|Special to the Tokyo
branch, scallop with red onion salsa
tiradito, Nobu style
photos by John Jackson
Nobu Matsuhisas in town with his new book in hand. Matt Wilce gets an exclusive
insight into his world of sushi, stars and worldwide success.
Having weathered the caprice of
celebrities before, we were worried the worlds most famous chef, Nobu Matsuhisa,
would be a touch pretentious and difficult. After all, he did add truffles and foie gras
to the sushi bar. But the culinary superstar, casually dressed in his trademark blue pants
and kitchen whites, was all smiles and firm handshakes when we met at his Tokyo
restaurant; later, it transpires his pants are actually by Guess and Giorgio Armani is
personally designing his new chef whites. The only visible indication that hes truly
the king of restaurant royalty is the platinum diamond-encrusted Rolex tucked under his
People can copy the recipes, but they cant copy my
on his plate than most chefs could dream of, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa has arguably the most
famous restaurant on the planet-even before the recent cause célèbre in the UK involving
Boris Becker, a Russian woman and Nobu Londons linen closet. From Dubai to
Shanghai-the site of his next venture due to open in 2002-everyone wants a piece of him.
Madonna once said You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a
restaurant in it, and fortunately for her, his 14 restaurants inhabit her stomping
grounds of Paris, Milan, London, New York, Tokyo and LA. With a famous business partner,
Robert De Niro, in tow, Nobu has gastronomes the world over salivating into their
lime-juice-dressed sashimi, and fortunately here in Tokyo-unlike Manhattan-you dont
have to wait a month to get a taste of his unique synthesis of New World flavors and
traditional Japanese cuisine.
Now, the master of nouveau Nipponese and the inventor of the soft-shell crab roll has set
down his entire culinary repertoire in English in his debut volume of recipes, Nobu
the Cookbook (Kodansha International, JY3900). His own idea, the book, which Nobu
calls a souvenir of my life, is a mid-life attempt to preserve memories and
solidify his art. Food isnt like music, art or movies. The process is the
same-planning, practice and execution-but in the food business after the customer bites,
my art is gone, he says. Although those around him felt it might be rash to give
away too many trade secrets, Nobu confidently asserts that people can copy the
recipes, but they cant copy my heart.
Asked to define kokoro (heart or spirit), his illusive personal ingredient, and how he
teaches his chefs to add their own spirit to their work, he emphasizes the importance of
detail. As in many of the Japanese arts, his recipes may be formalized and the details and
accents prescribed, but like the master artisan the chef must invest something extra into
the arrangement. Nobu at one point likens kokoro to the popular Japanese expression of
plus alpha, meaning that extra something, which in the case of his restaurants
is an attention to service.
From his days as a Shinjuku sushi chef, Nobu has had the value of detail and service
drummed into him, and he now describes his business as 50 percent food, 50 percent
service-plus alpha, of course. His chefs may have the freedom to create their own
specialties for the renowned omakase courses (chefs choice tasting courses), but
when it comes to Nobus classics, the dishes are prepared the same the world over.
Before this, a lot of my chefs would ask me how to prepare the dishes, but now I
just hand them a book and say here you go, he quips.
Despite being born and bred in Japan, Nobu is a citizen of the world and spends each month
flitting between his restaurants: This month was easy, he claims, as the Milan branch was
closed. With his wife looking after his LA Matsuhisa restaurants, daughter Junko
overseeing the Tokyo branch of Nobu, and his younger daughter studying design at Central
St Martins in London, the family is as widely scattered as his business. While the world
dines on Nobu, the man himself eats most of his own meals at 45,000ft. Perhaps its
no surprise, then, that Mark Edwards from the London restaurant now oversees British
Airways in-flight fare.
Even in the early days before he became the celebritys celebrity chef, Nobu started
globetrotting. He left the Shinjuku sushi shop-were he started out cleaning up and making
tea-for Peru when a customer invited him to open his own restaurant in a leap that he says
made him what he is today. Unwilling to sacrifice quality for cost, Nobu eventually
decided to take control of his destiny once again and uproot to Alaska. Things didnt
exactly go to plan and the burgeoning restaurant was destroyed in a fire after just 50
days. A lesser man may have been broken, but returning from the brink, and with a young
family to support, Nobu had no choice but to make a success of himself.
That success came with the first of his Californian restaurants, the small 40-seat
Matsuhisa, a far cry from the heights of his later ventures. It was there that he first
met De Niro, who came to the restaurant as a guest of The Killing Fields director Roland
Joffe. I cooked, and at the end of the meal I joined them for a drink and chatted,
but I didnt know who Bob De Niro was, Nobu admits. Over time De Niro became a
valued patron, and when the actor purchased a leaky old mouse-infested coffee warehouse in
New Yorks Tribecca district, he invited Nobu to open a restaurant with him. I
was really excited and talked to him every day about it, but finally I decided to say no
because Matsuhisa was not stable yet, and I wanted to make a stronger team there before I
moved on. The space later became the Tribeca Grill, and though they remained firm
friends it was four years before De Niro popped the question a second time. The rest, as
they say, is food history.
In addition to the original Matsuhisa in LA, Nobu opened a second branch in Aspen to offer
elite après ski in 1998. Eight Nobu restaurants now circle the globe, and in an attempt
to stem the demand for tables in New York, a second restaurant, Nobu Next Door, opened in
the same Tribecca building also in 1998. We do 300-350 covers a night and 150 at
lunch but theres still a months waiting list
Wed looked at a
couple of locations and considered a couple of different concepts, but people just want
Nobu, he explains. When the neighboring tenant moved out, things seemed ripe for a
new-style, simpler Nobu, and although the no-reservations policy still stood, the more
casual food and absence of omakase courses were not what patrons wanted. People want
the same food as Nobu, so now the restaurants have ended up being the same level,
Nobu shrugs. A more successful attempt to go casual was Ubon-the name, which is Nobu
backwards, was suggested by a customer-in LAs Beverly Center, which now offers
shoppers souped up noodles.
Many may expect him to follow the book with a TV program, but Nobu maintains that
hes no showman. Im not that type. I did the book and I do Martha
[Stewart]s show and things like Jay Leno, Good Morning America and The
Food Network, but I dont want my own show. He may be no showman, but friends
Bob De Niro and Marty Scorsese did give him a taste of Hollywood when they cast him as a
Japanese gambler in their movie Casino.
Even without the TV show Nobu seems to have taken it upon himself to educate Western
diners, including Tim Zagat of guidebook fame-to the pleasures of Japanese cuisine.
I love uni [sea urchin] and I love to present it to people overseas. Often they
dont like to eat it raw, and thats why I invented uni tempura. Tim hated uni,
but because hes in the food business he has to understand its flavor, so I made
tempura for him. He ended up eating seven or eight pieces, and he decided to try it raw
the next time.
Ironically, despite his huge popularity overseas, the English-cookbook has just been
released in his native land before it hits the stands in the US and Europe in October.
Hes not the first of his countrymen to make it big overseas and then return, but
what sets Nobu apart is his attempt to convince people here that new style Japanese works.
I know Japan, and I was afraid to come back, he admits. While the restaurant
here-like the other locations-has an annual turnover of about US$10 million, NOBU TOKYO
has yet to instate a month-long waiting list and the clientele tends towards foreign
business people and kokusaiteki locals comfortable with the addition of cilantro or chili
to their sushi.
I know Japan and I was afraid to come back.
media is anything to go by, many Japanese diners appear to be more comfortable challenging
their palates and eating nouveau Japonais in Paris or Las Vegas. Perhaps thats why
Tokyo partner Soho Tsukikawa worked hard on capturing the feel of the New York original,
minus the Japanese accents, with exposed brickwork and artwork by De Niros dad. Even
the banquettes, emblazoned with giant pink roses, turn out to be a covert message.
Each flower is a gift from Nobu to his customers, the assistant explains,
adding that the rose is New Yorks state symbol. Nobus claim that
Tokyos a cosmopolitan city may still be loaded with a little wishful
thinking. If anything Shanghai, his next location set to open next year, chosen for its
energy and future potential, may prove that when it comes to internationalism
and culinary experimentation, Japan is still lagging.
So what about the future? I really like Wolfgang Pucks energy and personality.
He does a lot of charity work
and Id like to do more work like him.
After his first taste of the publishing world, Nobu is raring to put together another
volume of recipes, this time for charity. Next time he plans to give his 14 head chefs the
chance to steal a little of the limelight and create a menu each, either for a book or a
special charity birthday bash.
For the time being theres plenty in the existing book to tease the taste buds. Try
your hand at Black Cod with Miso-De Niros favorite-or if Di Caprios coming for
dinner make New Style Sashimi. Focusing on the fruits of the sea, the book provides an
excellent introduction to preparing and serving seafood and fish with few concessions to
the novice cook. Sandwiched between the stunning photos and mouthwatering recipes is a
potted biography, personal musings on various ingredients, and celebrity testimonials.
Reviewers are already predicting that it will be the stocking filler of choice for foodies
from Tokyo to Milan. As Nobu circles the globe again to promote its launch, its no
surprise that he lightheartedly laments that he has little time to eat out himself,
claiming, They never give me a night off!