From the archive: Shinji Muramoto, the first chef of the year

Dan Curd featured Muramoto in October 2007

Editor’s note: In celebration of Madison Magazine’s 40th anniversary, the magazine is republishing a story each month from the archive. In honor of our special Chef’s Issue (which will be published Thursday), we’re looking back at the very first Madison Magazine Chef of the Year: Shinji Muramoto. The article first appeared in October 2007 and was written by Dan Curd, the magazine’s longest-running food writer.

As a boy in Sapporo, Japan, Shinji Muramoto never wanted to be a chef. Even though his dad was an avid gourmet, Shinji wasn’t interested in cooking. When he was nineteen, he took his first job in a restaurant, first as a dishwasher, then as a prep cook learning how to proficiently handle a knife. Three years later he came to Madison to pursue a business major at Edgewood College, when a friend begged him to help out by working part-time at Wasabi, the Japanese restaurant on State Street. It turned out Shinji had an uncanny talent for making sushi. It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s owner enticed him into working full-time with the promise of a green card. Shinji now had a new ambition: to run his own restaurant. It’s been almost four years since he opened Restaurant Muramoto on King Street. Recently, Shinji opened a second restaurant, Sushi Muramoto at Hilldale. As it turns out, this is but the next step toward realizing a much bigger ambition.From the archive: Shinji Muramoto, the first chef of the year

The Interview:

Why did you open a second restaurant?
From the beginning, I wanted to open different ideas for specific restaurants maybe six different restaurants. I have six different ideas for specific restaurants and this is only the second. I have a plan.

What is restaurant number three going to be?
Do I have to tell? (Laughs.)
No. I better not.

What’s your favorite kitchen gadget … something you can’t live without?
My knife, actually three knives. I have more knives but I only use three.

What do you think is the most underrated spice or seasoning?
I use a Japanese green chile a lot. I use it as a paste in all kinds of stuff. It’s widely used in Japan and I’m surprised it’s not more popular here. I like spicy food, but you find yourself wanting more and more spice and that’s what ruins the taste.

You are widely regarded for using exotic ingredients to create intensely flavored food. If you only had three ingredients to use, what would they be?
Soy sauce, sake and mirin … all Japanese ingredients.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?
I only look at the pictures… I never the recipes.

What item in your home refrigerator would you most like to keep secret?
My refrigerator is empty. I don’t have time to cook at home. I eat a lot of ramen noodles.

For two years running, you’ve won the Dueling Chefs competition at the Madison Food & Wine Show. How do you prepare for this event?
I took three different approaches. The first year I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had no idea.

You came in second the first year?
Yes. So, I didn’t prepare the first year. The second year, now I knew, so my assistant and I made a list of all the possible ingredients we might have to use. Let’s say, if chicken was the mystery ingredient, we knew how we were going to cook it. If it was beef, we knew what we were going to do. (Laughs.) I didn’t get anything on my list. First time we got wild mushrooms; then all kinds of peppers. For the final heat it was walleye and beer. So, the next year … last year, I didn’t prepare anything. But you won anyway.

Why do you think you won?
It’s impossible to know what the ingredients will be, but the type of cooking I do gives me an advantage. In Asian cooking in general, you don’t take time to prepare.

It’s more spontaneous?
Yeah. On the other hand, if you look at French cooking, it’s such a time consuming job. The meal itself is several courses and takes three or four hours to make. You have to prepare a lot ahead of time. But at Dueling Chefs you have to make two courses and you have to make each dish pretty quick… like Asian cooking where basically when you get the order you make it from scratch. That’s my advantage. Second, both of my restaurants have open kitchens so we’re use to cooking in front of the customer. We’re used to people watching us, but I saw some cooks at Dueling Chefs that freaked out because two hundred people were watching them. The other reason is … I don’t like cooking very much, but most interesting is combining ingredients … trying something new.

Being creative?
Yes. That’s something I enjoy.

Sushi is the New Sandwich

Traditionally, sushi is short-grain rice prepared with vinegar and sugar, rolled around seafood (often uncooked fish) and wrapped in dried and pressed seaweed called nori. Chef Muramoto credits the California roll–the first reverse roll with rice on the outside instead of nori–with making sushi appetizing in the U.S.

“In the sixties and seventies, Americans weren’t used to eating anything black. Turning the roll inside out hid the seaweed. It was an ingenious idea.”

In 1985 when Molly Ringwald ate sushi on-screen in The Breakfast Club, few in the audience had ever sampled it. According to the National Restaurant Association, the demand for sushi has increased by forty percent in the past five years. Today you can pick it up at the local supermarket.

But the phenomenon of sushi’s popularity is worldwide, resulting in a serious shrinking in the supply of one of its most popular ingredients, high-grade tuna. Ironically, pricey and prized Bluefin tuna belly was once despised by the Japanese and considered not fit to eat. Whether out of necessity or invention, many chefs have now begun experimenting with unorthodox seafood substitutes such as duck breast, beef tenderloin and even venison.

Chef Muramoto’s Etiquette Tips:

1.) Eat at the bar and watch the chef prepare your roll.
2.) Forget the chopsticks: Use your fingers, that way the chef can pack the roll loosely.
3.) Don’t slather on too much soy sauce or wasabi. You should also savor the sauce served with the sushi