Masaharu Morimoto is an icon best known as a perennial presence on “Iron Chef America” and in Japan, on the original “Iron Chef” program. Now, he’s on screen as a judge of a new series streaming on Roku, “Morimoto’s Sushi Master,” with co-host Lyrica Okano, that continues Morimoto’s knack for embracing new tastes and forms within what once was considered strict traditions of Japanese cuisine.
Chef Morimoto has always bridged cultures between Japan and the U.S. (and the rest of the world). He was trained as a sushi chef and opened his first restaurant in his hometown, Hiroshima, when he was just 24 years old. But before long, his cross-cultural wanderlust took him across the United States and eventually he became head chef at Nobu, the high-end Japanese restaurant owned by Nobu Matsuhisa, who was himself influenced by the cuisine of Lima, Peru, where he once lived and worked.
“Since starting my culinary career, I always knew I wanted to find new and unique ways to share my love for sushi with the world,” Morimoto said via e-mail. “I aim to showcase not only the flavors and techniques of traditional Japanese cuisine, but also the values and aesthetics that underlie it, which I really think stands out in my dishes. My creativity allows me to push boundaries in a typical sushi dish, bringing a sense of who I am and where I come from.”
Morimoto said he considers food to be a form of storytelling, a conduit to “bring a sense of community and connection amongst others.” That’s what he urges his contestants to achieve.
That sense of community doesn’t necessarily require proper pronunciation, he noted. Foodie snobs might flinch at some of the wayward pronunciations of Japanese, but he said, “My main concern when judging each chef is the dish they bring out of the kitchen. I expect each chef to attempt the correct pronunciation, but when the judges and I are studying their dishes, we mainly judge the plating, the taste, the technique that was used and the creativity of the dish.”
The show reflects how sushi has become a mainstream part of the mainstream American food scene, whether or not chefs and diners can pronounce “daikon” or “inari” right. Just several decades ago, as Japanese food became more popular and familiar, sushi was still an exotic menu item. A show like “Sushi Master” is perfectly timed now that anyone can buy sushi (not always great) in supermarkets everywhere.
“I’m very happy to see there is such a rise of sushi in America, and it’s important to know that when food travels, it adapts to its local culture, customs and ingredients,” Morimoto pointed out. “That being said, it has to be altered to please guests. This should not be seen as a negative thing, and more of a way to be creative and change the tradition to something unique.”
Lyrica Okano, who does a great job of keeping the foodies’ discussions on point during the show, is Shin-Nisei, born to Shin-Issei parents who moved from Tokyo to New York City to be punk rockers. They didn’t break into the music biz, but their daughter studied dance and acting growing up, and even attended part of high school in Kyoto. Fans of the Marvel Universe may recognize her as the lead role of Nico Minoru in the recently-canceled Hulu series “Runaways,” which ran for three seasons.
In a video interview, she admitted she’s having a blast working with Chef Morimoto — whom she grew up watching in the Japanese “Iron Chef” shows because her parents watched Japanese TV — and hopes the series gets approved for a second season.
She gets to practice her Japanese, for one thing, speaking phrases to Morimoto in Nihongo, although it doesn’t bother her when people don’t pronounce Japanese words correctly. “I guess I just codeswitch,” she said.
She’s comfortable code-switching on the show and with Morimoto, although she said, “I kind of was scared and expected Morimoto to, like, be able to point out the fact that I was like, kind of a fraud.”
She’s felt the sting of being too Japanese for Americans and yet too American for Japanese. “Um, so yeah, I was nervous. And I remember the first interview with Chef Morimoto where they were, you know, trying to suss out if I can do this or not, I was so scared. But he was just so nice. He’s been so warm and nurturing to me and has completely like destroyed any image I had of like, what chefs were going to be like in a kitchen.”
Okano and Chef Morimoto are helping to push sushi even farther than it has come in the decades since sushi was “gross” or “weird.” Now it’s “hip” and “cool.” With “Morimoto’s Sushi Master,” the first-ever show to put sushi front and center in a competition that will leave viewers drooling for a trip to their local sushi bar, sushi has truly come of age. Itadakimadsu!