In Mumbai to celebrate Wasabi turning 11, chef Masaharu Morimoto relives a spectacular journey that kicked off in Hiroshima
As he positions himself on a bar stool, dressed in shorts, tee and a fedora at Wasabi by Morimoto, Taj Mahal Palace & Towers’ Japanese restaurant, it’s difficult to come to terms with chef Masaharu Morimoto’s stature. It’s even tougher to imagine that the 60-year-old legendary chef began his career as a busboy at a restaurant.
Yet, that, says Morimoto was not how he actually started. “In 1974, after graduating, I joined a restaurant in Hiroshima. My first lesson was how to wash a dish. I worked up the ladder, gradually becoming a busboy, then delivery boy, cooking help, etc.”
In the city to celebrate the 11th anniversary of Wasabi, which introduced Mumbai to authentic Japanese culinary tradition and grew into one of the top 100 restaurants in the world, Morimoto recalls the journey from Japan to Mumbai, via New York. “Our day would start at 5 am. We’d go to the fish market to lay our hands on the day’s catch, come back and prep for lunch, then dinner. Working 14 hours a day was normal. As a sushi chef, you have to treat the fish yourself, serve it to customers yourself.” Cooking, he says, was a lesson he sneaked in.
“There, they didn’t teach you how to cook. You had to hide and learn. If I asked the chef to teach me, he’d mask his hands so I wouldn’t see the ingredients. They feared that those who learned to cook, would leave,” he laughs, adding that you’d get offered a job, but no training. “Which is why I am still learning.”
After six years, he opened a restaurant only to sell it five years later. “I wanted to go to Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics, but didn’t make it. By then, the third Sushi boom had hit New York. I wanted to expand my business there,” says Morimoto.
Where did he start?
“By washing dishes,” he says, breaking into a laugh at our perplexed expression. “I’m joking. I started as a sushi chef at a restaurant, but I won’t tell you the name.”
Sushi was his strong point, not English unfortunately. “I am concerned about my art; I knew how to make sushi. That was enough. Even today, I have a problem conversing in English,” he says.
He did go on to work with some of the New York’s finest chefs, including Nobu Matsuhisa. In 1998, he was selected for Iron Chef, a Japanese television show produced by Fuji Films. Later, it got an American version which continues to be on air. “I have been with the show for 18 years. Sometimes, I want to leave it, but then I realise it is a prestigious title and there are very few Iron chefs in the world,” he admits.
In 2001, he left Nobu to open his own restaurant. Wasabi happened when the Taj approached him. “Everyone asked me, why India? I told them I trusted the people and it was a reliable brand. I knew I wouldn’t be able to oversee things on a daily basis, so trust was important,” he says, poignantly looking out of a window at the Gateway.
As he takes a sip of miso soup placed before him, it’s time to talk menu. When the restaurant was launched, he created an extensive menu that included all his signature dishes. “Within the first three weeks, I had to change almost 50 per cent of it. They wanted vegetarian fare! All I knew about vegetarian cooking was temple food,” he laughs. With help from chef Hemant Oberoi, and executive sous chef Sadik Khan, a few dishes were recreated with vegetarian options.
But, the style, he insists remains true to his tradition.
“I don’t care for world trends, I do what I do. Most guests at Wasabi are travellers, or well-travelled. They know how to eat sushi,” says Morimoto, who has planned a Omasake (tasting) menu that includes Morimoto angry chicken for the anniversary.
In Mumbai until the weekend, Morimoto says with a peaceful smile that he will be back home on Monday. For a man who travels 300 days a year, it will be one of few occasions when he will tuck into his own bed. “Last year, I slept in my bed only for 63 days. My wife is not complaining. She knows she doesn’t need to cook for me or wash my dirty linen,” he smiles. His wife, Keiko and Yorkshire terrier, Mike, make up family. And it’s the latter’s happy face that lights up as wallpaper each time he gets a call on his cell phone.
But, home is also where Morimoto hangs his pans. “A comedian is funny on stage, but off it, he is a serious man. I don’t cook at home. My wife has turned me into a vegetarian to keep my blood pressure and sugar levels in control. So, it’s leafy veggies seaweed, mushroom, potato and noodles for me,” says Morimoto, who is excited about a restaurant he is to launch in Disneyland, Orlando next month. “I’m going to feed Mickey Mouse sashimi.”