This column first appeared in the Mail Today edition dated December 19, 2013. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers. If you wish to see the original page, please click on the link given here and then go to Page 17.
By Sourish Bhattacharyya
|Masaharu Morimoto strikes a pose|
with his sashimi knives at Wasabi,
his signature restaurant at the Taj
Mahal Hotel, New Delhi.
A COUPLE of months back, Ankur Chawla, ex-Taj staffer and author of 14 Hours, a gripping first-person account of the 26/11 terror attacks, was remembering Masaharu Morimoto from the pre-opening days of Wasabi, the Japanese-American chef's signature restaurant at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi. Chawla said he was taken by surprise to see an internationally renowned chef with a ponytail moving around anonymously in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I sat down to interview Morimoto, looking just the way Chawla had described him, shielded by a neat pile of tempting petit fours on the layered dish that hoteliers call a 'charlie'. I started by asking him if he remembered his 'acolyte' Akira Back, the Korean-American who has just opened his eponymous restaurant at the J.W. Marriott in the Aerocity, and that was enough to draw the normally reserved chef into an animated conversation.
He said he had not seen Akira Back till he went to dine at his restaurant Yellowtail in Las Vegas and that the chef-restaurateur who insists he's Morimoto's protege is not the inventor of the tuna pizza. Of course, he said with an impish smile, he did not mind being flattered by imitators. "I am not a celebrity, but the media has made me into one," Morimoto declared, adding that now it seemed all he had to do was "just talk, talk, talk".
Well, he shouldn't be complaining about being a celebrity, for he owes his worldwide fame to the Fuji TV reality show, Iron Chef, and its U.S. spinoff, Iron Chef America. A shoulder injury had made Morimoto opt out of Major League baseball and start training as a sushi and kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) chef, before he got to own a restaurant in Hiroshima. He first wanted to go to America, to cash in on what he now calls the "sushi boom", during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. He had to postpone his plan by a year because he took that long to find a buyer for his restaurant. When he finally left for the U.S. in 1985, he had with him "the cheapest" round-trip ticket and his flight from Hiroshima to New York had three stopovers -- Osaka, Seoul and Anchorage. He had booked a round-trip ticket because he was certain he would have to go back home, but he never got to use it for the return flight.
After working at different restaurants in his adopted city, the as-yet-unknown chef took charge of the Japanese kitchen at the Sony Club, which was the private dining room of top directors of the Sony Corporation, and was hired by Nobu Matsuhisa, the man who's synonymous with modern Japanese cuisine, to open the first Nobu in New York as executive chef in 1994.
Having worked and trained under the master, Morimoto launched his own restaurant in Philadelphia in 2001. It became as famous for its Japanese cuisine with western touches as for its exuberant decor. "Food is only 30 per cent," Morimoto said to me, underlining the salience of "design, decor, music, atmosphere," and then quickly added the caveat: "But it is my 100 per cent. I can't control your mood, but I can make the taste of my food change it."
I asked him about his invention, tuna pizza, or why he calls sashimi, carpaccio on the menu, and he said, "I have made the entrance wider for people who were not aware of Japanese food. I want to bring the customer to my cuisine." Morimoto is a gifted chef with a sharp eye on business and the talent to manage talent, which, I guess, is the only way you can run multiple restaurants. "I am like a conductor of a symphony," Morimoto said, making gestures to show a conductor wielding his baton. "I manage different skills and talents."
He said that before a chef joins a Morimoto restaurant, he or she has to spend three weeks at either Philadelphia or New York. Before opening any restaurant, he trains the chefs personally for a month and only after he's satisfied with their work, he allows the ribbon-cutting. "I have good chefs in each restaurant," he said in reply to my question on being able to maintain consistency across his many establishments.
Since 2001, awards, accolades and new restaurant openings have been Morimoto's constant companions. Morimoto opened Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai when it was still early days for his restaurant empire, which now stretches from Philly to Hawaii, via Napa Valley and Tokyo, but the move worked.
The challenge was to maintain a consistent supply line for ingredients. "The important thing was how and from where to source fresh fish for the Indian market," Morimoto said, adding that he has managed the issue with his suppliers in Japan. The other departure for him was a menu that is 50 per cent vegetarian, but a creative chef finds his way around every speed-breaker. Morimoto created the corn tempura, for instance, as an alternative to his best-selling rock shrimp tempura. He has mastered the art of catering to the local palate. All he insists is that his ten signatures must be on the menu of each of the Morimoto restaurants. I asked him in what ways is Mumbai is different from Delhi. In Mumbai, Morimoto said, people have money, so they spend on good food; in Delhi, people travel, so they seek out the food they had on their last vacation.
Morimoto is a great believer in the TPO (Time Place Occasion) theory. You've got to be at the right time, at the right place, with the right product. There's more, though, to the success of Morimoto, and who can say it better than he? "If we have been successful, it is not because we are lucky," he said. "The timing of our entry may have been right, but we also have done a good job." People who've dined at Wasabi, although the meal may have set them back substantially, would agree with the Iron Chef.
COOKBOOK FROM THE CHEF TO WORLD LEADERS
HEMANT OBEROI can justifiably claim to have logged more frequent flyer miles than any other Indian chef. His celebrity status dates back to the late 1990s, when he first attracted media notice with his Californian Indian (Cal-Indian) cuisine topped by the famous 'naanzza' (naan baked like a pizza with butter chicken sauce, mozzarella and tandoori chicken).
Fame comes at a price -- in Oberoi's case, it has meant he lives out of airports, hotels and suitcases on most days of the year as he goes around the world serving heads of state and showcasing Indian food at international festivals. In return, the Ferozepur-born corporate chef of Taj Hotels has had the privilege of getting Bill Clinton to eat dahi vada at the Ambani residence and of inspiring the former Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, John Major, to depart from state banquet protocol and asking for a second helping.
With so many anecdotes to share (many of which he'll have to carry with him to his afterlife), and so much to offer to cookery enthusiasts, I had always wondered why Oberoi hadn't put his recipes, including those of his modernist interpretations of traditional Indian dishes, together in one book. Arvind Saraswat, another Taj veteran, did it before him, but his work, The Gourmet Indian Cookbook, where he floated the idea of fruit-based sauces, did not find many takers. Oberoi has finally taken the plunge and he unveiled The Masala Art: Indian Haute Cuisine (Roli Books) last week at the Taj Palace restaurant after which the book is named.
My first take-away from the book was Oberoi's long working day. How does a man manage to look so happy and not seem to age when he reports for work at 9 a.m. and calls it a day at 11:30 p.m., which is the time he reaches home and goes to bed after having his customary cup of tea. What I like about the recipes is that though they come with a twist (Beetroot Lassi, Lemongrass Rasam, Crab Samosas and Masala Chai Kulfi, for instance), and the dishes look like works of art, they are easy to follow by hobby cooks who wish to add a dash of zing to their family meals or wow their guests at a family meal.
COINTREAU'S GENERATION 6
IT IS a privilege to be born with a surname revered in 165 countries and a fixture in the recipes of more than 300 cocktails. Alfred Cointreau represents the sixth generation of a drink that was born when Edouard Cointreau (not to be confused with the man who founded the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards) perfected the recipe for it in 1875. Unsurprisingly, Alfred, 26, who believes in travelling out of his home city, Angers in the Loire Valley, after every two weeks, is passionate about his official role: Cointreau Heritage Manager. He showed it on his recent visit to New Delhi, where he was a star at the popular speakeasy, PCO at Vasant Vihar.
"At the beginning you have an orange peel and at the end the 'heart'," Alfred said, describing the production process of Cointreau. The orange liqueur, or triple sec, depends entirely on what Alfred calls the "perfect balance" of the four ingredients -- sweet and bitter peels sourced from Brazil, Ghana, Haiti and Spain, and selected by the master distiller, Bernadette Langleis; alcohol derived from beetroots; and sugar. Peels of three oranges go into each bottle of Cointreau (and 15 million of them are produced every year) and these are macerated in alcohol and water for six months before sugar is added during the distillation process. It's amazing how the world's best things have the simplest origins.
MY personal dial-an-encyclopaedia for the pleasures of life that come in liquid form, Vikram Achanta of Tulleeho.com, astounded me the other day by pointing out Great Britain drinks three times more beer than India. The poms deserve the suffix 'Great'! Imagine a nation of 63 million people outperforming one with a population of 1.25 billion by three to one!
Now that I have entertained you with useless information, do follow Achanta's lead and order a 'In the Rocks' at The Aviary, the highly acclaimed Chicago cocktail lounge and restaurant of the famous Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame) and Nick Kokonas. This cocktail is not served on the rocks; instead, it comes in a sphere made with ice. Ice is so important on The Aviary's menu that it has an ice chef, entrusted with the job of devising newer ways to use ice in unheard-of ways!