“Here, touch this,” says chef Masaharu Morimoto as he offers his shoulder to anyone sitting around our table prepared to place a hand on it. A woman volunteers and, as he gyrates his upper arm around in its socket, she emits a squeal of horror. He laughs, knowing full well the effect this normally has on people. As far as explaining one’s career choices, this is a novel approach, but it’s an intrinsic part of the Morimoto story. Because if one of the world’s greatest chefs had had his way, he’d have been a baseball player – a catcher, no less.
"I got a scholarship and went to high school," he says, "and I was working towards being a player with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball team, but this shoulder injury [when he was 18] meant I had to follow another dream: of being a sushi chef."
Morimoto is in Dubai to oversee the opening of his first UAE restaurant, situated on the 23rd and 24th floors of the new Renaissance hotel in the city's Downtown district – a frankly stunning environment much like the maestro's cuisine, a masterful blend of Japanese culture and western influences. There are four individual terraces, live teppanyaki and sushi counters, open kitchens, a lounge, private dining rooms and an enormous glass-enclosed tree that joins both floors together. To stand out as different in this city is a prerequisite for success and, even before you've taken a seat, it's obvious that this is quite a unique eatery.
The dream of being a chef
Like the man himself, it projects a sense of fun. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow natural light to flood in during the day, while providing jaw-dropping views over the Dubai Canal or the Burj Khalifa after dark. And it's entirely apparent that Morimoto has been heavily involved in its conceptualisation and development. He might be turning 63 next month, but the chef retains a youthful exuberance and appears much younger in appearance and attitude.
Wearing two-tone glasses, with his hair tied back in his trademark ponytail and a few wisps of facial topiary, there’s nothing uptight about Morimoto in appearance or demeanour. He talks openly about his career, stopping once in a while to mention how lucky he has been.
Of course, there’s much more to his story than pure chance and good fortune. He’s paid his dues, rolling up his sleeves after that fateful shoulder injury to learn his craft in a restaurant in his home city of Hiroshima. “Culinary school was not easy to get into in Japan at that time, but I used to travel with my family whenever we could, and I got to visit different restaurants, which was when this dream started,” he says. “In the restaurant in Hiroshima I learnt about sushi and fine dining, and when I was 24 I opened my own cafe.”
The year was 1979 and, apart from starting his own venture, he also married the woman who has stuck by his side for the past four decades. "She is very patient," he says with a laugh. "We used to live above the cafe, so there was no rest from the business – this was my life. I would get up, work downstairs then head back up to sleep. I had one day off every month and assumed that was just how things are."
Surviving Iron Chef
He is widely known around the world as the "Iron Chef", having been a regular fixture on the television cooking show of the same name, in Japan and North America. Having sold his cafe in 1984, he headed Stateside at the time that Los Angeles was hosting the Summer Olympics, determined to travel around the continent to gain as much experience as possible in the finest restaurants. Working around stringent visa requirements with his wife in tow, he ended up in New York in 1985, all the while trying to work out how best to adapt his style of Japanese cooking to the American palate.
Eventually, he secured a green card and landed the job of executive chef at the Sony Club, a restaurant for the corporation’s executive staff and visiting VIPs. “Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey – all these artists used to come in, and I started getting exposure in the media.” This, in turn, led to him working for chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa in 1994 at the original Nobu restaurant in New York. He was rapidly promoted to head chef, and it was during this stint that television fame came calling.
"Iron Chef was very tough," he says of the once-weekly show, which featured guest chefs challenging the resident Iron Chefs to timed cooking battles based on a themed ingredient. It ran between 1993 and 1999 (the shows are still shown all over the world) and, in 2005, Iron Chef America began, on which Morimoto often starred with his voice dubbed by an American actor. "It was very stressful and, if I could, I would have quit. But then I had to think about how many Iron Chefs there are in the world, and there are very few. I was lucky, and people looked at what I was doing and were inspired to do their own thing."
Expanding his restaurants globally
In 2001, capitalising on this new-found fame, Morimoto opened his first eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia, and other locations swiftly followed: New York, California, Hawaii, Florida, Mexico City, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo and now here we are in Dubai – a city that’s surely oversaturated with fine-dining establishments. Why, then, has this already exceedingly busy man decided to invest so much time, energy and effort here?
"I need to work with people and organisations that I can trust, and the relationship I have with Marriott [the group owns the Renaissance Hotels brand] is very, very good. The fish available here is excellent, too." Fish needs to be incredibly fresh if it's to be used to create sushi, and sourcing locally (yellowfin tuna, for instance, is fished off the coast of Fujairah) means Morimoto is able to keep standards exacting while reducing his business's carbon footprint. He says that the team he has picked to run Morimoto Dubai is exceptionally talented, with some staff poached from his Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant. "I like to think of myself as the conductor."
He’s not one for labels when it comes to food, which makes sense when you learn of the international flavours and ingredients he incorporates into his dishes. “You say fusion, I say confusion – what we do is different to anywhere else. It doesn’t need a name.” New York is still his base, though. “That’s where my wife is, it’s where I always go back to. So far this year, I have spent just two nights in my own bed, last year it was 64. So whenever anyone asks where home is for me, my answer is this planet.” And it’s a theme that sits at the heart of everything his business does.
There’s time for one final question – can he see possible future expansion in the UAE, perhaps to Abu Dhabi? “Let’s see how this one goes,” he laughs. And with that, Chef Morimoto bids us farewell. There will be several hundred diners to cater for tonight, and he needs to get to work.