Japanese culinary genius talks sushi, soy and Robert De Niro
Nobu the name and Nobu the man couldn’t be more different. The former is an empire of 30 restaurants that provide a backdrop to every self-respecting celebrity’s paparazzi pics; the latter is a diminutive, softly spoken Japanese man wearing a baggy T-shirt, combat trousers and New Balance trainers. There’s nothing remotely ‘celebrity’ about him, which is surprising: he’s mates with Robert De Niro and is responsible for what I’m calling the ‘glamourification’ of Japanese food – a revolution that has seen it become the cuisine of choice for the rich, famous and skinny. Nobu’s journey to the pinnacle of celebrity chefdom (Gordon Ramsay has The F Word, Nobu has a cameo in Scorsese’s Casino – go figure) was a combination of accident, hard luck and great talent. After learning his trade at Matsue Sushi in Tokyo for seven years, Nobu accepted the invitation of a Peruvian regular to abscond to Lima, Peru and set up a restaurant of the same name there.
‘It was a little bit of shock,’ chuckles the chef. ‘The Japanese eat a lot of raw fish, and I discovered they do the same in Peru. While the Japanese eat raw fish with soy sauce, the Peruvians eat raw fish marinated with lemon juice – called ceviche. It’s very similar, but completely different at the same time.’
The subtle similarities and the extreme differences between the two cuisines forced Nobu to improvise, experiment and ultimately forge his own unique style, which he carried with him to Buenos Aires, followed by an ill-fated dalliance in Alaska (his restaurant burned down shortly after opening), and finally LA, where he opened Matsuhisa and was subsequently discovered by a sushi-hungry De Niro. ‘He loves food,’ says Nobu of his old friend. ‘But he can’t cook. Well, I love cinema, but I can’t make movies.’
Los Angeles is home for Nobu – ‘It’s where my memories, my soul and my wife [of 49 years] are’ – though the notion of ‘home’ must be obscured by the 10 months a year he spends on a plane. So how much time does he spend in the kitchen? Perhaps not as much as he’d like, but he’s in Dubai on the back of a new vegetarian cookbook, which required extensive research. ‘With this new book, I was in the kitchen every day – we cooked, we tasted… it was exciting. Already my chef, Herve [Courtot, head chef of Nobu Dubai] has made three or four different dishes from this, so for the past three days I’ve been staying here and eating all my own dishes.’
The cookbook is particularly relevant considering Nobu Dubai has just opened its own chef’s garden, which will double as an exclusive al-fresco dining area and a place for Chef Herve to grow a modest crop of edamame and other Japanese veg.
Having brought the conversation around to Dubai, I ask Nobu where the restaurant fits into his global empire. ‘Dubai is in the top five Nobu restaurants in terms of the food,’ he replies without hesitation. ‘Herve is very passionate – he’s hungry, he wants to learn more. When I come here he asks a lot of questions. I stay in the kitchen with him and he can learn easily – he’s very smart! He has passion. Passion gives the team energy, passion makes happy customers.’
That the Dubai instalment of Nobu is one of the top five restaurants, according to the man himself, is not bad considering four of his restaurants have Michelin stars (Las Vegas, Los Angeles and two in London). When I point this out, he winces. ‘I’m not looking for Michelin stars, I’m not looking for titles – what’s most important is that customers come in, they’re smiling, they’re happy and they’re eating.’
Still, I’m interested to know what sets the Nobu restaurants in Las Vegas, LA, London, and Dubai apart from one another – after all, the menus are all but identical across the world. The difference, it seems, is the clientele. While the dishes may be the same, how they’re received from country to country varies wildly. ‘Our signature dishes have maybe 98 per cent the same taste across all of the restaurants,’ explains Nobu. ‘But take New York and London – we have the same menu, but the customers choose very different things. It’s about habit and culture. In London, [people] tend to like more spice – London is famous for its Indian restaurants, after all – and our Peruvian anticuchos [spicy marinated meats] appeal to their taste. Europeans tend to go for the stronger flavours [than in the States].’
But Nobu being Nobu is not content simply to talk flavour, which is why he suggests we head to the kitchen so he can better explain the concept behind some of his signature dishes. One thing that strikes me is how, by taking just a few steps behind the sushi counter, he seems to grow taller, and suddenly exudes a presence hitherto unseen. It’s clear this is where he’s truly at home.
Talking casually as he works, Nobu takes a razor-sharp knife and starts cutting ghostly-light slivers of yellowtail, which he then gently lays onto a narrow dish. ‘This is in the top three of my best-selling signature dishes,’ says the chef, referring to the hamachi jalapeño. ‘I was a guest chef in Hawaii and, after dinner was served, we made the staff some food. There was leftover yellowtail and some jalapeños, and I wondered what would happen if we put the two together. Then I added the soy sauce and the citrus. The result is very simple, maybe too simple, but I don’t like complications.’
As he narrates the story behind each signature dish in a soft murmur, making nimble knife-work of the yellowtail, the rest of the chefs look on in awe. After placing the last jalapeño ringlet on the fish, he douses the arrangement in soy and presents it to me. He’s made it look so effortless, and in many ways it is, though the combination of flavours and textures amount to so much more than appears on the plate in front of me.
The next dish – a tiradito, aka raw fish dish, made with a rocoto (a Peruvian pepper) – is bathed in lemon juice and yuzu juice (a Japanese citrus). He says the Peruvians marinate their fish for hours in lemon, until the acidity turns it white, although he says it’s not necessary to marinate this fish for quite as long, because it’s fresh. Instead he allows the ceviche to marinate for maybe one or two minutes, before embellishing it with a solitary leaf of coriander, an angry red spot of rocoto purée and a sprinkling of what almost looks like brown sugar. Confused, I glance up at him with a questioning look – a reaction he’d clearly been waiting for.
‘This,’ he says proudly, ‘is my new product: soy sauce-flavoured salt. Everyone thinks of soy sauce as a liquid, so I thought: how about making a dry soy sauce? Not only does it look different, it gives a different texture, but is still soy.’ The salt almost has a caramel aftertaste, which works wonderfully with the spicy rocoto, fragrant coriander and soft ceviche.
Nobu has also played around with miso, another key Japanese ingredient, which he works into a baby spinach salad, with generous dashes of olive oil and truffle oil, a sprinkling of fresh parmesan and slices of Mauritian palm heart. The crunch of the miso lends a distinct oriental taste to the salad, but the truffle oil and parmesan hint at a more European grounding. Of course, this is where Nobu’s genius lies, in his ability to serve faultless Japanese food that features subversive, playful twists, whether they’re from Europe or the Americas.
A well-travelled worldliness comes across in his food, which makes me wonder whether he thinks all chefs should travel to improve themselves. He doesn’t – he thinks everyone should travel. And while travel may not be a luxury accessible to everyone, after tasting the evidence I’m just pleased Nobu is spending as much time on a plane as he is in the kitchen. Nobu Dubai’s Japanese Garden is now open for bookings; Nobu Matsuhisa’s new cookbook, Nobu’s Vegetarian Cookbook, will soon be available to buy for around Dhs80 at the restaurant. Nobu Dubai, Atlantis, www.nobu restaurants.com/dubai (04 426 2626)
Nobu’s Dubai picks
The Japanese chef comes to Dubai about twice a year, making an effort to visit a different restaurant each time he’s here. But which are his favourites? Kisaku Nobu has visited this Japanese venue in Deira more than once, and has been most impressed with the food. In fact, one of the chefs currently working at Kisaku was a student of Nobu’s Kyoto-based contemporary. Kisaku, Al Khaleej Palace Hotel, Deira (04 223 1000).
Pyongyang Okryu-gwan This hard-to-pronounce, hard-to-find North Korean restaurant is bizarrely authentic, with traditionally dressed North Korean waitresses and karaoke, and all proceeds go straight back to Pyongyang. Nobu’s observation: ‘It was very crazy. And very cheap!’ His countrymen will be pleased to know that he didn’t donate too much to Dear Leader’s glorious regime. Al Maktoum Road, Deira (04 298 1589).