We chat healthy eating, globetrotting and black cod with world-famous chef, Nobu
When you only need to go by one name, you know you’ve made it. Madonna, Cher, Sting, Bono, and Nobu all fall into this prestigious category. The others may be famous singers, but the Japanese maestro needs no introduction, so synonymous is he with Japanese food. Nobu Matsuhisa, to use his full name, has become a worldwide brand in his own right.
And now, aged 68, Nobu shows no signs of slowing down, spending ten months of the year globetrotting. When we meet, at his Dubai restaurant at Atlantis The Palm, he’s just flown in from London overnight.
“I’ll then fly from Dubai to Japan, then to Hong Kong, then to New York. Every month my schedule is like this,” he says. “Before I was in London, Moscow, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC…”
We’ve got jet lag just thinking about it, we tell him. “Jet lag is always my problem,” he laughs. “It was cold when I left London to come here, now it’s hot. My body is so confused.”
But living in Los Angeles, with more than 40 restaurants around the world (and seven hotels for good measure) there’s good reason he’s racking up so many air miles – he visits each restaurant to help update the menu a couple of times a year. Although Nobu uses as many local ingredients as he can and tweaks each menu to the region it’s in, there’s nothing dramatically different on menus around the world, as he doesn’t want flavours to “become confusing” or move to much away from the “Nobu style”.
What’s vital is good produce. And with all the food trends that come and go, Nobu’s dishes are here to stay, especially his world-famous black cod. Nobu himself can be credited with starting several of these trends. Setting up a restaurant in Peru when he was just 24 years old helped kick-start the mainstream popularity of Japanese-Peruvian cooking. Other trends are simpler, such as the rise of the simple green soy bean.
“Three years ago I started serving edamame hot. Before that, it was always a cold snack. Now it’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s the same with the black cod. Forty years ago it was 20 cents a pound in the US, now it’s more than ten dollars. Back then almost nobody used it. I thought it was good, and now, it’s all over the world,” he beams proudly.
“We marinate it in miso for three days so that it soaks in the flavour and becomes sweet. At the beginning, people didn’t know about it, but then they tried it and loved it. Then there was an article about Matsuhisa [his Beverly Hills restaurant] talking about Nobu’s black cod, saying it was Bob’s favourite food, and so people started wanting it more.”
By Bob, he’s referring to long-time friend and Hollywood star Robert De Niro, who loved the famous black cod so much he set up the restaurant chain Nobu with the chef, starting with a branch in New York in 1993.
Another trend Nobu is witnessing is the upturn in appetite for healthy food around the world, including more vegan and gluten-free dishes. “Japanese food is very low-calorie food, which is why it’s so popular,” he says.
Healthy food is key to Nobu, so much so that he has cut back on using sugar in his restaurants. “I stopped using sugar and replaced it with the monk fruit,” he says. “You know the monk fruit? It has zero calories. Zero. It’s still sweet but it has no calories, so we use it in sushi rice, desserts and mixed drinks.”
Nobu discovered this ingredient in Japan where hospitals wanted to reduce sugar intake for patients. “After three years, maybe, we’ll see it all around the world,” he says.
So being surrounded by food each and every day, what does a chef of Nobu’s standing like to eat? “I eat at Nobu’s as I hear he’s the best in the world,” he laughs. “No, I have no time to eat out so I eat at my own restaurants. But I like anything from noodles to caviar and truffles.”
Despite his reputation for high-end dining, he does also like simple foods, and “nothing too spicy or complicated”. And perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t cook at home – or not, when you consider all the travelling.
“Maybe once a year after Christmas and New Year when all my kids and grandchildren come to LA I’ll make sushi, but that’s it,” he says.
Family is important to Nobu, too, and despite having lived in LA for 35 years, he still goes back to Japan, a country he’s very proud of, regularly to see his grandchildren.
Things seem to be ramping up further, with a reported five more hotels in the pipeline. But after more than 40 years in the industry Nobu is a very humble man. “Always, I try my best,” he says smiling. “I’m very happy and proud of myself. People ask me to open all over the world. But I’m not looking for more, I like to go one by one. Passion is the most important thing to me. The most special moment for me is seeing diners eating and smiling – it’s lovely. I like to make people happy.”
And judging by the popularity of his dishes around the world, and here in Dubai, it’s safe to say he does just that. Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).