Wasabi by Morimoto, the famous Japanese restaurant at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, turned 19 last weekend. To celebrate, Masaharu Morimoto―the founding chef who has to his credit 20 restaurants across the world and who is known for introducing Japanese cuisine in India―was in the city to lay out a specially-crafted Omakase menu. Omakase in Japanese translates roughly to ‘I leave it to the chef’. The Wasabi in Taj has a special place in his heart because it is the second restaurant he opened, after Morimoto in Philadelphia in 2001. “I am often asked why I opened the second one in India and not anywhere else in the world,” he says. “The answer lies in love. If we had not loved each other―Taj and I―we could not have sustained for 19 years.”
Morimoto recently opened his 21st restaurant in Jakarta. Known best as the ‘Iron Chef’ on Japanese TV, he got trained as executive chef of the first Nobu in New York, started by the legendary Nobu Matsuhisa. Morimoto is known to have championed the idea of modern Japanese cuisine. His expert play with sharp Japanese flavours and spices combined with his love for sushi and ramen, and inclusion of distinctly western ingredients like olive oil and dairy products, have made him a favourite among all those he has served, right from former US president Barack Obama to an array of Bollywood celebrities who are regulars at Wasabi.
He is 68 now, but you could not tell it from his youthful energy. Immaculately dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a long flowing jacket, with his hair neatly tied back and a ready smile on his face, he was constantly sashaying in and out of the kitchen and greeting guests in the dining area. “I want to stay a chef for as long as I can,” he says. “Even now I spend most of my time in the kitchen.” He landed on a Friday afternoon and went straight to the kitchen to supervise the dinner. The weekend was chock-a-block with planning and organising eight lunch and dinner shifts, alongside giving interviews and socialising.
Nineteen years ago when he launched Wasabi, he was super confident, he says. But then one month later, he had to change 50 per cent of the menu, because many would say that his dishes were a Nobu rip-off. He had to give it his own identity. “So now, when somebody asks me, ‘Chef, what do you recommend?’ I say, ‘everything’. They say it is not fair. But then I say I made my menu myself with so much love and sweat that you cannot ask me what is best. Everything on my menu is the best,” he says.
We are seated on a round table for an eight-course Omakase meal on a languorous Saturday. Through the window, the Gateway of India and the Mumbai harbour glisten in the pale afternoon light. The menu cards are personally signed by Morimoto. The dishes that arrive in quick succession are beautifully plated and Instagram-worthy. Plating, say those who have worked with Morimoto, is one of his specialties. An example of this was the salad course, something that Morimoto had apparently created at the White House for Obama’s dinner for former Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. The vegetables were sliced longitudinally with bits of meat, wrapped in fancy Japanese cellophane paper and tied with a thin golden ribbon. The experience of consuming it felt like unwrapping a gift.
The starters included eight to nine gourmet dishes like pumpkin jelly, avocado tartar, tofu, beautifully placed duck meat and tuna belly topped with wasabi. Before moving to the main course, we were served chilled sake. Made from polished rice, the fermented rice beverage―called nihonshu in Japan―was sharp and mellow in equal measure, and beautifully complemented the food. Later, I switched to the warm sake, which soothed the mind and body.
The sushi was the highlight of the lunch, and we were served five different varieties in one platter. Morimoto himself freshly grilled the tuna. The main course included pan-fried sea bass with mushrooms, cheese and vegetables with pickled jalapeno sauce and ginger shoots, and rock lobster. When I asked for a vegetarian option instead, I was in for a bit of disappointment. I had to make do with potatoes and cheese. Here, it pays to be non-vegetarian.
But the chef himself prefers vegetarian fare. And that too, just one big meal every evening. He just had banana yogurt and vegetables for breakfast. “After lunch at 4pm, nothing,” he says. “Only plain water. Last time I lost 10 kilos and I have stopped alcohol completely.” This is ironic, since he is aggressively selling his new line of sake.
“The problem is that in India, it is difficult to source ingredients,” he says. “The transportation system here is not conducive for fresh catch to be transported in real time. But again, there is no need to push for it so much. India has its own cultures. People don’t know much about Japanese cuisine, and that is fine. The fact that we have been here for the last 18 years is history in itself.”
On this trip to India, he is taking the dosa back with him. “This time when I go back to the US, I am going to create different varieties of dosa with my own twist,” he says. “Every time I come, I take away some new idea from the country, be it a spice or an ingredient. Last time I was blown away by coconut curry and coconut milk. This time it is dosa.”
Morimoto and his wife, who is many years younger to him, travel extensively. They don’t have kids, but own a dog. He says he never cooks anything at home. “Zero,” he says animatedly. “When we got married in 1979, my wife was a terrible cook. She could not cook anything and I could cook everything. Over time, she learnt and is better than me now. Cooking is that which comes from the heart, or else it is nothing. So the chef whom I respect the most is my wife.” He once said that the most interesting thing he sees from behind his sushi bar is the proposals. “I have put a ring in the food or the drink a hundred times,” he said with a laugh. “And each time the proposal has been accepted I shake the man’s hand and say, ‘welcome to hell’.”