We Chat with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto and Tribeca Canvas

"I have to keep doing new and different things, because if I stop, the people behind me would shoot me. Of course I have to run. I'm getting slower because I'm getting old, so that's different."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Don't let Chef Masaharu Morimoto fool you: he's much goofier than his Iron Chef figure supposes and much more sharp for his age than he jokes about being. When I mentioned his battle with the first vegetarian chef Amanda Cohen, he immediately asked, "Ah, broccoli, correct?" That battle was almost three years ago. He banters easily while getting his photos taken, encouraging curious poses by grabbing a pillow or a wine bottle from a passing server.

And even though his newest restaurant, Tribeca Canvas, has not been given much love by patron nor press, he's excited about branching out to new cuisines, and to figure out what American soul food means to him.

When you came to the United States, what sort of chef did you envision yourself being? A lot of people have asked, "What was the turning point with the kind of food you wanted to make?" Actually, I didn't have anything—I do my food. I like everything; French food, Italian food, Chinese food, Spanish food. So my food is everything, little by little, with those ideas and Japanese technique.

Is that why you came to New York specifically, because we have all of those cuisines here? Actually, I found that out after I came. I wanted to come to Los Angeles in 1984 for the summer Olympics;there had been a big sushi movement here in the United States in the late seventies / early eighties and I wanted to see how that was going to pan out in this country. I had a restaurant in my hometown of Hiroshima that unfortunately I couldn't sell until at the end of 1984. I came to New York because without the Olympics, Los Angeles wasn't as interesting.

I bought a ticket from Hiroshima to Osaka, Osaka to Seoul, Seoul to Anchorage—the cheapest, cheapest flight. I was going to spend one open year on an around-America ticket—New York, then Florida, then Texas, then New Orleans, then LA, San Francisco, then Hawaii and back to Japan. But my first stop was New York, and I stayed here.

Why? Because I loved it here.

What about it? Do you remember something else that surprised you that you didn't expect? There were a lot of people, and everyone was walking so fast. I have short legs so I have to run, literally, to keep up. But that meant I felt a lot of excitement for this town. I worked at restaurants where most customers were American, and I tried to learn what their favorites were. Little kids would sit and ask me for a "Shirley Temple." And I'd say "yes!" And then give them "Shrimp Tempura." So I had some issues but I tried to understand what New Yorkers like. Because if I could understand here, then I could understand everywhere. I still think that.

Do you feel like you have an understanding? Do you feel like you've sped up? Or the city has slowed down? I have to keep doing new and different things, because if I stop the people behind me would shoot me. Of course I have to run. I'm getting slower because I'm getting old, so that's different.

Iron Chef obviously did a lot for your career, and that's where most people are going to recognize you on the surface. Is there something about your personality you feel has been left out by the way television sort of has crafted you? Yeah, I'm much, much more charming than my Iron Chef. Much more charming than that. I'm not a TV star—I'm not a TV chef. I'm not on TV other than Iron Chef (sometimes they ask me to come to a morning show or cooking show, that's different). I want to stay a chef.

Does Iron Chef help you stay sharp as a restaurant chef in any way, or vice versa? On Iron Chef a lot of people think, "Oh, you have a big advantage, because you have a lot experience." Yes, I do. Yes, I have. But I don't want to do the same thing every time, so I try to create new and different things or maybe new ideas. So that's a lot of pressure. And I have a lot of experience cooking in front of the camera, but before the whole "allez cuisine" thing, I'm standing there shaking.

Really? Yes, because you think, "Only five dishes in one hour? Easy!" But five dishes of maybe different proteins, I try maybe nine or ten dishes. And then within that attempt I might try to make a bread, or a croissant, a lot of stuff. To do that in one hour? So it's, "Can I make this and this and this?" And I'm shaking—shaking! Every time I try to challenge myself. Once I hold the knife I finish shaking because I have to focus on what I'm doing, and then I don't see anything.

Coincidentally we just came from interviewing Chef Amanda Cohen, who was the first vegetarian chef to battle you... Ah, yes, broccoli, I believe.

Yep. And she said how she felt like it was so much pressure and then she looked at your plates and thought they were so sculpted and composed. That's why sometimes I want to quit Iron Chef—sometimes it's too much pressure and I don't want to do it. But then, how many Iron Chefs are there in the world? I have to be an Iron Chef. And it's a very interesting experience doing it.

Shrimp Nachos: Ranch Dressing, Spicy Gochujang Aioli

You have ten restaurants now and are branching in a new direction for yourself at Tribeca Canvas. What makes something a Chef Morimoto place for you? I have ten restaurants in different places but I try to be local—everything has a different menu and different design. So I look at the kind of people in each location and the kind of palates they have. I don't care about defining it.

My philosophy is that the food is only part of the story; it's also the music, the decor, and the people who are eating together. A lot of it is up to you; you could come in here today and think, "wow, this is delicious food." And then come in tomorrow, and it's not the same. You were fighting in the cab, maybe you broke up with your boyfriend, or you have family business. I do my 100%, and it makes 30% of your experience. The rest is hospitality, because that's what's going to make you feel better. That's my philosophy of the food business.

What kind of food feels like home for you? What do you like to eat? I don't go out to eat, and at home I cook "zero"—my home food is whatever my wife gives me. And she's looking after my health, so it's very light food; light protein, low salt. So it's not my food, it's "my chef," my wife.

Lamb Ragu Bun: Steamed Bun, Pickled Daikon, Raita

Is that why you're playing with a new kind of food here? I wanted to try different food; a lot of people think about me as a "sushi king," and I'm trying to break that a bit. I hope I get reactions of, "Oh, you can do this, huh?" I've spent 28 years here in New York and in this country, but I still don't know what American soul food is. So I'm trying to stay challenged.

So you're not giving up yet as far as expanding goes? No, of course, of course.

And do you feel that's going to go further with another restaurant? Yeah, it's really tough. It's not that easy. But I try to make it, I hope.