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Stephen Starr & Masaharu Morimoto

by Matt DeLucia

Masaharu Morimoto

Last month, the American national baseball team learned a thing or two on the baseball diamond. The Japanese national team beat us at our own game and won the World Baseball Classic title, thanks in large part to the play of Japanese baseball hero Ichiro Suzuki. There were few Japanese baseball fans happier with the outcome than Masaharu Morimoto, whose aspirations to be a professional baseball catcher early in his life ended with an arm injury. Fortunately, this forced him to go with his backup career choice: as a sushi chef in Hiroshima. After booking a round-trip ticket around the United States that ended up being a one-way ticket to New York, he played a bit in amateur leagues throughout the city before success finally arrived, and took that away from him as well.

“Sometimes I go to the batting cage with my mentor who is 18 years old, and I try to hit the ball. My mind says to hit it, but my body is 51, so you know - I can’t!”

Mr. Morimoto is more animated talking about baseball than at any time in our interview, and I wonder if I should have led off with a few more baseball questions. Because of the language barrier – dedicated Iron Chef fans already know that Morimoto’s English is a bit spotty – our interview started off quiet until we brought up his other passion – food.

Anyone who has ever met both Mr. Morimoto and his boss Stephen Starr would be struck by how seemingly opposite they are in personality. Morimoto laughs easily and seems to be naturally shy at first, but grows more comfortable and gregarious over time. Whether he is greeting a stranger or stopping to speak to a staff member, he seems incredibly focused on that one task no matter how mundane, an ability that also serves him well when he is focused on cooking. Mr. Starr is personable and outgoing from the get-go, yet he seems to always be thinking of five or six things at once - because he probably is.

When the Starr Restaurant Group (SRO) was looking to open its first Japanese restaurant in the company’s home base of Philadelphia, Starr was not looking for a star chef. He was introduced to Morimoto through a headhunter in San Francisco, who had called Mr. Morimoto when he was still at Nobu and told him that “Stephen Starr is looking for a chef and I have to really meet him,” Morimoto recalls. Their first meeting at the Mercer hotel did not go very well. Morimoto was already well-known from his work at Nobu, and he was not interested in being just one of Starr’s chefs. “He asked me to become a chef and I said, ‘No, no, no. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be just a chef,’” said Mr. Morimoto. At the time, Mr. Starr was not interested in relinquishing partial ownership in the new venture.

“I didn’t even know who the Iron Chef was at that point,” said Starr. “He didn’t want a job, he wanted an investor, and I told him ‘not interested’ and that was it. Then I started hearing about this Iron Chef thing, so I called him back and said I wanted to do Philly. He said, ‘I want to do New York.’ I said, ‘Well let’s do Philly and then we’ll do New York after.’”

Giving Mr. Morimoto part ownership was a wise business move for Starr, who also had to promise the strong-willed Iron Chef a future opening in New York as part of their deal together. It didn’t take long for Chef Morimoto to become SRO’s shining star, and at the same time he became a favorite among the Philadelphia food press. The main attraction was the chefs tasting, or “omakase”, a series of courses selected by the kitchen. While this was an extremely expensive option compared to other fine dining options in Philadelphia (currently $120 in both locations), it quickly became known as the best way to experience the chef’s genius. In the New York restaurant, much of the menu has been updated from Philadelphia, but the omakase continues to be the biggest crowd-pleaser.

“I set up this menu to be fixed, so I am not going to change it a lot unless something changes seasonally,” says Chef Morimoto. “But my main thing is the tasting menu every week. If you eat here today, maybe tomorrow it will change. More than 30 percent of our sales are from the tasting menu.” One New York blogger/writer recently wrote about ordering the omakase eight evenings in a row, and he never received the same dish twice.

Although experienced New York fine-diners are not exactly unaccustomed to elaborately decorated multi-million dollar restaurants designed by internationally renowned architects, stepping into Morimoto will impress even the most jaded visitors with its beauty and comfort.

“It’s probably my best talent,” said Starr, “I know who to use. It’s like being the coach of a team. I know what player to put in for what game or what play to call. Mexican? David Rockwell. Something like Buddakan? Christian Liaigre. Then for Morimoto, it was very stereotypical, so let me get the greatest Japanese architect in the world with one of the greatest Japanese chefs, and put them together.

The designer whom Starr is referring to is Tadao Ando, a 65 year old Japanese designer whose many architectural design awards (including the 2002 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal award, the AIA’s highest individual honor) would fill up a large part of Morimoto’s 12,000 square feet. He is known for creating masterpieces and utilizing concrete and the creative use of light, and if one was to take a quick look at Mr. Ando’s incredibly diverse body of work and then walk into this 10th Avenue restaurant, one would see instantly Ando’s artistic touch. It doesn’t take an architectural genius to recognize how stunningly beautiful Morimoto is. And the sense of theatre is present as well, which shows Mr. Starr’s influence. Mr. Morimoto had only a handful of personal requests regarding the design, which began with the long red noren curtain at the entrance. “The noren is the symbol of a restaurant. When the noren is up, it means that the restaurant is open. I asked him for the biggest noren in the world. What I also wanted was a beautiful kitchen surrounding the sushi and omakase counters that would be like a stage. Then I wanted one more thing; I asked for a nice toilet,” the chef says with a laugh, referring to the restrooms that were designed with super-automated toilets.

Most of reviews for Morimoto were extremely positive, but two negative reviews, first by a blogger named Andrea Strong and then followed by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni, were oddly similar. Both writers made it clear they were upset by quotes attributed to Mr. Starr in the press (Bruni mentioned it in his blog), as if his remarks were so offensive that it somehow made the restaurant they were reviewing less appealing. Even more troubling was that both writers skipped Morimoto’s famous omakase tasting menu. Mr. Morimoto took it in stride though, and although his mantra has always been that he will always do things his way (he has never trained in a culinary school), don’t expect him to change the way he cooks because of one or two critics.

“Just like I am not doing Iron Chef for judges, I am also not doing this business for reviewers. But still, that was very important to me (The Times review), and I was shocked. I was also disappointed that Mr. Bruni didn’t experience the omakase or sushi bar, since these are critical parts of the restaurant and both are a very large part of our business. I would like every critic to experience and understand these things.”

It’s likely that having people understand his cuisine is something that will come with time, something that Mr. Morimoto has plenty of. He realizes that the first six months are critical to a restaurant that is looking to remain successful over five or ten years. But for those Morimoto fans who are worried that the Iron Chef is only in Manhattan temporarily and will soon head back to the city of Brotherly Love, fear not. He has roots here that go back nearly 20 years.

“I have had an apartment here since ’87, and when I went to Philly I got an apartment by myself. But my wife and my dog are here because my apartment in Philly won’t allow pets, so my wife doesn’t want to come there.”

So as long as the Morimoto family dog is safe (no word on his age), his Philadelphia apartment complex remains non-dog friendly, and New Yorkers continue to make up their own minds about what food they like, we should be enjoying the exceptional cooking of Masaharu Morimoto on Tenth Avenue for many years to come.

Stephen Starr

Stephen StarrIf there’s one thing I’m fairly certain of, it’s that people love to read about other people. We’re tempted at the checkout line and the bookstore, by the Post on the train, and by the Times at breakfast. We absorb the facts and digest the quotes, and grind the information into a large boiling pot, where it’s stirred by our sensibilities and our prejudices. The result can sometimes be a soupy mess of misconception, yet it somehow ultimately leads to a yearning for more.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from my interview with Stephen Starr. I did my best to familiarize myself with the Philadelphia restaurateur, dutifully scouring through newspapers and magazines and reading what I could from the usual suspects of rags, mags, and Googles. The story that took shape was of a man who had the resources (and was brave enough) to open two Manhattan restaurants within a few months of each other, Morimoto and Buddakan, and who until recently was not a very well-known figure in New York. Before long an image began to materialize, and I began to see a muscle-bound guy from New Jersey who works out fanatically, and an entrepreneur with a knack for PR who made his mark promoting rock stars. I read more about how he talks a big game, and because of his hands-on perfectionist nature he can sometimes be brash to his staff. Soon I began to realize that what I was reading was mostly well-written fluff, and in reality it told me next to nothing about the man himself. Taken together, the potpourri of articles began to portray Starr as a black-suited WWF star who yelled at his staff and was prone to bragging about his restaurants, and if you didn’t agree with him he’d be happy to step into the ring with you and take you down with a no-mercy double body slam. Mercifully, I stopped reading and let my interview be the judge.

The Stephen Starr I met was an entrepreneur who is still nervous about failing, still mindful of the times he spent with no job or money, still holding on to a childhood spent hustling to get by. Over the past ten years, he has almost single-handedly rejuvenated Philadelphia’s restaurant scene, with 12 distinct restaurants scattered throughout the city. Bon Appétit named him the 2005 “Restaurateur of the Year” for good reason. But after absorbing all the press the man has received over the past few months, I think I gleaned something interesting from the seemingly incongruous tidbits of published comments. And we may as well get this one thing over with; Stephen Starr is a genius. For the non-believers amongst us, a pop quiz.

1. During an interview with Florence Fabricant, Starr said “Morimoto is going to be far more interesting than any restaurant New York has seen.” Mr. Starr said this because:

a. He believes that Morimoto will be far more interesting than any restaurant New York has seen.

b. It was taken out of context – he was actually discussing the restaurant’s amazing toilets.

c. He knew that this statement would cause the inner sanctum of food writers in New York to implode, thus creating the kind of PR buzz that is priceless to restaurateurs.

2. In an interview with Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post, Starr was quoted as saying “The last really incredible openings in New York were probably Balthazar and Asia de Cuba (in ’96 and ’97),” a quote that Ms. Fabricant reworded in her article as “there have not been any really incredible openings in New York in almost 10 years.” Whatever it was that Mr. Starr really said, he said because:

a. He really couldn’t think of any new restaurants more incredible than Morimoto and Buddakan.

b. Mr. Cuozzo changed the context of the statement to sell more newspapers.

c. He knew that this statement would cause the inner sanctum of food writers in New York to implode, thus creating the kind of PR buzz that is priceless to restaurateurs.

Since most everyone hates quizzes, we can stop now. But if anyone is keeping score, the answers are both “c.” If anyone is keeping score a different way, after several months in business, both of Starr’s restaurants continue to fill an impressive amount of seats every night despite mixed reviews from Manhattan’s fussy critics. Even though the PR man in Starr must have been elated by some of this controversy, he still felt obliged to clarify a few things during our interview.

“In some of the advanced press that I’ve gotten,” Starr said, “I think some of my words were sort of manipulated for sensationalist purposes to make it sound as if I was this arrogant, brash guy that’s going to come in and think he’s better, or he’s going to take over New York. That’s not what I ever said. I am incredibly nervous and humbled by New York, but confident in myself and my company’s abilities. I remember one reporter asking me, ‘Aren’t you concerned about coming into the meat packing district with all the competition there,’ and what I said is, ‘I’m concerned with competition but I don’t really think that the competition in the meat packing business restaurant-wise is that strong other than Jean George’s Spice Market,’ and that was manipulated into me saying that I don’t think the restaurants in New York are that good. They sensationalized it and I think other writers picked up on it and that was sort of the hook they were using. It wasn’t true, but it did garner lots of press. We’ve got a remarkable amount of press for someone new coming into New York.”

A remarkable amount of press indeed. It will never be proved if Starr’s remarks to the press were, at least some small way, the result of a carefully planned PR campaign. But even if it was not intentional, the buzz generated by his company’s entry into New York doesn’t seem to be dying down. And judging by his new projects in Atlantic City, his two new restaurants in New York are far from his last.

“I’m very exhausted by this. I own 14 restaurants and I’ve opened 6 of them in two years, and these are not little projects. I want to be able to have an infrastructure that’s even stronger than it is now where I don’t have to go to the restaurants all the time, because it’s too much. I am going to open in Miami in the right environment without putting up a lot of money. I want my landlords to put up the money. We are a tried and tested and proven commodity. God willing, New York continues to be good. So my new mantra is ‘Landlord puts up the money.’”

Mr. Starr may be tired, but he’s not allowing something as trivial as exhaustion to stop him. He has many other plans, such as taking his club-like restaurant concepts to Las Vegas and Miami and Atlantic City, in addition to adding to his growing empire in Philadelphia and New York. He also has other, smaller projects that are churning in his restless mind.

“I have a burger idea that I think would be great and I’ve got a couple of interesting ideas for smaller things, for smaller restaurants, more casual. I think they’re fun, especially this burger idea. Where do you go if you want a place that just sells hamburgers, all different kinds of hamburgers? Everyone has an opinion about what a hamburger should be; grilled, flat grilled, thin, big, the little hamburgers. And I want to do a hotel. Opening restaurants is like training at high altitude. A hotel would be easy compared to doing this. I want to do a hotel in New York; small, 100 big rooms, suites, spa, designed very tastefully. I think there is still a market here, an unending market.”

And I’m sure that if he builds one, Starr’s New York City hotel would be far more interesting than any New York has seen in...a while.

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