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Q & A with Chef Masaharu Morimoto

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t’s fair to say that no one in America (and perhaps the world) can cook Japanese food quite like Chef Masaharu Morimoto. The original Iron Chef & formerNobu chef is just as skilled at turning out traditional sushi and kaiseki meals as he is at Asian fusion.  (And it takes a lot for a chef to convince me of the merits of fusion.)  And yet, somehow whimsical creations, such as sashimi with burrata or a foie gras croissant with a soft duck egg and red miso achieve a level of brilliance. The Hiroshima-born culinary superstar went from being a bad boy, who used to sneak out a window to go downtown when he was an apprentice in Japan, to owning restaurants all over the world, everywhere from New York to New Delhi. While he no longer returns to Japan since he no longer has family there, Morimoto is one of several big-name chefs raising funds for the Red Cross relief efforts there.  Those who donate $10 or more will even receive a copy of some of his best recipes.  What did you want to be when you grew up? A professional baseball player.   Do you still play? And have you gotten to cook for any pro fessional ball players? Unfortunately, I no longer play. But yes, I have cooked for some Japanese major league players, such as a former Yankee Hideki Matsui, former Met Kaz Matsui, and non-Japanese players, such as Alex Rodriguez and many players on the Phillies.   What was your first job in food and what did you learn? I was fortunate enough to be a sushi chef at a sushi restaurant where I learned everything a sushi chef had to know. Training to be a sushi chef is notoriously difficult. Can you share any anecdotes that really tested your drive to succeed in the kitchen? When I was still an apprentice, I lived upstairs from the sushi restaurant. It’s a typical training life for sushi apprentices in Japan. Their entire life is spent at the restaurant. But I would sneak out of a window after midnight and go out to downtown areas almost every night. I would push a car from the restaurant’s parking lot without starting the engine, so that nobody would notice. Apprentices were not supposed to do anything like that and we were meant to only follow the restaurant’s rules.  I was a maverick from that point on. That part of me has never changed. I believe it has positively impacted my creativity.   It’s terrific that you’re contributing recipes to support Red Cross relief efforts in Japan. Chefs seem very quick to get involved in philanthropic activities. Why do you think that is? Chefs cook food for people.  Although our food doesn’t directly go to those who suffer in Japan, it goes to people who donate their money to buy the food, and the money goes to those who suffer.  We know and have the means to help others.   Many of your dishes are very complex.  How can home cooks adapt your recipes ?  Some of my recipes may be very difficult and complex for the home cook, but I hope they can learn something new and get ideas from my cookbook and restaurants that they can use in everyday food.   Can you offer any tips for people who want to make their own sushi as a hobby? Sharpen your knife before making sushi.   What’s the most important kitchen tool to own?  High-quality knives.   How often do you get to visit Japan? Do you still have a lot of family there? I rarely visit Japan because I don’t have many family members there.   Who has been the toughest competitor you’ve faced on Iron Chef?  Every chef has been a tough challenger. You’ve already accomplished so much, so how do you stay motivated to pursue new culinary aspirations?  The culinary world is so deep that there are always a lot of things for me to explore.   So what’s next for you this year? I’m opening a few restaurants this year; a couple of them don’t serve sushi. I’m excited to do something new. Address: 88 Tenth Avenue between 15th and 16th streets Phone: (212) 989-8883

Antonucci’s Cafe Reviewed Restaurant Girl

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hile the Upper East Side is a perfectly lovely place to live -- with plenty of great grocery stores, delivery options and old school Italian joints -- it isn’t exactly a dining destination. After all, dining out is entertainment, and like anything else, we all want to see the new hit movie, broadway show, or eat at the new, hot restaurant.  With the opening of Jean Georges’ The Mark and Cascabel Taqueria, the Upper East Side has certainly gotten better, but it’s still got quite a ways to go.  While it’s not my first choice, I’ve always been an open-minded eater, so I was happy to meet friends at a place they love called Antonucci’s Cafeon 81st Street, just off Third Avenue.   Now, I’ve lived in New York for over fifteen years and I’ve never heard of Antonucci’s, which is surprising considering I spend most waking hours thinking about food.  I assumed it would be good by uptown standards (I live uptown so I can say that) or even old school Italian standards, but not citywide foodie standards.   When I got to the entrance, I had deja vu of eating at the very same address when Butterfield 81 once occupied the space.  It was a rainy, chilly night, so I expected to find a half empty dining room, but the dining room was buzzing with what seemed to be a neighborhood crowd.   The owner, Francesco Antonucci, formerly owned and cooked at Remi’s, a popular northern Italian restaurant in midtown, before moving uptown to open this eponymously named restaurant.  Antonucci himself stands by the door greeting guests with news of a sweetbread special, tripe alla parmigiana, or grilled whole fish this evening.  The walls are curiously painted  pink and peppered with artwork, some of which looks rather expensive.  I’ve gotten so used to brand new restaurants with ambitious young chefs and chic decor that I sometimes forget about neighborhood warhorses, like Antonucci’s, that locals return to week after week.   It was a warm, welcome change and so was the breadbasket filled with long breadsticks, focaccia and flatbread.  The best part was the homemade ricotta encircled in a warm, sweet tomato sauce (pictured below) that accompanied the breadbasket.   Honestly, I could’ve spent the evening eating the ethereal ricotta with a big glass of wine and been content.  I’ve been to so many old school Italian joints that offer a couple wines by the glass and call it a day, but Antonucci’s has an impressive wine list with ten whites by the glass and ten reds by the glass.   We started with deep-fried arancini flecked with ham and mozzarella and, more importantly, fried squash blossoms stuffed with the same dreamy ricotta made in-house.  While it’s hard to reinvent calamari, Antonucci’s does just that with a stellar appetizer of seared calamari paired with a sharp pepper jelly and pistachio vinaigrette.  There’s a great chopped kale salad with salty ricotta and a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette and a grilled, whole orata, terrifically moist and fresh.  But the sauteed calves liver might just be the best liver dish I’ve had to date.  The livers were sauteed to succulent perfection and served with vinegary onions, which beautifully offset some of the fat, over parmesan-laced polenta..  (It was right up there with the bone marrow-braised octopus fusilli at Marea and April Bloomfield’s oyster pan roast with uni crostini.)  For dessert, we shared a banana souffle (pictured below) and warm molten cake.  While the molten cake was good in a generic, melting chocolate kind of way, the banana souffle was a phenomenal cloud of deliciousness. I’d happily go out of my way to eat there again. (In fact, I’m going for lunch this week.)  I still want to sample the braised tripe, steamed clams with homemade sweet sausage, and the daily risotto.  While Antonucci’s Cafe may not be new, it’s new to me and it’s well worth a visit... or two.  Address: 170 East 81 St., nr. Third Ave. Phone: (212)570-5100

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Q & A with Chef Masaharu Morimoto Antonucci’s Cafe - Reviewed

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