Whenever I’m feeling a little too awesome and want to take myself down a few pegs, I think back on my most disastrous interview ever, with one of America’s best known chefs no less, and it basically gets the job done. Here is the story, reprinted from the National Post. It ran a couple of years ago. I think I'm finally over it.
| Never offend a chef with knives|
Before he sits down for our interview in Toronto, Masaharu Morimoto methodically ties and then straightens his hakama over his kimono, then adjusts his slicked-back ponytail and designer eyeglasses. He looks like a New York-chic samurai warrior and, as I'm about to learn, has the attitude to match.
Either the chef has had a rough day or the language barrier is worse than I thought, but five minutes into our interview, I hear myself saying, "Chef, you're killing me," and I'm getting ready to walk. I'm sad and hurt by this unexpected turn of events because 1) I like the Iron Chef and really want him to like me; 2) I'm usually such a charming interviewer and fear I've lost my touch; 3) He's wearing knives.
The Iron Chef is in Toronto to promote Morimoto: The New Art of Japanese Cooking. It's a gorgeous tome full of sumptuous photography, lots of doable recipes and some not. For instance, yes to tuna pizza with anchovy aioli built on flour tortillas, but no to crispy duck with port-wine reduction and red miso sauce with foie-gras croissants and sunny-side-up duck eggs. And a definite no to asparagus pocky. (Glad you asked: Instead of the regular delicious cookie stick dipped in chocolate, it's a candied asparagus spear likewise dipped.)
But there are many more yeses than noes: soothing Morimoto chicken-noodle soup hit with Sichuan peppercorns and sake, gorgeous ribbons of white and green asparagus in a simple salad, bamboo shoots struck with fresh lime, sweet little rolls of lamb carpaccio with scallion and ginger sauce, parchment-wrapped sea bass, and frozen lettuce. Simple, fresh and flavourful recipes all; what's more, Morimoto's creative plating will instantly improve your culinary standing during the competitive holiday dinner-party season.
Since the book is geared to the home chef, my editor thought it would be a bang-up idea if I asked the chef for his "top five" picks on how the home cook could instantly become a better chef. So I ask. He looks at me as if I've spat in his pork kakuni, then launches into a controlled tirade: "Do you have children? Would you ask someone to choose a favourite child? If you married and have 10 kids and I ask, which kid your favourite, you answer?"
"I'm not saying that…"
"No, no, no. There are recipes in the book. I work on these for two years. You going to ask me my favourite?"
"But I'm not asking your favourite recipe, I'm asking…"
"No, I try everything, you try it, you recommend everything."
"…But I'm not asking about your favourite recipes, I'm asking about your best kitchen tips, like the importance of using a sharp knife." (By the way, I'm absolutely hating my editor right now.)
"Uh-huh. You don't have to. I do it, but you don't have to."
"I know you don't have to, but if I'm cooking at home and my knives are dull…"
"…For sushi, yes. It's better, yes. Slice tomato, yes. But are you asking me because I'm a Japanese Iron Chef, it's all choppy-choppy?" (Oh. My. God.)
"No," I say, now verging on nervous laughter. "Just easy home tips."
Then he starts talking about sauces and making substitutions, the supermarket and the ease of mixing your own spices. The main thing, he says, is to "use your imagination," which is actually a really good tip.
Best of all, he's calmed down. Maybe it's because he's talking about his chicken-noodle soup, one of his favourite recipes in the book. His favourite ingredient? Octopus. He likes it because he can make it into anything, and because it evokes fond childhood memories. He goes into some detail here, but I can't really understand what he's saying, and you can only ask an Iron Chef to repeat himself so many times.
"Cooking in a restaurant is borderless," he says. "Cooking in the home is different. American mommy makes the home food. In this country, meat is cheaper than fish. So the food is different." In Japan, his family was poor but ate well: rice, noodles, vegetables and a little bit of fish.
I ask him if he knows what Kraft Dinner is. He does. I ask what he'd do with it to put his Morimoto stamp on in. "Spices. And maybe octopus, deep-fry it a little bit."
Of course, he's had many, but his proudest culinary moment? His eyes light up: "When I was doing Iron Chef in Japan. Very popular. Many children watch. And now they come of age, and many of those kids now becoming chefs. And now in America, they come to me and the kids tell me that I am their favourite Iron Chef and they want to become chef."
Finally, he's smiling widely and we're on good terms. As we shake hands before ET Canada steals him away, I want to tell him what a great fan I am, and what an honour it's been to meet him, and how eating at Morimoto in Philadelphia remains one of the greatest culinary moments of my life.
Instead I say: "My friend almost named his cat after you."