Back in 2004, when he opened India’s first Japanese restaurant at Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, chef Masaharu Morimoto had just one fear — “Will the guests give us a chance,” Morimoto recalls asking himself. It has been 14 years and Wasabi by Morimoto has remained a fixture in the fine dining scene in the city. This, despite the fact that the Mumbai upper crust’s demographic composition also, rather notoriously, imposes unique restrictions on culinary experimentation, especially if that involves meat. Incidentally, this was one of the main lessons that Morimoto himself learned during the restaurant’s teething days. There were no major obstacles that he felt he had to overcome, says the chef, because he realised quickly that his guests were interested in, and adaptable to, other cuisines. “The only thing that I had a hard time with was understanding the differences between the types of vegetarian diet,” he says.
Fondly called the Iron Chef, thanks to the television show that made him popular in the US, Morimoto is in Mumbai for three days as part of Wasabi’s 14th anniversary celebrations. To commemorate the occasion, from today to October 4, Morimoto will be presenting a specially created Omakase menu, with one of the highlights being the Mizuhiki Wrapping Salad, a staple on the White House state dinner menu. “Omakase means ‘Trust the Chef’. When one of our guests comes in for Omakase, they are putting the night’s dinner in the hands of the chef, with complete faith and trust that it will be a memorable experience. It’s a very personal experience between the chef and the guest,”says
If it wasn’t for a shoulder injury when he was young, Morimoto would probably have gone on to have a stellar career in professional baseball. “The only other thing I ever wanted to be was a sushi chef, so I put all my energy into being the best I could,” he says. Having mastered the fine art of sushi, Morimoto opened his first restaurant at 24, and moved to the US five years later. In 1994, he was recruited by chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, when the latter launched Nobu. The experience in Nobu’s kitchen, which pushed the boundaries of modern Japanese cuisine, was useful when in 2001 Morimoto launched his first eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia. The Mumbai venture with Taj came next. There are Morimoto restaurants across the world now, with the latest one, Morimoto Dubai, having opened earlier this year. Even at 63, clearly, the chef doesn’t believe in slowing down. “I believe in staying active and to keep evolving, so long as people continue to appreciate what it is that you do,” he says, adding, “In my case, that is to be a restaurateur and a chef.”