs. But this foodie has been a fan for a long time. Since the early Iron Chef days. I always thought he was so incredibly skilled and fun to watch. It was a dream come true to meet him. It was terrifying to interview him. The experience was full of surprises and many lessons – from the basics of how to properly eat sushi to the more profound life lesson on how saying “Heck Yes” leads to great things. I promise to share the behind the scenes dirt on another post.
On May 26th, Iron Chef Morimoto celebrates his 64th birthday and he’s still as active as ever. On Friday May 24th, 2019, he set a Guinness World Record at the Williams Sonoma Culinary Stage in Napa for slicing 100 pieces of 3.5 ounces of tuna from a 205 pound fish in 12 minutes and 49 seconds. He needed to beat the previous record of 25 minutes. I think this shows who the world’s sushi master is!
I hope you enjoy reading this article below as much as I enjoyed writing it. Cheers to Chef Morimoto for his continued drive and success! Happy Birthday!
WELCOME TO THE FAST-PACED, WILDLY CREATIVE WORLD OF CHEF MASAHARU MORIMOTO
Step into the glitzy Morimoto Asia in Disney Springs and feel the buzz. Is he here? is on the minds of dining fans who come to Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant. His staff’s challenge is to keep the magic alive and make it feel like he is here through the food and omotenashi — Japanese hospitality.
Unlike many celebrity chefs, Morimoto visits regularly. He loves Orlando. “It feels like a relaxing place,” says the chef who rarely takes time off. He’s known to jet in for a powwow with the team and sometimes surprise guests by preparing a Momokase multi-course tasting dinner. Then, he’s off. Next stop, one of his other 12 restaurants around the world.
It’s easy to be impressed by the 62-year-old who has plenty of style and charm. (His TV persona on the Iron Chef series is much more intimidating.) Rather than classic chef whites or Japanese-style robes, Morimoto’s dressed in a relaxed all-white ensemble of shorts and a summer sweater, looking like he’s ready for a match at Wimbledon. A casual gray-and-white scarf wrapped snuggly around his neck and metallic-trimmed designer sneakers add to his smart look.
Accenting his silver-hued hair that’s pulled back in a classic ponytail are his signature glasses, which he confesses are not for corrective purposes but to make a fashion statement. He has hundreds of them and changes them out every six months. “It’s not as expensive as it used to be” he jokes.
Morimoto talks of slowing down and possibly retiring in Orlando. Playing golf is at the top of his list. “A relaxed, dream-inspired living that might bring a new future,” he says referring to his desired life in The City Beautiful. He looks forward to spending “a nice second life” with Keiko, his wife of 38 years, and their cute Yorkshire terrier.
Yet, he shows no signs of stopping.
On the Move
Spending nearly 300 days a year on the road has become the norm for this chef who travels from Mumbai to Dubai, Mexico City to New York City, and everywhere in between. When asked about his bucket-list travel destination, he immediately says, “The moon. I’ve been everywhere else.” He jokes he wants to try space food. The concept of sushi in space makes him laugh. “How do I use soy sauce?”
A man always on the go, with new projects, new restaurants, celebrity appearances and tapings of Iron Chef — not to mention developing his own line of products too — he has a need for speed.
He loves fast cars and action movies. Driving his sunset orange Porsche 911 in Hawaii is fun. But when he’s back home in New York City, he prefers the subway versus dealing with traffic. “It’s too slow,” he says, with a chuckle.
Although the celeb chef claims he’s getting too old, his life is a constant thrill ride. In the past year he’s opened a new concept restaurant, Momosan Ramen & Sake, in New York. He also opened his first outpost of Morimoto in the Middle East and is planning another Morimoto Asia in Waikiki. The success of the Orlando restaurant served as inspiration. Despite his age, life is getting busier.
The words Iron Chef are nearly synonymous with Morimoto. It’s been nearly 20 years since his first appearance on the original Iron Chef in Japan. Then came the hit Iron Chef America. Now he’s returned to Kitchen Stadium for Iron Chef Gauntlet.
Does he feel more relaxed after all these years, winning so many battles? The answer is no. “Still nervous. Every time. The first time and the last time, the same,” he confesses. “I am cooking to challenge myself. Every time shaking, nervous, because I want to do more than before.”
His vast experience would excuse any arrogance, if he had any. He is confident, yet humble. He answers The Chairman’s prompt to battle with “I will do my best.” Then proceeds to work as hard as ever to produce the most exciting five courses that he’s ever done, each with intricate multiple components. Making bagels in less than 60 minutes? He goes for it. From Bobby Flay and Michael Symon to the other Iron Chefs, he is by far his greatest adversary.
He never watches himself — or any other cooking show — on television. He doesn’t even listen to the judges’ commentary on Iron Chef. He knows the next time he has to do something different, better. The audience expects it. He demands it.
Does he ever consider quitting the show? “Sometimes they ask me to do more than 10 battles in 20 days. I have to come up with 150 dishes! I hate it,” he says quite animated. Then in a quieter voice he says, “I can quit any time. But I won’t quit. A lot of kids watch and want to be a chef like Morimoto and Bobby Flay. That’s an honor. It’s too much pressure. But I love it. I hate it, love it, hate it, love it!”
In the Kitchen
Despite all the celebrity chef hoopla, Morimoto clearly admits, “I’m a chef.” He enjoys being in the kitchen far from the limelight. He’s known for being a sushi master and for his legendary knife skills but his specialty is omotenashi. He is Japanese hospitality with style personified. He loves surprising guests who thrill at seeing him behind the sushi counter or the glass-encased kitchen. An even bigger treat is to hear him singing traditional Japanese folk songs.
“He shares his skills, knowledge and Japanese hospitality. How you think of the guest is important,” says Yuhi Fujinaga, his chef de cuisine, about what he’s learned from the man himself. “If you don’t have guests, you don’t have anything. The smallest attention to detail is important. Omotenashi. The hospitality factor. That’s what he’s taught me.”
Morimoto is playful and loves to ham it up for the camera, but when he holds a knife and steps into the kitchen, he is serious and focused. “There are some things he may joke about but for the most part the kitchen is business. This is sacred. You have to stay focused or you can hurt yourself. He’s very traditional,” says Fujinaga.
The kitchen at Morimoto Asia follows a traditional kitchen-brigade hierarchy. If Morimoto needs to address something he will do so to his corporate chef or to Fujinaga directly. Yet he is approachable for the staff to talk to him. Fujinaga admits they do get star-struck and every now and then drop something or get shaky when Morimoto is around. After all, it is their hero they are cooking for.
“A lot of our cooks come to work for him because of his skills, and he’s watching them,” Fujinaga points out. Plus they also feel the pressure. It’s his name on the building. There are higher expectations.
“Morimoto looks to educate the public — in every city where he opens — about the culture and cuisine of Japan. The proper way of eating sushi, for example, so that one day not everyone is mixing wasabi in soy sauce,” says Fujinaga.
His Favorite Eats
His happiest memories growing up in Japan were the occasional sushi dinners with the family. They were a rare treat. And so Morimoto crafted the sushi experience in his restaurants to be as special as those he remembers.
Highly skilled sushi chefs prepare each piece following traditional techniques. A variety of sustainable fish and seafood is flown in daily from local waters and twice weekly from Japan and Hawaii, immediately treated and preserved for maximum freshness. Brown rice is polished in-house. Fresh Japanese wasabi, prepared with a sharkskin grater, not powder, adds just the right amount of heat.
For Morimoto, sushi and dumplings are staples, but that doesn’t mean he never craves meat and potatoes. “Yes, once in a while when I’m away on a trip … a rebound reaction from my vegetarian diet at home.” When asked if he cooks at home, he replies with an emphatic “No.” His wife does all the cooking.
Advice for the Home Cook
Watching him swiftly fillet a 25-pound bigeye tuna and prepare a display of nigiri and sashimi, including his signature tuna rose, is like watching a classical performance — a dancer and craftsman combined. Fluid artistry blends with intense focus. Yet, he maintains his jovial interaction. A good sushi chef must also attend to his guests. This is omotenashi.
As for Americans who may be intimidated with the whole sushi preparation, Morimoto says with a sly smile, “My recommendation: Buy my cookbook,” referring to his latest Mastering the Art of Japanese Home Cooking. “People think sushi and Japanese cooking are so difficult. Try it. Don’t be afraid,” he encourages. “It’s easy, easy,” he adds. And he certainly makes it look that way.
Finding ingredients like seaweed, rice, ginger, and sushi vinegar is more accessible now. He encourages making sushi with anything available. “You don’t have to buy tuna. A weekend barbecue can include sushi. Use shrimp, crab meat, smoked salmon, smoked fish, avocado and vegetables,” he points out.
According to the Iron Chef, the most important tool in your kitchen is the rice cooker. “Every house in Japan has one. Invest $40-$50; it doesn’t have to be too expensive.”
As far as the importance of knives when cooking, Morimoto, who has his own line of Japanese crafted knives, points out, “Yes, you need a sharp knife, but it’s not the knife, it’s the skill. Everyone says I’m fast and asks how sharp my knife is. This comes from experience.”
This is Morimoto Omotenashi!
After photographer Harrison Cooney completed his photo shoot, chef Morimoto invited us to grab some chopsticks and dig in. No sense in wasting such a beautiful sushi platter. We happily obliged (no arm twisting here!). And it was the best sushi I’ve ever had. That’s omotenashi. And I can’t wait for more. The “Momokase” omakase style dinner experience with Iron Chef Morimoto is on my foodie bucket list. I hope to cross it off the list soon!
Morimoto Asia Florida is located at Disney Springs, Lake Buena Vista, Florida. I hope you’re inspired to get together with friends and go #MakeSomedayHappen one delicious bite, sip and trip at a time.