Words of culinary advice from an Iron Chef needn't be taken with a grain of salt.
So it was when executive chef and partner of Manhattan Beach's Sashi Sushi + Sake Lounge Makoto Okuwa accepted guidance from his colleague and mentor, Iron Chef Morimoto, before being sent into Kitchen Stadium for his first experience as a challenger on Iron Chef America.
"Don't try and do too much; don't over do it," Morimoto told Okuwa. "Simplify."
Okuwa is no stranger to Kitchen Stadium, the kitchen arena where star chefs compete for the coveted Iron Chef title on the Food Network hit show; he had been there 13 times already as a sous chef. This knowledge of the kitchen's set-up was a major asset for him going in this time as challenger, and undoubtedly helped him to simplify the process a great deal.
Still, while Okuwa's first experience on Iron Chef as sous chef was "a huge amount of pressure," heading his own team to face off against Iron Chef Michael Symon was no piece of cake, even with his intimate kitchen knowledge. The experience as challenger was "completely different," he said. "When you are the competitor you are the first line of defense—you have no protection," said Okuwa with a laugh.
Luckily for Okuwa, the frantic pace of the timed Iron Chef competition is a familiar, everyday feeling, and "quite often" the tempo in the Sashi kitchen feels just like that of the competition. "Sashi is very busy and I always feel the pressure for every dish to come out perfect," says Okuwa.
In that drive for perfection in the kitchen, Okuwa, in harmony with Morimoto's advice, focuses on the basics: fresh ingredients. Okuwa calls fresh ingredients his main inspiration in the kitchen, and describes his food and dining philosophy by way of a traditional Japanese saying: "The gift of the season." Says Okuwa, "I love utilizing in-season ingredients and making them the star of dishes. I frequent local farmers markets collecting seasonal ingredients from the locals. I am committed to using organic products whenever possible."
For a sushi chef whose kitchen credo revolves around fresh ingredients, the Iron Chef challenge—which involves creating a dish on the fly based on a mystery ingredient revealed at the last moment—is quite the test. In his dishes at Sashi, "I love miso and curries," says Okuwa. In regards to the challenge, Chef Okuwa declined to disclose any dreaded mystery ingredient, but his dream ingredient? No surprise there: "Any type of fish, since that is my specialty."
In celebration of his appearance on the show, which airs tonight, Okuwa is hosting a private dinner and viewing of his Iron Chef challenge at Sashi, complete with a six-course tasting menu prepared live by Okuwa, Morimoto and four other celebrity chefs and friends, including Top Chef Champion Michael Voltaggio, whose restaurant The Dining Room at The Langham Okuwa names as one of his favorite places to eat in Los Angeles, along with Sashi's neighbor in Manhattan Beach, Petros Restaurant.
Finally, for the man who describes his style in one word as "whimsical," the question we all want the answer to: Who wins? No comment from Chef Okuwa on that one; you'll have to watch to find out.
Catch Chef Okuwa's challenge of Iron Chef Symon on the Food Network's Iron Chef America Thursday, July 8 at 8 p.m. For dinner reservations at Sashi, call 310-545-0400.