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'Morimoto's Sushi Master' is as tasty as reality TV cooking can get


This is FRESH AIR. The Roku Channel streaming service has premiered a new six-part reality TV competition show. Our TV critic David Bianculli - not a big fan of reality TV - really likes this one. It's called "Morimoto's Sushi Master." Here's David.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The only reality TV competition shows I like are the few that demand skill and showcase artistry and have an overall positive vibe to them. "The Great British Bake Off" show is one, and a brand-new one is about to be introduced from an unlikely source and about an unlikely subject. "Morimoto's Sushi Master" is a new six-part cooking competition from The Roku Channel. The host is Lyrica Okano, the young actress who played Nico on Marvel's "Runaways." Here's how she sets up the premise.


LYRICA OKANO: A food battle like no other, an ancient cuisine that's now a $4 billion global phenomenon - sushi, the definition of craft, expertise and artistry. But it's never had its own competition show until now. There's only one chef in the world who is expert enough - a world-renowned chef credited with popularizing sushi across the United States and the master of modern Japanese cuisine, chef Masaharu Morimoto.

BIANCULLI: Morimoto is the head judge, and he's also very active as a sort of roving co-host - roving, not raving like the hosts of many other TV cooking competitions. And while Morimoto speaks English at some points and Japanese at others, he's fully involved. As the contestants prepare their various dishes, Morimoto prowls around them with a smile, asking questions, raising eyebrows, offering encouragement and sampling ingredients. One time, after swallowing a spoonful of hand-brewed hot chili oil, he runs off the set very quickly to seek relief. And at the end of each episode, when chefs face elimination, he offers the loser not only an apology, but a Japanese proverb, which Lyrica then translates into English. One of my favorites, said to a losing chef - fall down seven times, get up eight.

Morimoto's sushi challenge is six episodes long. I've seen and enjoyed them all. And it starts with eight competing sushi chefs, one of whom is crowned at the end. There are celebrity chef judges and specific well-designed challenges - sushi can be cooked as well as raw - and each episode is patiently yet painlessly instructive. In one segment, the chefs must run and grab one type of seafood for their recipe while a guest judge, Dakota Weiss, explains the motives behind their split-second choices.


DAKOTA WEISS: All the proteins are so drastically different from each other. Frances chose fluke, which is very sweet and mild in taste. Lauren got the uni, which is a delicacy but difficult to break down because of the venomous spines. Michael chose aji, or horse mackerel, which is very fatty and rich-tasting. And Eric got the kinmedai, a type of snapper.

BIANCULLI: Even the contestants help explain things. One competing chef, Debbie, reveals why cutting sushi is harder than it may look.


DEBBIE LEE: There's a very specific way to cut sushi fish. No. 1, you must go against the grain. If you don't, you're going to get this chew and this thread in your mouth that you don't want to have. So it's not a matter of just slicing like you would a steak and putting it on a plate. There is some serious skill to be had.

BIANCULLI: We learn about these contestants slowly, with one backstory revealed each episode, but we watch their personalities and friendships develop quickly. When one chef, Michael, triumphs in an early sushi challenge, another contestant, Venoy, approaches Michael's cooking station afterward and asks to taste his winning rice. Michael smiles, raises his large sushi knife and shakes his head no. Venoy smiles back, but gets the message and backs away. And later, Michael reveals to the camera why winning in this particular contest means so much to him.


MICHAEL COLLANTES: My dream is to go all the way to the top. I started watching Morimoto on "Iron Chef." 2004, I wanted to do sushi. 2005, my first omakase was at Morimoto's restaurant - first one. This is real for me.

BIANCULLI: I guess this is real for me, too. I've been watching Morimoto on TV for a long time now. He became a celebrity chef as the last of three Japanese iron chefs on the classic long-running "Iron Chef" TV series, a wildly entertaining Japanese cooking competition show that started in 1993. A couple of local TV stations in New York and San Francisco began importing "Iron Chef" to the States a few years later and dubbed or subtitled bootleg episodes began making the rounds on VHS. Chris Spurgeon, who was a director for FRESH AIR then, slipped me some of those bootleg tapes, and I reviewed them for FRESH AIR in 1998. My rave review ended with this advice.

In America, cable TV's Food Network ought to snap up this show as a weekly series, then get busy making a domestic version of its own. Imagine a show where Emeril, Paul Prudhomme and Julia Child are the iron chefs and cooks from famous restaurants come on to challenge them. I'm telling you, I smell a hit, and it smells good.

A year later, in 1999, the Food Network did indeed start carrying "Iron Chef" and, in 2005 launched its own version called "Iron Chef America." And now, all these years later, Morimoto is back on TV. This time, though, he's at center stage with a new cooking competition show that once again makes the most of all the right ingredients. As with "Iron Chef," "Morimoto's Sushi Master" is as tasty as a cooking TV reality show can get.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University. He reviewed "Morimoto's Sushi Master" on the Roku Channel.


DAVIES: On Monday's show, Laura Dern talks about growing up in the movie world. Her parents are actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. And she'll talk about becoming an actress herself, starring in "Blue Velvet," "Jurassic Park," "Enlightened," "Big Little Lies" and winning an Oscar for "Marriage Story." Her new book is a series of conversations with her mother. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Charlie Kaier. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM BEARD'S "PRINCESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.