Around the world with Nobu
From celebrated chef to Japanese ambassador, we chat to Nobu Matsuhisa about his signature cuisine, celebrity fans and celebrating milestones, MiNDFOOD reports.
Around the world with Nobu
At each of the 19 Nobu restaurants that span the globe, the signature dishes look, taste and smell identical. And while Nobu Matsuhisa, the famous chef behind the Japanese restaurant chain, travels 10 months of the year visiting these restaurants, he says that it’s modern technology that makes the feat of maintaining consistency possible.
“We take photographs of the dishes and send detailed recipes, with intricate instructions and directions for the ingredients needed to make the dish. Digital photography, email and the internet makes this simple for us,” he says, admitting that ensuring uniformity in the dishes is actually one of the easier tasks in the running of the business. Such signature dishes include Black Cod with Miso, Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno and Toro Tartar with Caviar – his cuisine is a fusion of Japanese and South American. “Any new dishes depend on what ingredients or products I discover,” says Nobu. “I often go to the markets to see what is fresh and new and that inspires me to create a dish.”
Nobu says that the non-signature dishes on each city’s menu depends on climate and available produce. Currently there are Nobu restaurants in several locations, including Miami Beach, Mexico City, London, Melbourne, Tokyo and Dubai; with a view to opening more in Beijing, Doha (Qatar) and Budapest. Nobu and his family also privately own several ‘Matsuhisa’ restaurants around the world.
Nobu, who is credited for bringing sushi to the Western world and making it glamorous, boasts actor Robert De Niro as a business partner. De Niro was initially a diner at Nobu’s popular Beverley Hills restaurant Matsuhisa, which nobu opened in 1987. After several years and much pestering, De Niro finally convinced Nobu to join forces and launch a New York ‘Nobu’ restaurant. Opened in 1994, the place was an instant hit. Nobu describes De Niro as a “good partner and good friend who understands my philosophy”.
De Niro isn’t the only celebrity associated with Nobu and his restaurants. Each night a list of VIP guests, which has included Cindy Crawford, Kate Hudson and Boris Becker, is faxed to Nobu for his perusal. “I’m really happy to read about the guests that come to the restaurants. I would be thrilled to read that Barack Obama had come to one of my restaurants with his wife and daughters. To read that would be very exciting for me.”
Nobu was born in Saitama in 1949. Before settling in Los Angeles in the late 1980s, he lived in South America and Alaska, picking up culinary inspiration along the way. Ever since he was a child he was interested in venturing outside of Japan and seeing the world: “My father died when I was still young, and I had a photograph of him [taken] in Palau that inspired me to follow in his footsteps and see the outside world. So when the incredible opportunity of opening a restaurant in Lima, Peru was offered to me, I took it right away. That decision then led me to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alaska, and Los Angeles, and many new restaurants in different countries. I have now come full circle with a restaurant in Tokyo that I visit once a month, and a home in a picturesque place called Hakone [in Japan], which is famous for its natural springs,” he says.
In June 2009, Nobu received an award from the New York Japan Society for his contribution to Japanese cuisine. “I’m very proud of this achievement. To be recognised as an ambassador of Japan based in America is a true honour. I left Japan 27 years ago, so it was particularly special to be recognised for what I have done since leaving,” he says. Among the many accolades, which include several Zagat listings, Nobu was also awarded one Michelin star in 2008 for Nobu Las Vegas, where he serves as executive chef.
The success of Nobu’s restaurants means that he is no longer motivated by not wanting to fail. “What motivates me now is expanding and growing what I call the ‘Nobu family’,” he says. “I really enjoy inspiring and motivating our team and I like seeing the smiles on customers’ faces, whether they are coming to Nobu for the first time or the hundred-and-first time.”
The highlight of the job, he says, is seeing the excitement on a young chef’s face. “To me, educating the next generation of chefs is the best part of my job – it’s where I get the greatest satisfaction and joy.”
Last year, Nobu celebrated his 60th birthday with a feast in Japan. “This was a very memorable and special evening. We were in Tokyo and seven of the city’s best chefs cooked for me and I was surrounded by my whole family and 150 guests. It was a true celebration and it was great to have people cooking for me for once.”
Nobu will visit Melbourne in March for the Stars of America program of events that is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. “I’ll be in the kitchens of Nobu Melbourne, preparing a special sake dinner, and I’m really looking forward to it,” he says, cementing his philosophy that “cooking is my life”.
Dubai plays host to the first Nobu restaurant in the Middle East. Located at Atlantis the Palm, Palm Jumeirah, the restaurant is designed to emphasise craftsmanship and storytelling. Design features include three- dimensional woven abaca panels that surround the main dining room (pictured), creating an experience akin to being immersed under an ocean wave. The panels cascade from the ceiling to form uplit woven banquettes. A curved river rock wall and laser-cut metal screen of cherry blossoms mark the entry to the bar and lounge.
At flagship Nobu restaurant Fifty Seven, located in New York, water is the dominant theme of the space. The combination of calming design elements with exuberant architectural gestures captures the spirit of Nobu’s cooking. Guests enter through a portal of stacked walnut timbers as a transition from the frenzy of West 57th Street into the calmer world of Nobu. The thousands of abalone shells that make up the chandelier on the terrazzo floor, float like a school of fish and the giant Sake Tower sits as a totem in the bar.
Like the Nobu restaurants in Dubai and New York, the design of Nobu InterContinental Hong Kong, in Kowloon, is inspired by the ocean as well as the culture of the Japanese countryside. A ‘sea urchin ceiling’ gently ripples from the centre of the main dining room (pictured). The scorched-ash sushi bar with a glowing onyx base is nestled in a space clad in custom-made bamboo embedded terrazzo. The material frames the back-lit sushi bar and the sushi chef, thus creating a backdrop for the sushi chef’s performance as they prepare their cuisine.