KYOTO – In an alternate reality, Masaharu Morimoto would be fielding questions from sports journalists. He might even be talking about his transfer from Japan’s top-flight baseball league to Major League Baseball in the United States.
But a severe injury to his shoulder in high school put the possibility of becoming a professional baseball player — ideally for the Hiroshima Carp — to rest.
So instead of talking baseball, Morimoto is in his new restaurant located in Pontocho — Kyoto’s storied dining and nightlife alley overlooking the Kamo River — discussing what pushed him to become a sushi chef and why he made the move from Hiroshima to New York, becoming one of the most recognizable Japanese chefs outside of Japan in the process.
Listening to Morimoto, it’s evident that there are two key ingredients to his success: drive and flexibility.
Even before he left Hiroshima in 1985, at the age of 30, Morimoto, together with his wife, was running a small business empire that included a kissaten (old-school coffee shop), an insurance agency and a newspaper delivery business, not to mention he was working in a friend’s sushi restaurant. Juggling all those jobs goes some way to explaining how he now manages to oversee close to 20 restaurants worldwide, all while maintaining regular appearances on the long-running Food Network series “Iron Chef America.”
Morimoto Kyoto, which opened on Sept. 27, is Morotomo’s 18th restaurant, but only his second in Japan. He is already planning his 19th, another New York restaurant that is slated to open in 2020.
When we meet on the second floor of Morimoto Kyoto, which is located inside the former private residence of a geisha who taught traditional dance to maiko (geisha-in-training), I bring up a famous anecdote from chef Morimoto’s flagship restaurant in Philadelphia, one that showcases the chef’s adaptability and flexibility.
As the story goes, a customer asked for ketchup after receiving a plate of sashimi. Instead of screaming “no,” and possibly barring said customer from ever eating Japanese food again, Morimoto said “yes,” with a compromise. He whipped up a prawn cocktail sauce with tomato puree, yuzu citrus juice, fresh wasabi and a splash of soy sauce on the spot.
The result: a satisfied customer, and no ketchup.
“I train my chefs not to say ‘no,’ but to try and say ‘yes,’” Morimoto says.
More than simply acquiescing, Morimoto wants a rapport to develop between customers and his team of chefs at his restaurants worldwide.
With Morimoto Kyoto, the ground floor is designed so that customers and chefs interact. Light pours in from the riverside windows on to the U-shaped 12-seater counter, which wraps around the open kitchen. Upstairs, there’s a second space that has the look and feel of a more conventional dining room, albeit with beautiful views down to the river below.
Interestingly, and perhaps owing to Morimoto’s regular collaborations with sake and beer breweries, after entering through the sheer white noren (hanging curtains) there’s space for a small corner bar where you can retire after dinner to imbibe on Japanese whisky, beer, sake and wine.
Compared to other Morimoto juggernauts, such as his restaurant in New York’s Meatpacking District, Morimoto Kyoto is small, but fits beautifully and seamlessly into its surroundings. It took nearly four years of scouting the city to find the location he wanted, but the wait has been worth it.
“There are a lot of nice restaurants, fancy restaurants, high-end restaurants, Michelin-starred restaurants in Kyoto,” Morimoto says. “We’re not going to target being No. 1.”
Instead, Morimoto will offer diners the “Morimoto experience”: staff that are at ease when dealing with an international clientele and can speak Japanese and English — as well as other languages — and a menu that’s flexible and modern.
With nearly 20 years of experience running his own restaurants, Morimoto has developed a certain “Morimoto template.” It’s an expansive menu that draws widely from Japanese cuisine, but is also innovative, such as the tuna pizza — one of his more famous appetizers, which combines a base of crispy tortilla dough, red onions, black olives, jalapeno and tuna topped with an anchovy aioli.
“We’re also bringing rice from my (hometown) Hiroshima and we have some of the best quality ingredients you can get because of our base here in Kyoto,” Morimoto says.
Meat, especially beef, features strongly on the menu. “Sometimes that will be Omi gyū, other times Kobe beef,” he says.
Above all, what Morimoto wants is for anyone eating out at one of his establishments, whether it be in Kyoto, Dubai or Mumbai, to have an enjoyable experience.
His childhood, he recounts, was far from a bed of roses — his father was a heavy drinker, there was domestic violence at home and he constantly moved houses as a child.
“But once or twice a year we ate out as a family, he recalls. “The chefs were so cool, and the sushi was very good. We were so happy, and everyone was smiling.”
It’s those fleeting moments that got him into the business of cooking, and it’s those moments that he’s been trying to create for others ever since.
Pontocho Shijo Agaru 232, Nabeya-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto 604-8015; 075-746-7718; morimotokyoto.jp; open daily 5-10 p.m. (L.O.); food and drink from ¥600; nearest station Kawaramachi; major cards accepted; nonsmoking; English menu; English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5