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"Nuge kinda crazy," says Yamamoto. "In Japanese, they say 'kuru-kuru-paa.' You see that film March of the Penguins? Remember how mother go get food to eat, then walk a long way back to ice where father keep nest? We lie on slope, fire on mother penguin as they walk back. Nuge, he shoot flaming arrow at one penguin, and scare many away. Penguin explode, they have so much oil in body. He run down and eat it right there, while still on arrow! He can't wait, he so hungry for penguin."
Yamamoto says this happened last year. There's no way for me to verify all this, of course. Attempts to reach the right-wing rocker were unsuccessful, and his publicist insists he's busy rehearsing for his "Wildman Wango Tango" tour of Asia later this summer.
Arizona shock-rocker Alice Cooper, however, was easier to reach. The avid golfer and born-again Christian, who owns the successful sports bar Alice Cooper'stown in downtown Phoenix, hailed Yamamoto's culinary skills, and said that he and Nugent had dined many times together at the Phoenix Country Club, with Yamamoto taking over the kitchen for the night. Cooper has heard good things about Yamamoto's penguin from Nugent, but has yet to sample the frozen-tundra-lovin' fowl himself.
"I did eat Kaz's walrus fillet once, with some sort of sherry glaze, I think," recounts Cooper, then kidding a bit. "Outstanding. Much better than the time I bit the head off that chicken onstage back in the '70s."
Cooper then offered a Biblical rationalization of Yamamoto's extreme cuisine:
"After the flood, God told Noah in Genesis, Chapter 9, verse 3, that 'every living thing that moveth shall be meat for you,' and I suppose 'every moving thing' includes walruses and penguins. According to the Bible, it's all here for man's nourishment. So there's nothing morally wrong with what Kaz is doing."
Whether or not the Lord approves, national and international laws are quite clear regarding the Antarctic's emperor penguins. Hunting of any species native to Antarctica is illegal under both the Antarctic Treaty System, which 45 countries including Russia, China and the United States have signed, and the federal government's Antarctic Conservation Act. However, several nations claim part of Antarctica as their own, such as Chile, Argentina and Australia. Yamamoto's hunting expeditions usually depart under the guise of scientific missions from one of these countries. Walruses? Protected under U.S. and Canadian law, with an exception for the Inuit tribes of Alaska and Canada. Yamamoto claims his walrus meat was obtained legally from an Eskimo family allowed to hunt the beast under these strictures.
Whether it's immoral or illegal, I can attest to the fact that Yamamoto does know how to cook a penguin. He leads me back to his immense, gleaming kitchen, pulls a defrosted carcass from the refrigerator and goes to work, using several knives, first one with a three-inch blade, then a series of smaller ones. It's a tad unnerving witnessing this beautiful Antarctic bird being dismembered before me. But soon Yamamoto is frying up its walnut-size brain in a Japanese omelet with shiitake mushrooms and heirloom tomatoes. The aroma soon has my tummy growling, and when the result is plated, I dig into it with relish. Magnificent! The stringy, penguin gray matter has the same texture of sliced, pickled chanterelles.
"Penguin is so deleeshus," states the chef. "And they so many penguin in South Pole. You go with me next time. I show you."
Quickly, the Nipponese cook is back in action, sautéing a breast of penguin in Grand Marnier, and adding assorted micro-greens and a drizzle of jus from his pan. We share this delicacy, literally neither fish nor fowl, which tastes to me a bit like frogs' legs, though I dare not make this comment to the chef, especially with knives about. By his estimation, what we're noshing is worth its weight in precious stones. Normally, he would prepare less generous pieces for the swells at his exclusive dinner parties. I'm sure Yamamoto is spoiling me because I'm writing a story about him. I confess I'm both flattered and a little taken aback. As a professionally adventurous eater, I'm ready and willing to try anything new and exotic. And yet penguins are such endearing animals that it's hard not to feel a little sad over seeing one so quickly dissected and fried up like a common barnyard hen.
As you might imagine, Yamamoto has a massive ego. Most of the Valley's great chefs are well-known, and attached to restaurants acclaimed in the local and national press: Elements' chef Beau MacMillan; Vincent Guerithault of Vincent's on Camelback; Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant; Tarbell's Mark Tarbell, to name the most famous. But the secrecy that has shrouded Yamamoto's activities has denied him the glory he so obviously craves. He makes no bones about it; this is why he gave New Times access to his world for this story.
"Christopher Gross, I wouldn't let him sous for me," sneers Yamamoto. "Tarbell not cook his own food in years. MacMillan is Iron Chef on TV?! Give me break. He never cook seal, I tell you."