I still remember the first time I saw Masaharu Morimoto on TV. It was a Friday evening and I was a junior in college. Like most Friday nights at that time, I was sitting on my couch with beer in hand, killing time (and brain cells), and waiting to go out into the night to stumble about my college town. As I was flipping through the channels that evening, I came across what seemed to be a badly dubbed kung-fu flick. I watched as a silver-suited hero drove a spike through the head of an eel and then deftly filleted the still spasming sea creature with a razor-sharp knife.
I was hooked.
As I would soon find out, this was not a kung-fu movie, it was something far better: Iron Chef. And the silver-suited knife-wielding protagonist was none other than Morimoto himself. Watching Iron Chef every Friday at 7pm became a sort of pre-partying ritual for me in college. Good times.
Years later, after Morimoto had gained world-wide fame from his battles on Iron Chef, he opened his first restaurant in the U.S. in Philadelphia (he now has an outpost in New York as well). I have been lucky enough to dine at Morimoto in Philadelphia, twice. And to this day, the Omakase I experienced at Morimoto remains as THE best restaurant meals of my life.
So, when I found out that Morimoto would be at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles to promote his first cookbook, The New Art of Japanese Cooking, I put on my stalker shoes and hightailed it to Skirball.
My wife, my older brother, my visiting cousin, and I were lucky enough to sit front and center for Morimoto's cooking demo. As you can see in the picture above, there was a large screen behind Morimoto and a video camera trained on his workstation so that everyone in the audience could see what he was slicing and dicing with his scary-sharp knives.
As we would all find out, Morimoto was quite charming, entertaining, and funny. Yes, funny. Morimoto started the evening by coming out on stage in his familiar samurai-style kimono, and then doing a nice curtsy to show off his striped socks. As people asked him questions during his demo, Morimoto proffered some witty banter that was quite unexpected, at least to me.
The first dish Morimoto made was a pasta made from thinly sliced daikon radish that was then dressed with a fresh tomato sauce that he laced with just a touch of soy. As the Iron Chef added the soy to his tomato sauce, he yelled "BAM!", to which the crowd exploded with laughter.
Yes, those noodles are made from daikon radish!
The second dish Morimoto prepared was a Tuna Pizza with Anchovy Aioli. The crust of this pizza was simply a couple of wheat tortillas from Trader Joe's! Morimoto brushed some eel sauce onto these tortillas and then heated them up on a hot dry pan. He then placed some thinly sliced Toro, cherry tomatoes, jalapenos, olives, and onions on the "crust" and drizzled the pizza with an aioli sauce he made from anchovy paste, oil, and egg yolks.
These two dishes are very apropos of Morimoto. And as he told us that night, "I am not a genius. I just put twists, like a Rubik's cube." He uses Japanese ingredients and provides a fresh spin on familiar dishes. He's never cared about the number of Japanese who criticize his food for not being Japanese--and that's something that I've always respected about him. He does his own thing and could care less if it is perceived well by the masses.
After the demo, the audience was ushered outside and treated to a small tasting of Morimoto's food. Everyone was given a small plate that contained Morimoto's pizza, and a piece of sashimi (the daikon pasta was not part of the tasting).
Now, I highly doubt Morimoto prepared these dishes for the 200 or so people at this event. I'm guessing the catering staff at Skirball made the dishes from his cookbook. But with that said, the pizza was still AWESOME. The crust was crisp but still a bit pliable. And the combination of the eel sauce, anchovy aioli, and toro was a wonderful marriage of fish flavors. This is a recipe that I will definitely try and make from the cookbook.
On the other hand, the piece of sashimi on the plate was a little disappointing. No one in my group enjoyed this preparation. I'm not even sure what kind of fish it was, as its dressing of sugar and a mint leaf completely overpowered the flavor of the fish.
But who am I to complain, there was free beer on offer too! In addition to pimping his cookbook, Morimoto was also pushing his signature beer with Rogue Brewery. This is actually a beer that I've enjoyed before, so I was especially excited when I found out they were providing it as part of the tasting as well.
Technically, each person was only supposed to have one cup of beer each. But I was able to finagle three cups. I am awesome at optimizing free beer opportunities. It's a skill I've honed over the years.
Finally, we all got in line to have our cookbooks signed by Morimoto. He was very gracious and friendly as he took pictures with everyone as he signed their books. Here he is signing my book:
As he was scribbling some Japanese characters onto my cookbook, I asked him what he was writing:
"Deep dreams, deep foundations," he said to me.
As corny as it sounded, I couldn't help but get goosebumps.