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Why 'Iron Chef' Masaharu Morimoto Is Betting on Vegas

Hillary Eaton

One of the newest offerings in the rapidly expanding culinary scene in Las Vegas is Masaharu Morimoto’s namesake spot, Morimoto at the MGM Grand, where the chef is doing teppanyaki and Wagyu beef-infused Manhattans.

Photo may be used for collateral & PR purposes. No time limitations. Billboards and National Ad usage must be purchased additonally Additional info upon request, please contact photographer.

Photo may be used for collateral & PR purposes. No time limitations. Billboards and National Ad usage must be purchased additonally Additional info upon request, please contact photographer.

Chef Masaharu Morimoto. All photos courtesy of Morimoto at the MGM Grand.

There's no question that Las Vegas, which has slowly but surely shed its reputation as a destination for nothing other than depravity, has become a culinary destination, thanks almost entirely to the arrival of internationally revered chefs like Joël Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay. One of the newest offerings is Masaharu Morimoto's namesake spot, Morimoto at the MGM Grand.

While the Iron Chef is no stranger to the limelight, this marks Morimoto's first foray into the Vegas food scene. So in order to get a better look at how Morimoto finally got to Vegas—from the perils of fake Wagyu to the logistics of sourcing the freshest fish in the middle of the desert—we caught up with the master.

MUNCHIES: Where did your passion for cooking start? Masaharu Morimoto: When I was growing up, my family was not very well off. However, every once in awhile, we would go to a sushi restaurant to have family dinner, and it was the most warm and comforting time of my childhood. That experience left a very strong impression on me and that's why I wanted to become a sushi chef. My favorite part of my job is being able to provide that warmth and comfort to other children and families, the way that those sushi chefs did for me.

What did you eat growing up? Because my family was not well off, I ate whatever I had until I became full. I played baseball so I ate a lot, especially white rice. My focus in eating back then was to fill my stomach. I eat differently now. The way I eat has changed since I became a professional chef. I still love white rice, though.

Kaiseki and sushi are very different techniques, and chefs often dedicate their lives to the study of only one, but you trained in both. What made you want to branch out and create your own version of Japanese cuisine? I'm not so sure myself but I guess because there was a business opportunity for me. Another thing is that I like to try different approaches when I do things, not only in making sushi but in general. This stance has been the same since I came to the US in 1985.


Chef Morimoto welcomes guests to the opening celebration of his restaurant in Las Vegas.

Do you consider your food "Japanese" in a traditional sense? Traditions keep changing. They change from place to place, time to time, just like our thoughts and ideas. So it's not important to me [what] you call it. I just take what I've learned to a place where I want to express it. If I feel it's too soon to have a shot, then I would think about what I can do to make it happen.

What do you see the future of Japanese cuisine in America looking like? Are there any particular trends or flavors you think will surface? There are so many trends and flavors that are developing in the US and Japan every day. One trend might be the concept that focuses on one single ingredient. Its also a favorable business form in terms of loss control. If I get a chance, I want to try it, too.

How do you think the rise of the celebrity chef phenomenon has affected the younger generation of chefs, as well as the culinary scene in general? No doubt that being an Iron Chef and being on TV has had a significant impact on my career. It was an eye-opening experience. During the course of filming, I grew as a person, as a chef, and was blessed with so many encounters, knowledge, and learning experiences. It all led me to the success I have today. At the same time, as I became more publicly exposed, from time to time I had to endure random insults or unjust accusations. Also, my privacy became a more slippery thing. But I learned to enjoy the whole package. I'm guessing the trend will continue to grow, and I think it is a good thing because it will continue to keep cooking in front of people and continue to inspire a new generation of chefs.

What's the biggest difference between cooking for TV and cooking in real life? I make effort to minimize the differences as much as possible. When I'm on the Iron Chef shows, I don't cook for the opponent, the judges, or the audience. I try to do my best with given ingredients, just like when I cook for my guests.

This is your first restaurant in Las Vegas. What made you want to have a restaurant here? It's Las Vegas! It is a very special city and it's an honor to be given the chance to open a restaurant here. People travel to Las Vegas from all over the world and this is an exciting challenge for a chef and restaurateur, because every different culture has a different palate and expectation for good cuisine. I'm looking forward to serving people who know good food.

What do you have to do differently when opening a restaurant there? Each of my restaurants is unique and inspired by its local background—the culture, customs, economics, and history. This restaurant will have some similar flavors and flare to my others, but since it's Las Vegas, we of course have added even more entertainment characteristics. Morimoto Las Vegas features my first teppan section, which I am very excited about. Las Vegas is all about entertainment, fun, and interaction, [so] the teppan menu will let our guests interact with the chefs, have a great time, and be entertained, all while eating amazing food.

Your restaurants always have some of the best fish. But how do you make sure you get the best quality seafood in the middle of the Nevada desert? Firstly, the transportation system has advanced so much compared to when I first came to the US. Today we can receive our fish order within a day. Secondly, from my experience in Japan, I know where to look to get certain types of fish in certain seasons. I keep good relationships with some Japanese vendors. Fellow chefs in my restaurants are also well-versed in such areas. The vendors are also keen to sell their fish to people who know how to make good food. I'm working in cooperation with all of them with the help of today's information technology.


Chef Morimoto leads a parade of lion dancers through the MGM Grand.

What should customers look out for if they are worried about freshness? Like I said, we have a very good transportation system today. Also our refrigerating system has advanced. My restaurants have three different types of freezers: regular freezers (-5 degrees Fahrenheit); super freezers (-90 degrees Fahrenheit—they freeze food very quickly); and finally we have another set of freezers set at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (they enable you to keep food fresh without freezing).

They used to say don't go to a Japanese restaurant on Monday because you'll be eating fish from last Friday. But that's no longer true. Now we have fish delivery on Mondays as well. People make things happen to meet demands in today's competitive food industry.

There have been a number of scandals in the US involving restaurants purposefully mislabeling Kobe beef and Wagyu beef. Is there a way you can tell that the ingredients are authentic without a certificate? I suppose there should be a way to tell if you're properly trained, but I don't know. Some people may be surprised to find out that A5 and B5 are basically the same beef; the difference comes from its yield rate. I try so I can offer quality meat at the right price, but I'm not interested nor qualified in grading quality of meat.

You have a Wagyu beef-infused Manhattan on your cocktail list. What inspired you to want to create such a drink? [It's] the idea of incorporating some of our most exciting ingredients, such as Wagyu beef and whisky—our own way of elevating mixology and really getting us excited. I am a fan of the beverage world, always looking to try exciting beverages, but I always return to shochu.

Thanks for speaking with me.