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Meet Chef Nobu: From losing everything to conquering the planet

Meet Chef Nobu: From losing everything to conquering the planet

Nobu Matsuhisa flew into Cape Town this week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his V&A Waterfront restaurant, Nobu. He told his story to TGIFood Editor Tony Jackman, from Tokyo to Peru and on to Los Angeles via Argentina and Anchorage, Alaska; and from thinking his life might be over after losing everything in a fire, to the story of his most famous dish, and hanging out with his mate Robert De Niro.

Nobu-san’s story is one of dreams come true, yet he remains humble enough to insist that, next time he visits Cape Town, I am to give him three days’ warning so he can prepare me a Kingklip dinner in the style of his celebrated Black Cod Den Miso.

This comes well into the telephone interview, once there’d been time for a rapport to strike up. Initial nerves had quickly given way to a relaxed, warm and occasionally witty conversation about his truly remarkable food journey, and how a chance turn in his life took him from Japan to Peru on a trajectory that led to him owning more than 70 restaurants across five continents. There are 18 in the US of which two are in Manhattan; 13 in Europe of which three are in London; though only one in South America and one in Africa.

And he visits them all. Home is Los Angeles, but he spends 10 months flying all over the world to visit his restaurants and chefs and what he calls his “teams” in each of his fabulous eateries.

I’ve visited Nobu Cape Town six, seven times already since it opened. I travel to each restaurant to communicate with the chefs, update the dishes and teach them new dishes. We do special events and of course cooking; the most important thing is to communicate with the chefs and management.”

Nobu Matsuhisa’s story began in Tokyo, Japan, where he studied Japanese cooking, especially sushi. Working as a young man in a restaurant called Matsue Sushi, he found himself invited by a Peruvian customer of Japanese descent to open a restaurant in Peru. This, though he did not know it then, was the moment that the Nobu story started, because – he acknowledges when asked – it was the move to Peru that created what people now know as “Nobu” cuisine. There simply isn’t anything quite like it anywhere, because it comes from one man’s own experience.

Before Peru I didn’t know anything abut Peruvian food,” he tells Daily Maverick. “So after six-and-a-half years of training in Tokyo, I then moved to Peru so I see, like, a lot of different ingredients, for example chillies, cilantro, olive oils, and I’m cooking with tomatoes, so I learn different ingredients that are from Peru. So, still my basic cooking is Japanese, but I learn lots from the Peruvian culture and food, which then gives the Japanese a Peruvian influence, so then I create the Nobu style food.

It was the key to what became “Nobu”. “Hundred percent. I started with my very traditional Japanese cooking, I went to Peru, I saw different restaurants, I met different chefs, I ate a lot of different food, and this is my big experience, it’s the big key to creating the Nobu style.”

Three years later, though, it was time to move on. “I had a bit of an argument with my business partner, so after three years I left Peru and then went to Argentina before moving to Alaska.”

This shift had the potential to break his fledgling career. “I went to Anchorage, Alaska to open a restaurant, but after 15 days a fire started in the restaurant from an electric appliance and it (the restaurant) burned out. Hundred percent. This was the worst experience of my life. I almost give up my life, but I didn’t. That’s why I’m here.”

He lost everything – “the restaurant, the money, everything” – but from this happening gained a new appreciation for the value of life. He found his feet again in Los Angeles, and the Nobu story was back on track. It was in his early days in LA that the story of the dish he is most famous for, his Black Cod Den Miso, began.

One day he went to the fish market and bought cod. Back in his restaurant kitchen he experimented with marinating the fish the traditional Japanese way, testing it on customers, “and finally I put the black cod dish on the menu. In the beginning only a few people knew it, but now the black cod has flown all over the world. I am very proud”.

(Pause for a gushing tribute to Nobu’s Black Cod Den Miso by your TGIFood ed, explaning that I I’m very far away but I always order it when in Cape Town.)

You can’t take a helicopter and come here?” he chuckles. “You know, the black cod, maybe we can make the local South African fish with the same marinade, same style.”

Would it work with kingklip, does he know it?

Yes, I know the kingklip, it’s my favourite local fish.”

Could kingklip work instead of cod?

Of course, yes. I think they have different textures but kingklip is a very oily fish, very soft. I think that works for Cape Town, kinglip miso, maybe next time we’ll meet and you must tell me three days before, and I will make kingklip miso and I will cook for you.”

I ask him what his second favourite dish is on his menu but he quickly disabuses me of any notion that the black cod takes such pride of place.

You now, it’s very difficult to choose one or two of your favourite dishes because, you know, my signature dish is everything I create myself. They’re like my kids, I cannot choose the one over the other.”

Probed about his friendship with Robert De Niro, who is a partner in the Nobu restaurants, he becomes a tad mischievous. He’s had cameo appearances in a number of the actor’s movies.

Okay, yeah, he asked me to play in the movie Casino. I did it, but the movies are not my job, I like to stay in the kitchen, it’s much more comfortable than in front of the camera.

Always, Mr De Niro and myself are talking about making other movies after I play in Casino, but look: I am a chef, I can cook. Now I can play in the movies. Robert de Niro, he’s a great actor, but he cannot cook.”

(Cue much laughter.)

And also, one day in London in the Evening Standard newspaper – and my signature dish is the famous black cod – so they say ‘De Niro is The Godfather, but Nobu is the Codfather’. Very good titles.”

The actor is “a great person and he understands my philosophy, he supports me lots, lots, he is a part of my success of Nobu. I am a really lucky person because I have great partners and great teams, and all of my teams are like my family. that’s why the Nobu company just keeps growing.”

Finally, the inevitable elephant – okay, fish – in the room has to be aired: criticism he receives for selling the critically endangered bluefin tuna in his restaurants.

Now, I understand the talking about the bluefin tuna. My answer is that now, especially Japanese bluefin tuna, grows from eggs, we don’t catch the tuna. I understand (why one should) save fish for the next generations, but at the same time, the technology is very strong and the one side is that people eat more fish, especially in Japan, and people eat fish all over the world including in Cape Town, and another side is that the technology is growing; fish farms, for tuna, shrimps, snapper, mackerel, lots of seafood is being grown on farms. That’s why there’s nothing to worry about the fish (depletion).”

He says his restaurants only use sustainable resources from certified suppliers, adding: “If one day a government says to restaurants, ‘don’t catch bluefin tuna’, I will listen to the government. But so far we don’t do anything illegal.”

The interview is over, and his sign-off is pure charm.

Nice talking to you,” Nobu-san says. “Next time, we have to meet each other. I wanna see your face.”

And make me that miso kingklip. DM

Liesl Elias went to the birthday dinner at Nobu this week. She reports:

The 10th anniversary celebration of Nobu at the One and Only resort in the Cape Town Waterfront was a visual and gastronomic delight made even more special by the presence of the internationally acclaimed Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa who, together with his team, delivered a beautifully presented Omakase menu paired with Hokusetsu Sake. Nobu has the exclusive rights to sell Hokusetsu sake in the US and around the world including South Africa.

Leaving his team at Nobu at the One and Only to get on with the work of serving the diners in the restaurant, Chef Nobu spent most of his time working the room, stopping at each table in the full restaurant to chat or to have his photo taken with his many fans at least once if not twice during the evening.

The meal kicked off with a canapé of a wonderfully creamy oyster topped with toro salsa which was paired with a chilled glass of Simonsig bubbles. (Toro is the term for the very sought-after fatty part in the belly portion of the tuna.)

And then it was on to the serious stuff. Course 1 of the 6 course menu was Chutoro yuzu soy with caviar – three beautiful fine slices of tuna in a most delicious dressing of tangy, citrusy yuzu and soy with gorgeous little piles of caviar and a touch of chilli. This was served with the Hokusetsu Sado No Jyunmai Sake. A very light-bodied sake with a clean rice flavour and a slightly creamy finish which was served cool but not chilled.

Course 2 consisted of tender Canadian lobster with paper-thin slices of (Cape) kohlrabi, golden and candy cane baby beetroot dressed with dry miso and paired with Hokusetsu Honjyozo Kinpaku – a dry, rich sake with floating gold leaf which is apparently a very popular choice for celebrations, especially those which involve family.

This was followed by the Sushi course – three delicate pieces of nigiri using tuna, sea bass and salmon with truffled yuzu and a bowl of truffle flavoured broth served with the Hokusetsu Onigoroshi “Devil Killer”, a light, crisp and dry sake with a slightly spicy finish. For me this was the most perfect of the sakes we tasted – absolutely no sharp edges and the alcohol so subtle that one could almost believe that it wasn’t there at all. Loved both the generous use of truffle in this course and the light handed use of the wasabi.

Course 4 was the hit of the evening; who would have thought that Chilean Sea Bass in pomegranate miso would work so fabulously but it did, with a whack of fresh coriander coming through to balance the sweetness of the sauce – it was a hit with everyone at the table. The crisp and nutty character of the Nobu original Hokusetsu “Black Label” was the perfect foil for the strong flavours of this course.

Course 5 of Wagyu wasabi teriyaki with baked erynji mushroom and asparagus was absolutely delicious and the meat so tender that it hardly needed a knife to cut into it. To be honest, after the four previous courses we were all a bit full so didn’t given the beef the attention it certainly deserved. The Wagyu was paired with the Hokusetsu Ongakushu 10-year-old off dry and quite delicate sake which is aged to the strains of classical music – it had a more prominent taste of alcohol that those previously tasted during the course of the evening.

The menu ended on a high note with the dessert course, a Toropikaru (tropical) bavarois, creamy ice with a touch of mint and a wonderful sesame praline ring paired with a spectacular fruit sake. Small carafes containing the muddled cucumber and litchi in the Sado No Jyunmai sake reached the table presented in a bowl of ice – a cool and refreshing finale to a really great meal.

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