What you don't know about Chef Masaharu Morimoto

Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto may be known for his prowess in televised culinary battles — he's something of a Kitchen Stadium legend — but there's so much more to this chef than his entertainment career. 

Behind the flash of the Food Network show there's a brilliant chef. He's won awards, worked under some of the best cooks in the business, and even opened many restaurants of his own in different countries scattered across the globe. But it didn't come easily. 

He started out as an aspiring athlete from a poor, unhappy family, turning to cooking only after a severe injury dashed his hopes. But once he set his heart on becoming a chef, it seemed like nothing could stand in his way.

Today, Morimoto is one of the most revered Japanese chefs in the world. He's still battling it out on Iron Chef America and still opening new restaurants even decades after coming to America to follow his dreams. Read on to find out more about chef Masaharu Morimoto and how he became the man he is today. 

He used to be a baseball player, not a chef

Many American fans know Masaharu Morimoto best for his days on Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, but it turns out he had a competitive spirit long before he became a chef. 

Along with his dream of working as a sushi chef, as a child Morimoto aspired to be a professional baseball player. He grew up a big fan of his hometown team, the Hiroshima Carps, and played ball in high school. He was a catcher, and apparently pretty talented — he almost went pro, before he suffered a broken shoulder that ended his career and eventually shifted his focus to the culinary world. 

He remains a baseball fan to this day. He threw the first pitch at a Tigers-White Sox game in 2013, and after moving to America has even gotten the chance to see one of his favorite Carps players, Hiroki Kuroda, make it to Major League Baseball in the US, where he played on the Yankees.

He's made a name for himself in the beverage industry

Morimoto is famous for his food, but he's done a fair amount of collaboration with the beverage industry, too. 

Chef Morimoto has helped create two different ranges of sake. The first is Easy Cup, a Yamadanishiki Junmai Premium Sake made for casual drinking that's served in a glass bottle with an easily resealable plastic lid.

On the higher end, he's collaborated with the historic Fukumitsuya Brewery, founded in 1625 during Japan's Edo period. They offer Morimoto Junmai, Morimoto Junmai Gingjo, and Morimoto Junmai Daiginjo sake, and a luxe Morimoto Junmai Aged sake is available at 5, 10, or 30+ years aged. Morimoto also has a restaurant called Momosan which focuses on ramen and sake

For beer, Morimoto paired with Rogue Ales to create three varieties, Morimoto Imperial Pilsner, Morimoto Black Obi Soba Ale, and Morimoto Soba Ale.

Most recently, he's teamed up with Michael Mondavi to create a Cabernet Sauvignon that's sold in his restaurants.

He didn't have a happy childhood

You might think that someone who's achieved such great success had a happy childhood and a supportive family, but sadly, that wasn't the case for Chef Morimoto. 

In his book Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking, he details his youth spent with a rage-filled, often violent father. He moved more than a dozen times before he was 10 because his parents' fighting often resulted in angry landlords. 

They were poor, so dining at a restaurant wasn't a common occurrence, and his mother wasn't a very good cook. So how did he learn about sushi and become so enamored with it?  Once a month on pay day, his father would take the family out for sushi. It was there, watching the chefs use their impressive knife skills, that Morimoto fell in love with the kitchen. 

Following his fateful baseball injury, Morimoto decided to become a sushi chef. He became an apprentice first, and after eight years opened his own restaurant in Japan before moving to the United States to try to break into the industry here.

He has 16 restaurants around the world

He may have started small, with his own cafe in Japan, but these days Morimoto has restaurants all over the world. 

The first Morimoto restaurant opened in 2001 in Philadelphia, followed by Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 2004, which to this day is still considered one of the best restaurants in all of Asia

These days, he has 16 restaurants all around the world, and he's not slowing down. Several of them have even won awards. Morimoto New York won a James Beard Foundation Award for "Outstanding Restaurant Design," and Morimoto Napa was named one of the "Best US Restaurant Openings" in 2010 by Food & Wine

Branching out from haute Japanese cuisine, Morimoto opened his first ramen restaurant, Momosan, in New York in 2016, and a second Momosan opened up in Honolulu in 2017. The chef has also said he's considering opening a ramen spot in Las Vegas, after seeing how popular it is at his New York eatery. 

He worked at the world-famous Nobu sushi

Before he opened his own restaurant in the United States, Morimoto got a job working at the world-famous Nobu in New York City. It was quite the place to hone his skills. Not only did the restaurant win the James Beard Foundation's Best New Restaurant Award when it opened in 1995, but chef Nobu Matsuhisa himself was also nominated for a James Beard Award (for Outstanding Chef) nine times between 1997-2006. 

Morimoto says that working at Nobu changed the way he thought of the restaurant industry. "Before I worked at Nobu, I had thought the sushi chef was the center of the restaurant," he told Orlando Weekly. "However, working at Nobu, I learned that the customers are everything. Our job is to make them happy."

Because Chef Matsuhisa had a second restaurant in Los Angeles, he was often absent from the New York location. This gave Chef Morimoto a chance to shine. After winning a three-star review in The New York Times, Morimoto promoted himself to executive chef, getting an embroidered chef's jacket and new business cards, and after five years he left Nobu in 1999 to open his own restaurant. 

Originally he didn't even want to be on Iron Chef

Though Americans might best recognize Morimoto from Iron Chef America on the Food Network, he actually got his start in food television on the original Japanese version of the show. Even then, he wasn't sure if he even wanted to be on television.

He cooked for a group of people one night, not knowing one of them was a judge on Iron Chef Japan. A few months later he got a call and was invited to perform on the show, but at first he declined, thinking it would be too much pressure. After encouragement from his friends, he finally accepted, and ended up winning his first battle (secret ingredient red snapper, competitor Hirayama Yukio). He would fly back and forth between Japan and the US for the next two years to compete. 

Even after continuing to compete, both in the original Iron Chef and the newer Iron Chef America, Morimoto says it never gets less nerve-wracking to do battle. "I still get nervous every time," he told Haute Living. "It will always be a challenge to use surprise ingredients, no matter how prepared you think you are."

His wife is a great cook, too

He may be the most famous chef in the family, but according to Masaharu Morimoto, his wife is a great cook too. When asked in an interview, "Who's the most underrated chef working in the business today?" Morimoto replied, simply, "My wife." 

Morimoto prefers not to cook at home, since it's what he does all day at work, though he did say that he'll sometimes dream up new dishes and work on presentation at home. But for the most part, his wife is in charge. 

Her specialties include traditional Japanese vegetable and root vegetable dishes. Morimoto has said that he eats mostly vegetarian at home, though he'll occasionally have some simply steamed chicken. 

Some of his favorite healthy Japanese comfort food dishes include tofu, dried seaweed, and root veggies that his wife prepares for him in a variety of ways, including simmered nimono, steamed mushimono, aemono (marinated salad), and baked yakimono

He eats one meal a day

When he's not at home with his wife to cook for him, Morimoto sticks to a strict eating schedule. Instead of sitting down to three well-rounded meals a day, the chef eats just one large meal. He insists that it's enough for him. 

Between 3 and 5 p.m., he'll indulge in a big meal often consisting of Japanese favorites like ramen, sauteed vegetables, meal or fish, and rice. And if he's traveling, forget about it — he doesn't eat at all. 

He may be on to something. There's a fair amount of scientific evidence that intermittent fasting can be beneficial to metabolic health. Likewise, other studies show that abstaining from eating on planes might be one of the most effective ways to combat jet lag

And, Morimoto points out that wherever he's traveling he probably has a restaurant waiting for him where he can get a better meal than he would on an airplane anyway. 

His favorite ingredient is rice

You may think that a chef who has traveled the world and has restaurants in countries scattered across the globe might have some exotic food or luxury item as his favorite ingredient, but not Morimoto. His favorite ingredient is rice

Rice is a staple food in Japan, and at one time was even used as currency in the country. The Japanese word for rice (gohan) is synonymous with the word meal, so important is it to the country's cuisine. 

Morimoto recognizes the importance of rice in his restaurants, making time to ensure that each grain is of the highest quality. At every one of Morimoto's restaurants, they polish the rice on site, so it's as fresh as possible when it reaches your plate. "We take brown rice and polish it ourselves each day," he told Napa Valley Life. "It has a better, sweeter flavor and it doesn't sit in a warehouse in a bag for three or four months." 

Attention to detail like that is one of the things that sets Morimoto's restaurants apart. 

A broken wrist threatened his career

It was a shoulder injury that dashed Masaharu Morimoto's dreams of becoming a professional baseball player, and he was haunted by a career-threatening injury once again in 2010. 

Proving that spas aren't always the relaxing escapes they purport to be, Morimoto slipped while getting out of a hot tub at a spa in New Jersey, breaking his wrist on impact. It was his right wrist, making the injury all the more serious. 

It wasn't a small break, either. Dr. Andew Weiland, his surgeon, said it was one of the worst fractures he'd ever seen. Morimoto had to get a titanium plate inserted into his wrist. 

Luckily, he slowly made a recovery. He went through physical therapy for half a year, and he practiced with a rubber knife to improve flexibility and re-build the muscles in his wrist. We haven't heard any news about the wrist troubling him since 2010, so here's hoping that's one injury Morimoto can feel confident about overcoming.