Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s storybook journey lands in Honolulu

This Masaharu Morimoto – the one throwing a shaka sign, followed by an impromptu geisha-as-Betty Boop pose, then walking like an Egyptian before our photographer’s camera – seems very different than the quietly focused Morimoto whom I spoke to on the phone two weeks ago. Yet, both of these seem vastly different from the stone-faced Morimoto we all observe in the fiercely competitive Iron Chef television program, where he executes prime time-worthy dishes with the grace of a panther.

Could this be one and the same man?

The answer – a resounding “yes” – does highlight the revelation that this is a very interesting time in the career arc of Morimoto. As he prepares to open successive restaurants – one here in Honolulu, the other on a verdant hillside in California’s Napa County – the Morimoto empire seems to be contrarily … settling. At two polar opposite locales he is fusing one very specific style of cuisine with the surroundings of his venues. Again, it begs the question: Split personalities? Could Morimoto’s ability to adjust to a challenge (surely honed during his tenure on Iron Chef) be the catalyst for a brand that includes cafes in Mumbai, New York City and Philadelphia?

Not according to the chef himself.

“It was all a bit of luck, this opportunity to be in Hawaii,” Morimoto says. “All the elements came together. That was sheer luck.”

Luck or not, one thing comes across very clearly when speaking with Morimoto: He employs no set formula for his various restaurants. Each location dictates a different theme, design, menu creation and ingredient procurement.

“The menu design will be different here, just as it is overseas and elsewhere,” he adds. “I need to work with locals, so that will dictate the menu development. Local fish, fruits – and the pineapple!”

However, unlike other chefs who have deemed Honolulu the “next big thing” in urban dining destinations, Morimoto has deep ties to Hawaii. After being raised in Hiroshima, Japan, Hawaii was the first place in the U.S. he visited. This is the very same place where he was married, at Waioli Chapel in 1978 (see photo, until now not seen by the public).

Was young Morimoto (he’s now 55 years old) another aspiring sushi chef with dreams of bringing his culinary skills abroad? Not exactly. Although competitive by nature – “I am a man! Of course I’m competitive. We are always being judged,” he says – it wasn’t always in the cooking arena that he aspired to unveil his skills.

“As a kid, I had two dreams: One was to be a professional baseball player. I was picked up in the draft after high school, but injured my knee,” Morimoto adds.

It was during high school that his parents began taking him to sushi restaurants once a month. (Prior, he cites Japan’s tough economic times as the reason he “enjoyed anything that would fill my stomach!”) He began studying the movements of the chef: the way their cap sat on their head, the manner in which their arms changed position when slicing through different types of fish.

“He was very cool,” Morimoto admits. “I wanted to be that. It was a happy time – there were good memories there.”

It was this energy and genuine passion that Morimoto put forth in his work that caught the attention of Nobu Matsuhisa, who hired the budding chef to helm the sushi bar at his now-legendary New York outpost. Fast-forward to the present, and in true Iron Chef style, the two most globally recognizable Japanese-inspired restaurateurs in Hawaii will square off less than a half-mile from each other.

Yet somehow, Morimoto seems uniquely ambiguous of food trends and the latest restaurant theme-of-the-month. When asked about whether or not he recognizes a trend in popular restaurants in New York (which he calls home), he stays the course, taking the humble route.

“I’m not sure what has made my restaurants so successful,” Morimoto says. “I think Thai, Japan and spicy foods have been coming up (to the forefront) lately, but slowly. Which is good. I like the idea of more reasonable, simple foods. It helps catch up the economy and so forth.”

Admittedly, Morimoto says he’s not much of a “scene guy.” Although the design of Morimoto Waikiki will be simple and clean, the ocean views and the sunset are the center of attention.

Luckily, the “scene” need not be something Morimoto should lose any sleep over. The grand poobah of hospitality-as-nightlife-destinations, Ian Schrager, has partnered with Marriott in developing the Edition Hotels brand – and Morimoto was his first choice of restaurateur to occupy the hotel’s first floor. And as far as uber-successful formulas go, no one questions Mr. Schrager, who famously was the mastermind behind the infamous Studio 54 (and more recently New York’s Hudson and Paramount hotels, Miami’s Delano Hotel and Los Angeles’ Standard Hotel).

“This will be my first time working with Mr. Schrager,” says Morimoto. “He’s a very interesting and nice guy. But he creates these sexy nightlife scenes – which should be an interesting blend. I focus on the food.”

And focus he will. During our meeting, Morimoto – who had come directly from a whirlwind two-day tour of the Big Island of Hawaii procuring farmer and fisherman relations – reveals that not only will Morimoto open for dinner; they will serve breakfast, lunch and poolside fare, as well.

If you’re thinking, “Great, the guy making kalua pork nachos and hamburgers for kids at the pool is making my $20 handroll?,” then you’ve clearly never sat poolside at Schrager/Miami’s Delano Hotel, where caviar and champagne arrive on gilded platters. Plus, remember, we’re talking about an Iron Chef, too.

“I have always been in charge of ingredient selection, including vendors,” professes Morimoto. “Quality and sustainability are my biggest cares, and I’d like to use as many local ingredients as possible. But at the same time, I’d like to introduce my guests to something that is hard to get in Hawaii.”

Plus, he knows his venue. Morimoto says that he will focus the menu on the likes of the local people of Hawaii.

“I’m welcoming tourists from the outside. But this restaurant is for the locals. For example, I know the local people love pork, so I’m adjusting to work with a lot of pork,” he says.

He’s tapped a fish company in Tsukiji for traditional sushi dishes that will come out of his open kitchen. However, there still will be tuna, opakapaka and Kona kampachi from Hawaii. He’s also packing a powerful secret weapon in the form of his trusted executive chef, Jojo Vasquez.

If the name sounds familiar, this writer actually penned a series of stories in multiple national magazines on the groundbreaking work Vasquez performed while under contract for Ritz Carlton (both in Marina del Rey, Calif., then Kapalua, Maui), where his blending of local product and just the right implementation of molecular gastronomy won him a cult-like following. Which included Chef Morimoto.

“We met 10 years ago, and I’ve kept up with him ever since,” says Morimoto of Vasquez, who can be seen on a handful of Iron Chef episodes slicing and dicing for boss. “He is very creative, innovating and is great with organizing a staff.”

Vasquez cites his many travels at the side of Morimoto as a catalyst for their incredibly symbiotic relationship.

“We’ve done several events together, traveling the nation to places like Aspen, New York, Miami. We’ve even been to Moscow,” says the 36-year-old Chicago native, who could easily be mistaken for a local boy. “We’ve developed a rapport. He’ll send me out to scout and he trusts me fully. I can set things up so that on the day of a major event, he can walk in and be ready to go. Even though he’s based in New York and I’m here, anything he needs done, I’ll do it. He trusts my impression.”

Those events include participation at the most elite food and wine festivals in the U.S. (Pebble Beach, Aspen, South Beach, Austin), the World of Flavors gala in Napa and guest teaching demonstrations at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. as well as the French Culinary Institute. He’s even got his own line of beers with Oregon’s Rogue Brewing Company.

In store for diners at Morimoto Waikiki will be a 5,600-square-foot dining room with ocean-facing, outdoor lanai seating and a 12-seat sushi bar. He will feature a special three times per week that is entirely produced from Japanese ingredients, as well as multiple dishes that feature locally acquired goods. Yet it will be the omakase dining experience where he and Vasquez will shine, preparing their favorite items of the day in a style reflective of their culinary prowess, the top attainable ingredients and the open-mindedness of their patrons.

And while jet-setting between his restaurants and competing in the longest-running culinary program on television suits this Iron Chef, it’s hard not to notice the sheen of a few silver hairs that line his tightly bound, trademark ponytail. When I ask if Hawaii is a place where he’d like to spend more time, if he has any plans on slowing down, his answer – much like his personality – infers more than the mere words he utters.

“I look forward to being in paradise.”

Writer: Brian Berusch | Photographer: Marco Garcia
Hair & Makeup: Christine Gardner Of Flaunt