From his early acclaim behind the sushi counter at Philadelphia’s Nobu, to his global empire of eponymous restaurants, Masaharu Morimoto (best known to Food Network fans as the iconic Iron Chef Japan) has carried the banner for fine Asian cuisine to every corner of the world, including Walt Disney World. Attractions Magazine had the opportunity to interview him ahead of his recent in-person appearances at Morimoto Asia in Disney Springs, and we were honored to be able to talk to this culinary legend about his taste for top-shelf whiskey, the future of fresh fish, and one of his favorite theme park attractions.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.]
This has been a really hard year for everyone, especially the restaurant business. How you are you and your restaurants doing coming out of the pandemic?
Of course everybody is having a hard time with this pandemic. The economy and people are coming back, but then a new [variant] is coming in. Who knows? But we have to do something, as much as we can, right now. Try as much as we can to keep it clean, and stay healthy, and then keep high motivation for the customers’ satisfaction. They’re coming in, not exactly the same as before the pandemic, [but] people are coming in and we appreciate it.
Now it’s very difficult to get some ingredients because of the supply chain; prices are getting a lot higher, but I can’t make my price higher. But we’re ok; we’re more than ok. For example, here [in Orlando] is very, very good business and motivation. People who walk in here have very high energy; customers could feel if we lost some energy […] and then don’t come back. Even with a pandemic — COVID-19, whatever you have — we have to keep the motivation high, and the energy high.
What have you learned over the years featuring Florida breweries during your annual 12 Beers of Christmas event (held on Dec. 5)?
I didn’t even know there were lots of local breweries around [Florida] before opening here. My chef found them […] It’s fun Japanese and Asian street food with local people. The first one was six or seven [beers] and it’s gotten bigger and bigger.
I don’t know brands, but every single one I [approve]. I have lots of alcohol; I have whiskey, red wine, white wine and five or six kinds of sake. But for Morimoto brand alcohol, beer was first, since the 2001 opening of Philadelphia Morimoto, my original one 20 years ago. So beer is a lot of my business’s history. That’s why I like beer!
This is Disney Springs, there’s no admission; everybody can come for free. That’s why we’re focusing more on locals here, local people can come and that’s why [the beer event] sells out easy every year.
How do you feel about drinking a rare bottle of 55 year old Japanese whiskey during your $5,055-per-person Yamazaki 55 Momokase dinner event (held on Dec 4)?
It’s very exciting! Way before, some very wealthy people asked me to come cook in their house. The 1955 Macallan [worth over $10,000], I just got to taste that. I know Yamazaki [is] better; still, Macallan is a nice whiskey as well. But this event, I am very, very, very excited for.
The problem is that a human being has a limit of what they can eat. I can’t give them 100 courses. So I am thinking [like] this is an Iron Chef battle with the main theme of whiskey. Everything is using whiskey; I tried to make whiskey salt, whiskey beef jerky, a lot of stuff.
Do you still enjoy personally preparing food for diners, or are you too busy with all your businesses?
You know, I’m losing time to do the cooking myself, behind the sushi bar or in the kitchen. This is kind of my job: traveling for events, Food & Wine things, interviews, TV shooting, whatever. I have to travel a lot, [but] I’ve stayed a chef as much as I can. That’s my policy, my philosophy; I’m 66 years old, but as long as I’m standing and holding a knife, I try to be cooking, behind the counter or in the kitchen.
How do you see Orlando’s food culture evolving compared to other major cities?
Michelin Guide [gourmet restaurant reviews] decided to come to Florida next year. So, this is Disney, but for example, look at 20 years ago in Las Vegas — it was just gambling. Now it’s gambling and entertainment, and food, with a lot of famous chefs coming in to open restaurants. It’s going happen here too. It’s not easy, but little by little, it’s changing […] It’s a good thing, and I hear a lot of chefs are excited.
Do you have any interest in returning to “Iron Chef”?
Yes, if somebody asks me to come, I’ll do it, if my schedule [allows]. Sometimes they asked me to come judge [on Next Iron Chef] […] Or maybe [I could play] the Chairman [but] my English is not good enough for that.
I’m trying to do my own TV show if possible, like documentary things or maybe a cooking show. I’m trying to do this but it’s not easy. I don’t have enough time […] I’m opening, opening, opening [new restaurants]. One year is 52 weeks, 365 days. I don’t know why, but this year within 60 days we opened four restaurants: Los Angeles, Morocco, Boston, and Manhattan. We have 52 weeks a year, why why why? […] If everything goes well with COVID, maybe five or six are coming next year too.
With climate change and over-fishing threatening the sustainability of many popular species, what do you think is the future for sushi?
Now, the tuna is the king of the fish for sushi, sashimi, and Japanese food. But in sushi culture of two or three-hundred years ago, tuna was the worst, because in summertime with no ice or refrigeration system, and no transportation system, tuna changes color very easily. Tuna became more popular, became the king of the fish, [because] of refrigeration and transportation systems, so in Orlando here we are getting tuna from everywhere […] Human beings have to care about how carefully they eat it, how carefully they are using it. Not just catching, catching, sell, sell, make money, money. Human beings have to care about the whole thing […] not just the fish, the whole planet.
I’m not some college professor, I’m not deeply knowledgeable about these kind of things, but we have to do something […] Wherever a tuna came from, no wasting: use everything from head to tail, with the bones and meat and everything.
I am a human being, and I still try to be a human being as a chef; not a politician or a scientist.
Is there anything you enjoy at Walt Disney World outside of your own restaurant?
Vroom! Vroom! [Morimoto imitates Test Track at Epcot.] That was great, that was great! Yes!