There are few chefs who know more about cooking in front of a television audience than Masaharu Morimoto. Since the 90s, the chef has been a fixture of food competition TV in both the United States and Japan, appearing in Iron Chef for more than 13 seasons in the States alone. Now, he’s officially on the other side of the judge’s table with his new show, Morimoto’s Sushi Master, the first cooking competition series totally focused on sushi.
Across the Roku Channel series’s six episodes, eight chefs from all over the country compete in a series of challenges that test their ability to butcher whole fish, assemble creative flavor profiles inspired by Japanese cuisine, and, of course, prepare excellent sushi. The series is set up much like any other competition cooking show, with the chefs set up at individual cooking stations and a bountiful pantry full of ingredients to prepare their dishes. In pursuit of the $25,000 cash prize, the contestants compete in challenges that include conveyor-belt-style sushi service (kaitenzushi) and a full omakase dinner in the series finale, all of which are evaluated by Morimoto himself, along with his fellow judges, writer Kenji Lopez-Alt and chef Dakota Weiss. Lyrica Okano, who Marvel fans may recognize from Hulu’s Runaways, hosts the series.
For folks who love watching hours of Chopped or mainlining old episodes of Iron Chef America, Morimoto’s Sushi Master will feel cozy and familiar. Morimoto is a tough and exacting judge, not afraid to tell the contestants when their rice preparation or flavors aren’t up to snuff. But when it comes time for a contestant to be eliminated at the end of each episode, he offers an inspirational proverb to whoever doesn’t make the cut. The competitors themselves are equally charming, with just enough heart to make you want to stick around to see who makes it through the finale.
We sat down with chef Morimoto ahead of the series’s June 16 premiere to talk about why it’s taken so long to get a cooking competition series focused on sushi, how his own experience as a competitor influenced his time on the show, and how food TV has changed in the more than 20 years since he first stepped onto a set.
Eater: There are so many different types of cooking competition shows out there today. Why do you think it took this long for there to be a sushi competition show?
Masaharu Morimoto: Nobody wants to do this so far, so that’s why I want to. Chef Morimoto is the only chef in the world to do this. Japanese food, and sushi, is kind of difficult and mysterious. People think it has a lot of rules, and that it’s very difficult to make and difficult to eat. But my concept is breaking the rules of the sushi bar.
You have spent a lot of time as a contestant on shows like Iron Chef. Now that you’re a judge, which do you prefer?
Actually, both are stressful. I definitely don’t compete anymore, but I’m still faster than anybody. I turn 68 next week, and maybe people don’t want to see the 68-year-old hustle and sweat. On the judging side, my English skills and vocabulary can pressure me and bring stress, but people really wanted me to do it, so I tried. I think if I had fluent English, I might have several shows on TV. But I want to stay in the state of a chef — I’m not a TV talent.
You were a pretty tough judge on the Sushi Master contestants. Did that come naturally?
Actually, I want to say more and be more tough. But if I don’t have the vocabulary to say what I want to say, maybe I have to be quiet more. And look scary.
Were there ever times that you wanted to jump in and help them?
In this series, we didn’t have a script, so everything was real. Sometimes you see that they aren’t showing enough skill, and that’s when I have to say something more strongly. I was so happy because the competitors did a great job, but we didn’t have to be fake with each other to make sure that the knife skills and the presentation kept getting better every time.
What do you hope the audience learns about sushi — and sushi chefs — from watching Sushi Master?
Even in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Miami there are still a lot of people who don’t want to eat raw fish. I want to make eating sushi, and making sushi, normal. People can realize “oh, I have a sushi restaurant in my town,” and go there to eat and make friends with a sushi chef. And then, people can maybe try it at home. Instead of the barbecue on the weekend, let’s have a sushi party. Let’s make a hand roll party. Let’s copy that dish we saw on Chef Morimoto’s show. If I can help with that through this program, I’m going to be very happy.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.