Starchef ICC 2012 – Masaharu Morimoto – The Legacy of Japanese Cuisine

Chef Masaharu Morimoto stunned the main-stage audience on Day 1 with his impressive disassembly of a Kindai Bluefin Tuna. I would wager that I was not alone in my discomfort which stemmed from seeing the endangered 240lb creature lying flat on its side on a cart, awaiting its fate at the hands of this master of Japanese cuisine. Indeed, much of the outrage surrounding the Bluefin population concerns the stock of wild Bluefin, which is ever diminishing as people continue to consume it. While Morimoto’s presentation was impressive as a demonstration of his skill as a butcher of fish, it was important as a public declaration of the moral permissibility of eating, and enjoying, Kindai Bluefin.

Many people, including myself, were unfamiliar with the concept of a Kindai tuna before the show began. This was the main reason for my concern, and, presumably, for the hesitant praise that the audience allowed Morimoto by the end of the presentation. The Iron Chef brought a representative from Kinki University, the academic center responsible for this tuna program, to explain exactly why this tuna is superior and more “conservation friendly” than most other farmed tuna and, of course, tuna brought in from the wild. 

The biggest issue that the Japanese take with farmed Bluefin is that the flavor is inferior to the real, wild-roaming creature. One of the goals of Kindai tuna is to reduce that flavor gap by raising the tuna in a proper environment and giving it enough time to mature. To be sure, this is an expensive endeavor; however, many would say it is worth the money if the product is excellent and less detrimental to the oceanic ecosystem.

The true goal of the Kindai project is to reduce pressures on wild Bluefin stocks. While most farmed tuna is corralled and subsequently raised on a ranch, Kindai tuna is raised from the egg to maturity. Although the eggs have to come from somewhere – wild tuna? Ranched tuna? Kindai tuna? – it is presumably better to remove an egg from the wild than a full-grown tuna. Or perhaps it is better to remove both.

While Morimoto and his companion seemed fully convinced of the value of the Kindai tuna, I am of the opinion that they did not fully convert a wary audience to their cause. This may be a result of the language barrier – I remember a few years back when Morimoto’s butchery* of a monkfish was met with great approval despite his imperfect English – however, I think the divide was a bit deeper than that. Despite it all, I applaud their attempt to save a “very important” part of Japanese cuisine in a conservation-friendly manner.

Morimoto also gave a more intimate demo in the Interactive Workshop room, on the making of sushi. Although it was informative and interesting to see how a Japanese master chef approaches this cultural mainstay, I feel that one would benefit just as much from watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which is available on Netflix. Morimoto’s work on the Kindai tuna was fascinating and informative, and, if the Kindai project is truly as sustainable as they say, vastly more important than his sushi demonstration.

*Sidenote: Contemporary use of the term ‘butcher’ has, for whatever reason, cast it in a negative light. Rather than refer to somebody who works hard and with precision, it far more frequently refers to somebody who has poorly executed a job they were assigned. I hope it is clear that I intended the proper, positive use of the term rather than what I have just described.

All photos by John M. Sconzo, M.D. To see more photos, click here for the Flick’r Photoset of Morimoto at StarChefs 2012


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5 Responses to Starchef ICC 2012 – Masaharu Morimoto – The Legacy of Japanese Cuisine

  1. Gerry Erchak says:

    Morimoto is well-known for disregarding the danger of overfishing certain species. He uses whatever he wants and whatever he can get. He is once chef worth boycotting.

    • docsconz says:

      Yet, this is an interesting conundrum, Gerry. Morimoto’s point is that this is a way towards sustainability. Had this been a wild caught bluefin, I and I hope the rest of the room would have left in protest. In theory, the Kindai program is very exciting.If it can reduce the predation on wild stocks enough to allow for regeneration of the species and still supply top kitchens with prized bluefin, it will be a marvelous success story. The main problem with it is that it still relies on getting its seed stock from wild bluefin. Time will tell.

  2. Sanders says:

    There’s actually very little that’s good about Kindai bluefin. Sure, it’s a little better than fishing wild bluefin, but it puts further pressure on other species (which, it being a full ecosystem, of course affects all species).

    You’ve got to feed other fish to the bluefin, the pens pollute a good amount, among many other problems. Would I eat it? Maybe. But I certainly wouldn’t say it’s that much more sustainable than wild bluefin.

    http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/kindai-tuna-–-a-poorly-designed-‘attempt’-at-sustainability/

    • docsconz says:

      Sanders, those are certainly legitimate concerns, however, Kindai is still and will likely continue to be an expensive product that will likely never be mainstream enough to exert tons of pressure on other species – no more than wild bluefin would if they existed in significant quantities. The scale is also likely to be much less than that of say, salmon farming, so I don’t think pollution is likely to be huge. If the end result is that the bluefin goes extinct anyway, than the program is not worth it. However, if it does help the bluefin survive as a species and regenerate, then I am all for it. That is not to say that continued work isn’t necessary to mitigate and minimize the problems that you have identified as well as others that may not yet be. It may not be the ideal sustainable program, but I’m not aware of any that are any better other than avoiding fishing the bluefin altogether, which I actually prefer.

  3. Sanders says:

    Good point. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever had bluefin tuna (at least knowingly). Certainly not any good quality bluefin.

    So if presented with the opportunity, and hopefully knowing how it was caught, I’d probably try wild bluefin. It’s a tough personal dilemma for me, for sure.

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