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Sunday, October 14, 2001

Big Fish

Later this month, the Iron Chef will roil the waters of Philadelphia's restaurant scene.

By Russ Baker

The Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto, doesn't mince words. Or anything else, for that matter. His whole persona constitutes a sort of genteel assault on anything remotely conventional about food. Today, surrounded by curious food guys at a cluttered conference table in an office above Market Street, Morimoto flails his arms as he mimes how to wrestle a spiny lobster and quickly terminate it for a very fresh -- indeed raw - debut on a diner's plate. While showing off his deadliest moves, he's also enumerating his menu preferences, which include mashed chestnuts, soy-milk custard, sea urchins, blowfish and all manner of outré things.

Stephen Starr, Morimoto's partner in the soon-to-open Philadelphia restaurant named after the charismatic chef, is perplexed. "Let me see a copy of the menu," he says, then scowls. "Where are our normal things? We got Chilean sea bass? Stuff that Al would eat?" He inclines his head toward Al Lucas, his director of operations, and everyone laughs. In this company, Al represents the tastes of Middle America. Morimoto is the envelope-pusher, determined to redefine Japanese cuisine and the public's relationship to it. But Starr is putting up the cash (with the help of some venture capitalists), and he's the one who'll be counting empty tables if Morimoto's dishes turn out to be too exotic for Philadelphia.

The biggest problem at the moment appears to be pronunciation. Morimoto, a quiet, broad-shouldered man speaking in heavily accented English, moves on to an agenda item that Starr, a wiry, intense, fast-talking man with short curly hair and stylish glasses, hears as "Aruba." Not even close. I'm really here as a silent observer, but I'm starting to "get" Iron Chef, so I help out, enunciating with the care of a Demosthenes: "R-A-W B-A-R."

Starr turns to me, rolling his eyes at the communication difficulties. Morimoto continues outlining the culinary daredevilry he expects will justify his decision to leave his position as executive chef at Nobu, the neo-Japanese New York powerhouse, and open his own place, which is slated to debut Oct. 28 at 723 Chestnut St.

Morimoto the restaurant represents a challenge: pairing a publicity-driven local restaurateur-impresario accustomed to running his own show with an international culinary star known for his independence and penchant for making his own rules.

During a previous incarnation as a concert promoter and comedy impresario, Starr dealt with such names as Madonna, Guns N' Roses and an unknown Jerry Seinfeld. But by restaurant-biz standards, Morimoto is big-ticket. Of course he is. He's the Iron Chef!

Morimoto is a regular on Iron Chef, a popular Japanese television series that appears on the Food Network. A campy production that combines high-level cooking with Japanese comic-book hyperbole and mock-samurai ferocity, it pits top chefs in a state-of-the-art super-kitchen. The concoctions are judged by a marginally qualified panel that includes squealing starlets and politicians of the moment. Morimoto excels at transforming each episode's surprise ingredient into a series of tasty dishes, while overexcited commentators and hyperactive operators of handheld cameras provide gee-gosh color. His often-startling combinations initially alienated some judges, until they came around to the idea that what he did could indeed be considered Japanese cooking.

Morimoto, who adopted a hip persona with pre-competition fasts and customized carving knives, became a crowd favorite. His popularity soared when he squared off over rock crab in an Iron Chef special last summer against hot young chef Bobby Flay of New York's acclaimed, Southwestern-influenced Mesa Grill. Despite cutting himself and getting a mild electric shock, Flay came up with some colorful dishes (including crab and avocado salad in a coconut shell) and looked to be a real contender - until Morimoto captured the tasters, unanimously, with his improvisations, including crab brain dip with bonita broth, crab rice in a sour soup, crab and asparagus with mint, and Japanese crab salad flavored with citrus and pepper sauce, dried mullet roe and udon. (After Flay won a rematch in Tokyo, Morimoto grumbled that he had misunderstood the contest's theme.) The dramatic highlight of the New York event came when Flay, having finished his work, jumped triumphantly onto the cooking station. Morimoto, horrified that a chef would stand on his cooking boards with dirty street shoes, declared Flay "not a chef."

"For a Japanese to say something in public like that is the most extreme kind of insult," says Tim Zagat, the restaurant-guide entrepreneur who was one of the judges. With all the hype, it was easy to forget that these shows were about chopping fish and steaming rice, not two wise guys going eyeball-to-eyeball over a piece of the international drug trade. No matter - the show attracted an audience of all ages, including the kids and teachers at Starr's daughter's school, who were psyched to hear that the Iron Chef was coming to town.

Like all celebrity chefs, Morimoto has to stay in the public eye, and so in August he turns up for the Second Annual International Taste of Tennis, a Manhattan rackets-and-pans fund-raiser for juvenile diabetes research. The chefs on hand are doing the usual range of unique - and mostly petite - creations, but Morimoto has his own little House of Pancakes going. Distinguished from the white-jacketed chefs surrounding him, he is wearing Ralph Lauren suspenders with his name monogrammed in red, and a backward Lauren baseball cap over his brown-dyed, highlighted locks. Morimoto, fussing over the grills, either doesn't understand when I explain I'm profiling him, or just prefers to ignore me. The chef maintains the intensity of a NORAD official watching missile displays, but a gracious associate explains that they're making two varieties of okonomiya, a sort of Japanese pizza, including one in the style of Hiroshima, Morimoto's hometown, with egg, noodles, shredded cabbage, shrimp, and scallions.

Everything is made from scratch, of course - except for the bottled Okonomi Sauce, which I learn about from Morimoto's sidekick, who, grinning, confesses his real identity: "I am sauce company salesman." Stephanie Pistilli, 23, gushingly declares the Hiroshima-style "pizza" the best dish of the evening: "an orgasm on a plate." Lawrence Heller, 70, a publishing entrepreneur, also approves, with one caveat. "Interesting - very interesting," he says. "Wonder if it's authentic Japanese food." It is - Morimoto's associate tells me that Japan has about 10,000 okonomiya restaurants, while New York has just one. Philadelphia has none at all. So far.

At his Chestnut Street restaurant, Morimoto will not just be introducing concepts that can be found only in Japan, he will also be creating dishes that can't be found anywhere else. He works like a slightly mad master chemist, mixing Japanese textures and aromas with Western ingredients such as beer, foie gras, creme fraiche, plus Korean and Indian spices, and anything else that tickles his fancy. "Japanese are very strict. They have used the same things for thousands of years," explains a friend of his. "He's trying to redefine what Japanese food should be."

That includes presentation, wrapping food in huge lotus leaves, and using oversize Chinese soup dumplings stuffed with exotic ingredients and broth. (For the planning meeting, he demonstrates the nibble-and-suck approach to capturing the broth inside.) He persuades Starr to buy two prized giant toro tunas for $25,000 and to ship them live to a special sea farm in Spain where they are fattened up and killed, and a $10,000 cryogenic freezer that can maintain a temperature 75 degrees below zero. At a James Beard House foodie event, he hands out small dishes with tofu morsels as perfect as bonsai, in a natural bamboo stalk holder complete with stem and leaf. He's been making trips to Japan to look for unusual and exotic cookware, dishes, foodstuffs and spices. Recruiting in New York, Washington, Orlando, Japan and elsewhere, he's found eight talented sushi chefs and an equal number of skilled hot kitchen cooks. He has also scoured Philadelphia.

"He went around to all of the Japanese restaurants in the area, basically trying to steal help," says Starr. "I wouldn't go - it's too embarrassing."

Like a lot of chefs, Morimoto, 46, got an early start. But he had no formal training. After graduating from high school in Hiroshima, Morimoto took a job in a sushi restaurant and lived upstairs. During the seven years that he worked there, he also opened his own "coffee shop" (a restaurant offering such staples as noodles, pizza and, of course, coffee), sold policies for a friend's insurance company, and labored as a paperboy. At one point, he held all four jobs simultaneously. He also got married. "I had time to mate, but no time to take care of kids," he told me in an interview aboard an Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia.

When he turned 30, he sold his restaurant and, as he explains it, faced a choice: "I could buy a house and a Mercedes, own another Japanese restaurant, or come to the U.S." Morimoto bought an around-the-world ticket and got off in New York. Once there, he worked briefly at what was then the most popular sushi restaurant, Hatsuhana, but left after three weeks over low wages. Following a day job near Wall Street, he landed a position at the Sony Club, the record label's executive dining room, where he got to cook for guests such as Michael Jackson, Tommy Mottola and Mariah Carey. The cuisine was French, and he mastered intense taste and texture sensations like foie gras, rich sauces, and how to mix a whole lot of complicated ingredients - skills his Japanese experience had not taught him.

Japanese cooking in America has certainly evolved. People over 40 might remember modest, family-run teriyaki and tempura houses out West, and virtually nothing on the East Coast. The first Japanese cooking star in America was probably Rocky Aoki, owner of the Benihana chain of Japanese steak houses. In the 1970s, the sushi craze started; Nobuyuki Matsuhisa transformed our sense of the cuisine in 1994 when he opened his restaurant Nobu with partners Robert De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent in New York City's hip TriBeCa section.

That year, Matsuhisa came to dine at the Sony Club and recruited Morimoto to join the staff at his new place. Morimoto's work was distinctive enough that he quickly eclipsed the executive chef, though for "political reasons" it was a while before Nobu formally acknowledged his centrality. In the interim, when the media came calling, photos had to show only his hands. The restaurant, designated by the New York Times as one of the world's two best Japanese restaurants, was as much the result of Morimoto's edgy culinary work and theatrical cooking as anything. It led some to compare, for the first time, Japanese cuisine to the best of French food. Morimoto became such a favorite of customers - and explicitly acknowledged by Ruth Reichl, then the Times' food critic - that he was finally able to demand his own business cards and a special "executive chef" jacket with his name. His forte was unusual combinations of ingredients. Asked where his mix-and-match inspiration came from, he replies with a straight face, "My mother was a cat, my father was a dog."

When Morimoto started working in New York, the sushi business was about as creative as a bank. Sushi chefs considered an inside-out roll, cut in half, an abomination. Not Morimoto: "I did what the customer wanted." To get American diners to try his food, he experimented with ingredients. "If someone say no sea urchin, my first dish will be sea urchin," he says. "Out of 10 who don't want it, 80 percent eat and like it." Then, he adds, with a touch of messianic fervor: "I have to introduce good sea urchin to this country." Morimoto may be into conversions and sneaking good food to heathens, but he's also keenly sensitive to his customers' needs and preferences. He watches them carefully while they eat, he asks about favorites, notes food allergies. That's one reason he likes to work in an open kitchen. He also orchestrates an elaborate crescendo of courses, then monitors diners' vital signs - at the first hint that someone is full, he will quickly substitute a different final dish. (At the new restaurant, it will be a challenge to maintain the same watchfulness: Nobu has 80 seats; Morimoto will have 141.)

His commitment to the customer is admirable indeed. When I mention a Nobu regular, the fat, cigar-smoking pornographer Al Goldstein, with whom I once dined, Morimoto looks momentarily disgusted, then quickly brightens, and recalls presenting Goldstein with a Japanese radish, a daikon, which he'd carved to resemble a phallus.

After the planning meeting, the group piles into an SUV and heads over to the site, on a dilapidated block of Chestnut Street near Seventh, between a blueprint shop and a kung fu studio. It's a pretty big space, spread out over three levels, and it promises to be a head-turner. The design sensibility has been pretty much left to Starr, who has built a reputation for spectacular, mood-heavy restaurants where the visuals are every bit as important as the food, maybe more so. "Our design is going to be very cutting-edge and groovy, very tomorrow," brags Starr, a slightly tamer, workaholic version of Austin Powers. "Not the usual kind of serene atmosphere you expect to find this food in." On entry, it will feel like a traditional Japanese restaurant, with a low ceiling, but the space opens out dramatically from there. The designer is Karim Rashid, who has done hotels in Athens and Los Angeles and a fragrance bottle for the clothing designer Issey Miyake, but never a restaurant. It will feature undulating walls, a continuous floor-to-ceiling carbonized bamboo wave, and frosted glass booths that slowly change color. The centerpiece will be a kinetic image of a Japanese woman that seems to metamorphose as you walk by.

While the rest of the gang fusses with tape measures, Morimoto wanders about like the proverbial kid in the sushi shop, measuring himself against a wooden beam and aiming a mock-karate chop at a post. Disheartened by the sluggish pace of construction, Morimoto has let his hair grow long and stopped trimming his nails, acts of protest that Starr equates with sitting shivah. ("Credibility is important to these people," Starr explains.) Now that everything is finally coming together, the Iron Chef admits to being put off by all the talk and planning, all the blahblahblah behind such a high-profile launch. "These white-collar guys," he says. "I blue-collar." He makes a quick chopping motion. He's much happier spending two hours gutting and slicing his giant toro tuna flown in from Japan. But no question, he's thrilled by the prospect of running his own place after years of working for others. Well, not actually running it. There's still Stephen Starr to factor in.

Starr, 45, a former concert promoter and comedy impresario who has opened stylish, dramatic restaurants at breakneck speed over the last six years (including the Continental, Blue Angel, Tangerine, Buddakan, and Pod), is a striking contrast to Morimoto. Not only is he not a classic food guy, he's manic and obsessed with tinkering. As we sit in his original restaurant, the diner-cum-tapas and martini bar Continental (138 Market St.), he interrupts himself constantly to chastise employees and request modifications ("Can you kill that music? And, uh, never Rod Stewart").

Starr is moving into unknown territory by pairing with a celebrity chef of Morimoto's stature. He did recently open Alma de Cuba with the New York-based chef Douglas Rodriguez, a rising star of Nuevo Latino cuisine. Morimoto, however, is far bigger, as Starr is delighted to acknowledge. "This will probably be the biggest culinary happening since Le Bec-Fin," he says. "The first high-end Japanese restaurant, plus Morimoto being a big cutting-edge chef nationally." And more culturally - ahem - challenging. "Doug Rodriguez is Cuban, but he's from Miami, gregarious, you can hang, kibitz," says Starr, almost wistfully. "Morimoto is very different, what with the language difference and other factors."

Starr's partnership with Morimoto came as a surprise, even to himself. No matter how famous Morimoto was, no matter how popular the Iron Chef program was, Starr had never heard of either. He had simply been thinking about opening his own Nobu spawn and had called a headhunter in San Francisco. "I called this guy and said get me someone like a sous-chef or executive chef at Nobu," he said, not literally meaning Nobu necessarily, and certainly not looking for a partner, or a partner with another partner.

"I walk into the Mercer Hotel to meet this guy, and he has this other guy with him. I ask him who he is, and he says, 'a friend.' " The other guy is Don Fellner, a tall, gaunt, bald man with a close-cropped beard, who goes everywhere with Morimoto. Starr can't figure out why they need him around, and frankly he's more than a little irritated ("It's like going out on a date with a chaperone," he groans). Fellner, for his part, is a little vague about what exactly he does for Morimoto; apparently, he's there to watch Morimoto's back as he sharpens his knives. Today's big-ticket restaurant business isn't for the softhearted. In any case, he's always around, sort of shepherding Morimoto to events and meetings. When I asked to hang out with Morimoto for this article, Fellner said that things would be much easier if he were there to help. Otherwise, he warned me, I would probably just get monosyllabic answers, although his presence didn't exactly turn Morimoto into a talking machine.

Team dynamics aside, the priority right now has to be making sure that Morimoto the restaurant lives up the reputation of Morimoto the chef. Some of Starr's previous efforts, including Cafe Republic, an ironic homage to Soviet-era Russia, seemed promising but failed. When Morimoto explains a wok-cooked dish, Starr blurts out: "You could get rid of the wok and save on labor." As with his demand for Chilean sea bass, Starr has a whole list of things that must be on the menu; as the former promoter puts it, "every album must have a couple of hits."

"I explained to him there's $3 million on the line, people are going to get incredible food, but we do have to give people things they're familiar with." When Morimoto sketches an offering in which a hot rock will be placed in a soup bowl, followed by fish and broth, Starr demands that he be involved in naming the dish. "Let's Americanize it," he says. When Morimoto mentions a fish that will be steamed with wood, Starr jumps in: "OK, you call it Wood-Steamed Fish." He turns to Al. "Would you eat something called wood-steamed fish?" (Al, who considers himself a prototypical Middle American, says he would.)

"Deep-fried - make it easier for Americans to eat," says Omer Naim, who will be a manager at Morimoto. He's only half joking. "Fried food! We love it!" The politics of the palate might also dictate soft-pedaling the shellfish executions. As Iron Chef, Morimoto got in trouble with the PETA folks for dunking live rock lobsters in sake to get them drunk and to flavor the meat. For a coming appearance on the Today show with Al Roker, NBC has dictated that he steer clear of lobster altogether. "We had to go with salmon," sighs Fellner.

"He's a left-of-center guy to begin with," says Starr, as enthusiastic as an incessant worrier can sound. "His aura is wacky, he's a food eccentric. He's like a rock-and-roll guy." Starr is a consummate marketing-and-mood man. The erstwhile rock promoter, whose walls are lined with gold and platinum records from artists he's presented, appears to see promise in Morimoto's surfer-rocker look, complete with tiny gold earring. Morimoto says he's going to cut his mod locks before the opening, but Starr notices that Morimoto and Omae Ariki, his chief lieutenant, both have "that Beatles thing going on."

More like a Ralph Lauren thing. Notwithstanding the health-bead bracelet given him by a Zen master, Morimoto is strictly a Polo man. His taste in casual runs to a white Lauren Polo vest over a short-sleeved white Lauren Polo shirt. He explains: "I have a Japanese body; I don't like European tailoring." (Actually, he is built like a baseball player; he was a catcher on the farm team of the aptly named Hiroshima Carp until a shoulder injury put his professional career in the deep freeze.) One of his fondest memories is of the night Lauren himself showed up at Nobu, having made a reservation under another name. Although it was 9:30 and packed, Morimoto rushed to the restaurant's locker room. When he appeared at the designer's table, he was clad in 21 different Polo articles. "He signed my jacket," Morimoto says proudly.

Of course, now that Morimoto himself is a star, he can't be expected to fuss over everyday customers as he once did. Although he will be around a lot at the beginning (Starr has found him an apartment in a high-rise, with a pool, across the street from the restaurant), the preparation of all those elaborate dishes will fall largely to his assistants. Motioning to the two lieutenants Morimoto has brought to the planning meeting, Starr asks: "These hotshots going to know how to do all these sauces? If you get hit by a truck?" More likely a huge spotlight. Starr tells me they're planning to put the Iron Chef all over the map. "We have a commitment of Philadelphia and New York. Plus they can do Miami, plus either L.A. or Las Vegas, I forget which."

At a ceremonial sake cask opening at New York's James Beard House before another Morimoto-cooked charitable event, I meet Nichan Tchorbajian, the designer of the corporate Web site, The new site has recipes and the usual fare, but the goal is e-commerce: Morimoto will hawk his favorite tools of the fish-hacking trade and chef-endorsed sake. And although the site doesn't yet reveal the benefits, it offers true believers a chance to sign up for something called the Morimoto Club.

All of this stuff can go to a guy's head like sake fumes. When I ask Morimoto about good existing Japanese restaurants in Philadelphia, he doesn't answer at all. Instead, he gets a faraway look in his eyes. He recalls how, on the way to "Kitchen Stadium" for the Iron Chef competitions, he would listen to "Rocky Balboa." Then he hums the fighter's theme song, seemingly transporting himself to the scene of the new and even greater battle that awaits him. •

Russ Baker last wrote for the magazine about Ira Einhorn and the French media. Direct e-mail to

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