Best known for his role in Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, chef Masaharu Morimoto loves his beer. That’s not all that might surprise you about the culinary show icon. Born in Japan, Morimoto’s original career path involved a very different sort of competition: Baseball. After an injury cut his professional sporting career short, he turned to the equally cutthroat world of cooking.
Morimoto opened his first restaurant in Japan at the age of 24. It lasted five years, until he sold it to move to the United States and explore western cooking. Eventually, he built an empire by combining the eastern and western styles he knew and loved. In 2001—two years after his first appearance as an Iron Chef—he opened his first namesake restaurant in Philadelphia. Since then, he’s opened a dozen more variations around the world.
While his main passion is food, Morimoto has expanded his business to include the Morimoto Signature Series, a line of culinary-minded beers brewed by Rogue Ales in Oregon. The series includes Morimoto Soba Ale, Black Obi Soba Ale and the Morimoto Imperial Pilsner. He also has a line of sake with the Fukumitsuya Brewery in Japan as well as grape seed oil and wine.
We caught up with Morimoto to discuss food, beer and Iron Chef at his Las Vegas restaurant.
I feel that the direction that the beer development is taking is very much swayed by the taxation system rather than the shift of palate or liking of the consumer.”
Many people know you from Iron Chef, how does the show influence you life today?
I am very honored to have the title of Iron Chef. Especially when I hear children and future chefs who see me on TV say that one day they want to be a chef like Morimoto, I feel very flattered. It is such an incredibly rewarding and encouraging experience. Of course, it comes with great pressure and stress to have to continuously live up to expectation, but I keep trying and keep giving my best.
What was beer scene like when you were living Japan?
About 20 years ago, when I started off as a chef in Japan, there were not many options of alcoholic drinks that were commonly available. Beer was a predominantly popular kind of drink among us.
What's the Japanese beer culture like now?
In the earlier days of history of beer in Japan, there were many independent beer-making operations. After a while, a few brands emerged to dominate the industry and many of those small businesses disappeared. And, interestingly enough, today we see a number of microbreweries that create local craft beer throughout the country and they are gaining popularity.
Another aspect of the Japanese beer culture involves the widely accepted existence of low-malt beer and beer-like alcoholic drinks. When the government once increased the tax on traditional beer, what breweries did as a counter measure was to lower the malt content of beer and create what’s called “the second beer” to escape the higher tax. After a while, the tax rate on this second beer was raised as well, to be followed by creation of “the third beer” that no longer contains malt, but is made of substituting ingredients. On this front, I feel that the direction that the beer development is taking is very much swayed by the taxation system rather than the shift of palate or liking of the consumer.
How did the beer with Rogue come about? Who approached whom and how were the beers decided on?
Back then, it was still quite rare for a chef to have a beer that bears his name. It was one of the projects I wanted to pursue, so I started to inquire some breweries for information and actually went to take a look at a couple of brewing sites. Rogue was one of them. I was looking for a flexible, enthusiastic and reliable collaborator for my project, rather than just a big-named beer company, so I can create a product I envisioned. When I met the then president of Rogue Ales, I felt confident that this was the brewery I was looking for.
What was that process like?
Since I was a layman in the beer brewing field, I consulted the brewing specialist at Rogue. We discussed and made decisions to achieve the taste and flavor we wanted.
How do the food scenes in America and Japan differ?
I don’t feel much difference between the two, I mean, my culinary style and the stance as a chef are always the same regardless of where I am. If I would venture to say, I think as a group, Japanese people are trendier in trying out the latest culinary fads or what is generally popular at the time, while in the US people are less susceptible to other’s opinions and choose to eat what they know they like and in the way they like.
Where does beer fit in the culinary world for you?
Sake and wine are often used in our recipes, but beer not so much. However, we do think about beer from the viewpoint of balancing and pairing with our food.
How has the evolving beer industry affected the food world in your eyes?
Like I mentioned, beer is not very often used as an ingredient in cooking, compared to sake and wine, but it certainly plays a big part when it comes to the pairing of food and drink. It is one of the most popular choice of drinks and has a big impact on the dining scene, I think. In Japan, it is almost our custom to kick off dinner meetings, gatherings or parties by saying and ordering “Toriaezu beer,” which translates to “Let’s start with beer.”