Legendary Japanese Chef Nobu: The Reluctant Pioneer

Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

Meeting Nobuyuki Matsuhisa – known to the world simply as “Nobu” – for a second time in Hong Kong (I first met him at the launch of Nobu Hong Kong in 2007), it’s hard not to broach the subject of newly awakened South America, specifically Havana. Would he consider opening there – a mere 45 minutes from Miami by private jet – ahead of the rush? “I don’t want to be a pioneer. I’m tired of being a pioneer. Do you know how hard it is?” It’s not that he doesn’t see what’s coming. Havana, he says, will be the next big thing. “Pioneer people often have to open markets, open connections – that’s why I don’t want to be there.” He pauses to reflect with the measure of a man who has been at the front line of culinary change for 30-odd years before adding: “Perhaps after a couple of years, depending on how much the economy is growing, if people start to live there. We’ll see.” Expect Nobu Havana circa 2018.

Nobu’s come full circle. It’s easy to forget just how trailblazing the Japanese chef’s culinary journey has been, particularly given the media obsession with molecular gastronomy and the rise of the food blogger. Yet Nobu has not been showered with the same accolades as Spaniard Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli, or Danish chef René Redzepi, of Noma.

Perhaps it’s a Europe/America thing. First it was Adrià, who made El Bulli the world’s best restaurant and then the beast he couldn’t tame, so he shut it. Now Redzepi has announced he will close Noma at the end of this year and reopen it as a farm, cooking not just what can be found locally but what can be grown on-site. Adrià is meanwhile throwing his culinary weight behind Peruvian food. Yet Nobu was there in the late 1970s, aged 24. He pioneered fusion food in Lima, long before it went mainstream. His sake-infused black cod with miso is now known globally, as is his yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño.

Nobu InterContinental Hong Kong opened in 2007

“Right now, Peruvian cuisine inspires Hong Kong, New York, London – it’s all over the world. I was there when Peruvian food was not popular in 1980. But I went, I learned how to cook some escabeche [poached or fried fish], using cilantro and garlic. I had a restaurant in Lima [it shut after three years due to disagreements with his local business partners], serving traditional sushi and tempura…and we started making escabeche. I combined traditional Japanese sashimi with Peruvian ingredients before I opened my restaurants,” says Nobu. Incidentally, NASA was also ahead of the pack – it’s been using Peruvian ingredients such as quinoa, kiwicha and maca in astronauts’ meals for 30 years.

It was a punt that paid off for Nobu and he now has 39 restaurants in 35 cities, with 33 under the name Nobu, and six under Matsuhisa. He plans to open Matsuhisa Paris this year or in 2017. He also has two Nobu hotels – an idea suggested by actor Robert De Niro – in Las Vegas, and one in Manila, at City of Dreams. Both were designed by David Rockwell, his long-time collaborator on the restaurant interiors. But his reach goes beyond restaurants and hotels. He is the author of seven cookbooks, an occasional film actor with roles in Casino (1995), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and has been part of ad campaigns for Gap, Callaway golf clubs, Illy coffee, Fiji Water and Rado watches. He consults for Crystal Cruises. And his preferred form of transport is a Dassault Falcon 900 private jet.

It all started with his first US restaurant Matsuhisa, which opened in Beverly Hills in 1987 and became a magnet for both food lovers and celebrities. There, he met De Niro, and at the actor’s urging they opened Nobu in New York City in 1994, with restaurateur Drew Nieporent. Like Matsuhisa, Nobu New York was a hit.

Sake-infused black cod with miso

But legends in the making need time to be understood, and not everyone succumbed to Nobu’s pioneering plates, least of all his Japanese customers. “When Matsuhisa opened in 1987, people said it wasn’t a Japanese restaurant,” he says. “So I told them it was Nobu style. In the beginning, nobody accepted my food.” He likens food to music, art and architecture, saying it takes disruptive thinking to open doors. “It starts when somebody gives a new idea to the world, and maybe my food was like that. A freedom to do Japanese with Peruvian ingredients. I used truffles, I used foie gras, I used olive oils. It was very free.”

Nobu and Adrià are good friends, though their philosophies vary. “I went to Spain to El Bulli with my daughter and Ferran picked us up at the airport. We were his test helpers, and we created some dishes with him. He also asked a lot of questions about my own style of cooking.” So, from one innovator to another, where does Nobu stand on Adrià’s molecular cuisine? “Molecular, or cooking with chemicals, is not my cuisine. I don’t want to use new technologies. I’m a grill, fry and oven man, not new-tech.”

And he’s also keen on art. Does he collect art? “I love it,” he beams. “One of my favourite Chinese artists is Wallace Chan,” he adds. “I also like KAWS, he’s American. And there’s Romero Britto, he’s Brazilian.” Nobu scrolls through his art inventory on his smartphone – and there’s plenty of it. “Let me show you all of my art pieces,” he says. “I like the moderns, not the Picassos, or Monets, or Manets.” Does he like the work of Japanese contemporaries, like Nobuyoshi Araki? “Not my type.” Or photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto? “I prefer classic photos to modern photos.” One favourite work in his collection is Statue of Liberty, by American artist Craig Alan. And then he shows a KAWS. “He painted this one for me.” Here’s the remarkable thing about Nobu: nearly 30 years after he opened Matsuhisa Los Angeles, he’s still in Hollywood, and his tables are still a hot ticket – for a date, a business meeting, or just to impress the hell out of your companion.

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