Midway through his cooking demonstration Saturday at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine festival, celebrated chef Masaharu Morimoto was grating wasabi for a sushi dish.
"This is a lot of work," he said after a few seconds of labor. Then he turned to one of his sous chefs. "You do. I master chef!"
Morimoto blended self-effacing humor with playful exhibitions of ego during his hourlong presentation to a full-house crowd in a makeshift pavilion on the grounds of The Inn at Spanish Bay, time he shared with Frederic Panaiotis, chef de cave (cellar master) for Champagne Ruinart.
Morimoto showed his audience how to fillet and slice a gargantuan amberjack fish into itty-bitty squares for fish tacos. Panaiotis waxed philosophic about which wine-based beverages tasted great with that specific cuisine, and which were better left for a different type of meal.
The crowd sat riveted as they watched Morimoto deftly scale and de-bone, sprinkle a little of this, pour a little of that. And they marveled with equal appreciation when Panaiotis pulled a "cheap diamond pen" from his pocket and used it to scratch up the bottom of a wine glass, a tip to enhance the bubbling, and therefore the taste.
"The bubbles are so very important to the flavor. When the bubbles are formed and rise up to the top, they trap aromas," he said. "And when they break the surface — and this has been examined very recently with high-tech equipment — it's like a mini-spray.
"And how do you get bubbles in a glass that is not supposed to give you bubbles? You use a diamond pen and scratch the inside of the glass," he said.
Morimoto shook his head and pointed to the pen. "Zirconium," he confided to his doting audience.
Morimoto, who turns 58 next month, became famous on the Japanese version of the "Iron Chef" cooking show, and later its American spin-off.
He received practical training in sushi and traditional Kaiseki cuisine in Hiroshima, where he opened his own restaurant in 1980.
Five years later he sold that restaurant to travel around the U.S., a trip that influenced his fusion style of cuisine.
He established himself in some of Manhattan's top restaurants, including the Sony Club — the dining area for Sony Corp.'s executive staff and visiting VIPs, where he was executive chef — and the exclusive Japanese restaurant Nobu, where he was head chef.
He now has restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, Boca Raton, Fla., Napa Valley, Hawaii and Tokyo.
Morimoto's "Iron Chef" record of 16-7-1 inspired an audience member to ask who he considered his toughest challenger.
"Actually, I don't care who's coming," he blustered, prompting a big laugh from his audience. "I'm not cooking for the judge, I'm cooking for myself."
When another spectator wondered who had inspired him to become a chef, he didn't hesitate. "My mother," he said.
But not for the reasons you would think.
"Unfortunately, she was not a good cook, so eventually I wondered, 'How can I get good food?'" Morimoto said. "I should be a chef!"
Morimoto is part of an all-star lineup of celebrity chefs at the sixth annual festival. Sunday's events include "A Passion for Chocolate" with Jacques and Hasty Torres, "A Prestige Cuvee Tasting: Taittingher's 'Comtes de Champagne'" and "Secrets of a Sommelier: Blind Tasting Sparkling Wines," all at 10 a.m. The grand tasting begins at noon.
For information, see www.pbfw.com.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.