An interview with Chef Nobu in Dubai
Dubai; Sauntering into Nobu at Atlantis, I find the chef himself, Nobu(yuki) Matsuhisa standing behind his sushi counter grinning shyly as the camera clicks away for a publicity shoot. The grin turns into a slight giggle, as his team of chefs join in. Photo shoot abruptly over (the Japanese are ever so punctual), he walks over and we are introduced. He very politely takes my mug of sencha tea as we stroll to the private dining room for the interview. I am already in awe of his gentle, humble nature. After all this is Nobu, the Japanese celebrity chef who has amassed 29 restaurants in 25 cities, spanning five continents, earning a Michelin star each for three different restaurants, publishing six cookbooks, and now even consulting for Qatar Airways’ inflight meals. Here he tells FooDiva in his rather broken yet endearing English why he doesn’t care about Michelin, how his black cod miso dish became a global bestseller, and his rationale for blue fin tuna – the latter had me creaking…nearly.
- You talk about the importance of kokoro (heart) in cooking. Why? My father passed away when I was eight years old in a car accident and I therefore spent a lot of time growing up with my mother, my first mentor, who inspired me to cook with my heart – it makes it good for the people. My dream was a little strange, I wanted to be a sushi chef so my first job was in a sushi restaurant [in Tokyo]. Sliding doors, lots of energy, very expensive at the time. Now it’s everywhere, even in supermarkets. My second mentor was the chef there who taught me everything I know about fish, how to pick it up, how to slice it. That’s kokoro.
- When I travelled around Japan a couple of years ago, I came across restaurants specialising in one aspect of Japanese cuisine…sashimi, yakitori, teppenyaki…even to the extent of chicken, beef etc. Yet internationally, Japanese restaurants, yours included, combine all of these experiences in one. Why has this concept not been globalised? Is it for commercial reasons? In Japan I studied only in sushi restaurants, but then I moved to Peru and opened a restaurant with my partners combining Japanese food with Peruvian influences like ceviche, anticuchos, arroz compoyo. In Japan, sashimi is served with soya sauce and wasabi. In Peru, it’s with lemon juice, chilli paste, onions and cilantro – a completely different way. Cooking is more like freedom. In Argentina and Alaska I learnt more. Then I finally opened my own restaurant in LA  with a lot of international customers. My experience tells me that people come to restaurants to feel comfortable so we have to give them choice. So this is my concept…beef, noodles, vegetables [different ingredients] with a Nobu twist and taste.
- You were the first to introduce the black cod miso dish setting a trend that every Japanese restaurant around the world has since copied. What brought you to create this dish? Did you know it would be a runaway success? In LA, I was using [the likes of] yellowtail and salmon but was looking for a different fish. I went to the market and saw the black cod which I knew from Japan but no one knew it in America. It was frozen from Alaska and very cheap. At the time 30-40 cents a pound – now it’s US$16-20 per pound! I blended miso paste, sake, mirin, sugar and marinated it for three days. Americans loved this texture, soft and sweet. The black cod recipe is in my cookbooks which people can copy, but no one can copy my heart.
- I was told in Japan that it wasn’t correct etiquette to dip wasabi in soya sauce but should be eaten separately. Is that correct? And what about the ginger combo? In Japanese culture yes and what my mentor taught me – we put fresh wasabi on top of sashimi, then dip it in soya sauce and eat it. That’s because it kills the fish bacteria and why the Japanese eat it like that. Ginger should be combined with certain fish, like shiny fish, sardines or mackerel. Or in winter with crab to wake up the body temperature.
- What are your thoughts on traditional wine pairing with Japanese food rather than sake? I don’t mind. I have my favourite wine and sake. It depends on my feeling, my heart, my kokoro – how tired or awake I am, whether I want to slow down or not.
- You have now branched out into hotels with Las Vegas, Riyadh and Bahrain on the cards. Why? Any more Nobu restaurants planned in this region? It was my business partner, Roberto de Niro’s idea to open hotels as he already has his own. Our first Nobu hotel will open in Las Vegas around Christmas with a Nobu restaurant. Our second Nobu hotel will be in Riyadh and will include a restaurant, opening next year in August/ September. Bahrain, I don’t think so. Larry Ellison of Oracle bought an island in Hawaii, Lanai, with two beautiful hotels one of which is a Four Seasons with a Nobu restaurant opening at the end of the year. Next year, Nobu restaurants will open in Monte Carlo, Singapore and Doha (Four Seasons). In Abu Dhabi, we’re talking, but nothing signed yet.
- Your three restaurants in London, New York and Las Vegas each have a Michelin star – do you think Dubai is ready for Michelin? I am not too fussed about Michelin. Many of my restaurants are not Michelin type – they are noisy with big crowds. Michelin is prestigious but a lot of chefs do business looking for Michelin – not me because people come to my restaurants to enjoy themselves. 300 – 400 people a night. I think [Dubai is ready] because the restaurant scene has improved since I first time came to Dubai 12 years ago when the taps only produced hot water! The supply of produce is extensive now, plus the clientele is international and very sophisticated.
- What is your policy for sourcing seafood? Why do you continue to serve blue fin tuna considering it is overfished? I grew up in Japan – all people eat fish. I know how to catch, eat and sell fish. With Japanese technology, we use it all, we do not trash it. I buy fish from a supplier, I don’t catch it myself. I do nothing illegal.
- Given how many restaurants you have around the world and the buying power you have, do you not think that if you were to stop buying blue fin tuna as an example, you would put pressure on suppliers and therefore fisheries to stop fishing it? If the government said don’t use this fish I won’t. I follow the government and we have a license. We buy it from the fish companies, there’s nothing illegal.
- Your Wagyu beef is now supplied from Australia’s Blackmore farm given the restrictions on importing Kobe beef as a result of the Fukushima incident. But what are your thoughts on blue fin tuna’s radioactive nature? Again I have to trust the government in Japan. Each product is tested for radiation, and again in the US by the FDA, so it’s double checked. We also have the certificate and can prove it to a customer. [But to clarify] our blue fin tuna currently on the menu here is farmed tuna.
Luckily for FooDiva, Nobu responded to these latter rather sensitive questions with the utmost grace, showing none of the fist stamping he’s been known to wield. And whether you agree or disagree, one thing’s for sure he’s a genuinely passionate gent of a chef. You can read more on my seafood sustainability thoughts in this month’s The Pro Chef Middle East magazine.
Oh and itadakimasu!
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