Feature A master of fusing unusual ingredients, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the celebrity chef at the helm of the Nobu restaurant empire, is happy to tell Tahira Yaqoob about his rise from a Peruvian kitchen to the throne of Japanese cuisine... until she mentions the bluefin tuna.
'Nobu is my way of presenting Japanese culture to the world'
There are not many people who could keep Robert de Niro waiting. Nobuyuki Matsuhisa kept him hanging on for four years. Don't recognise the name? Try the more familiar Nobu, the nickname for the celebrity chef and restaurateur, which is now synonymous with what must be the most successful contemporary Japanese dining empire on the planet.
It is certainly the best-known chain outside Nobu's native Japan, with 23 outlets globally - including one in Dubai - and a reputation for creating one of the most copied dishes in the world, black cod in miso. But the empire might never have been born had it not been for a chance meeting 23 years ago and the Hollywood star's persistence in badgering the unassuming sushi chef to go into partnership with him.
Nobu was then running an eponymous sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills. Despite the plush setting, he and his wife were so strapped for cash they could not afford a credit card machine and would only take cash. It did not take long for word to spread about the quality of his cooking, however, and de Niro was among the Hollywood glitterati who began frequenting the eatery. "It was a small place but I loved it," 61-year-old Nobu recalls. "Hollywood stars started visiting us soon after we opened and Robert de Niro was one of them.
"A year later he asked me to open a restaurant with him in New York." Nobu agonised about whether to take him up on his offer, but because he had had several bad experiences in business, he decided to turn him down. De Niro did not give up. "Each time he visited LA, he would stop by and ask how I was doing," says the chef. It took four years of gentle coaxing before his patience finally paid off and, in 1994, the pair opened Nobu New York - only this time, its chef did not have to worry about making ends meet or charging for high-end ingredients.
It is a partnership that has lasted to this day and will eventually see the launch of a hotel and apartment chain, with the first opening in New York. "Instead of a mint on the pillow, you could find a sushi roll," Richie Notar, a co-partner in their ventures, has quipped. At an age where most people would consider retirement, Nobu shows no signs of slowing down. With 2,000 staff working in his restaurants - as well as 23 Nobus, he also privately owns four branches of the Japanese restaurant Matsuhisa - his schedule involves frantically criss-crossing the globe to keep tabs on his mammoth operation, checking the standard and quality of food, training staff and holding cookery demonstrations for the public.
He is in Dubai on a two-day trip after London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Cape Town and after his UAE visit, plans to return to London, where he holds a Michelin star. Does he have thousands of air miles? "Thousands? I have millions," he exclaims, throwing his head back and roaring with laughter. His restaurants have attracted a glittering array of A-list stars, sometimes for the wrong reasons. The tennis star Boris Becker famously conceived a love child with the model Angela Ermakova on a staircase at Nobu London, and was landed with what must be the most expensive sushi restaurant bill ever - a Dh112 million divorce from his wife Barbara Feltus.
It was Nobu's globe-trotting that inspired the cuisine that still wows diners to this day. In Peru and Argentina, where he worked in his 20s, he learnt the art of fusing ingredients to come up with new, novel flavours, more by accident and circumstance than anything else. Unable to find the produce that was readily available in Japan, he experimented with different sauces and recipes to try to create the same effect. In Lima, fish was plentiful, but soy sauce, fish paste and miso were harder to find, so Nobu proceeded to "create everything from scratch, through trial and error. A lot of what I experimented with in Peru became part of my repertoire later on".
In particular, he was intrigued by how the same types of fish could be used in such varied ways in another country: "Peru inspired me. Both Japan and Peru use a lot of seafood and enjoy fresh fish and ingredients, but where we use soy sauce, Peruvians use salsa, spices, olive oil and tomatoes. We Japanese marinate fish, they make ceviche with the same fish eaten in an entirely different way. I loved seeing how different cultures prepared food."
Nobu can remember clearly the moment he decided to become a chef. Born in Saitama on the outskirts of Tokyo, he and his two older brothers were raised by their mother after their father, a lumber merchant, died when he was seven years old. When he was 12, one of his brothers took him to a restaurant called Sushi Ko for a treat. Nobu devoured mouthful after mouthful of slivers of tuna, shrimp and eel and resolved to follow in the footsteps of the chef.
"My mother used to make sushi at home, of course, but professional cooking is different," he says. "Back then, sushi was considered a very special food. Now it is in all the supermarkets but to my generation, it was a very expensive delicacy." As other classmates dreamed of becoming footballers or actors, Nobu set his sights on learning to cook. He had to learn the hard way, taking a job at a sushi restaurant called Matsuei at the age of 18 and spending three years running errands and washing dishes before he was even allowed to cook.
He went to the fish market every morning with the head chef, soaking up expert tips and knowledge as his mentor browsed for that day's menu. Back at the restaurant, he would clean the fish and watch as it was sliced expertly. He was finally rewarded when one of the sushi chefs left and he was promoted to replace him. The hard graft taught him an appreciation of those at the bottom rung of the ladder: "That was 40 years ago but it was a good experience for me.
"I learnt by walking one step at a time and still appreciate the people in the back room. Every restaurant has a dish washer and I know the chef cannot put anything on a clean plate without them." He dreamed of travelling and in his melancholy moments, would gaze at a photo of his father on the Pacific island of Palau, which he had once visited for work: "I wanted to be like him and knew I too would go overseas some day."
The opportunity came unexpectedly when a regular customer from Peru invited Nobu to open a sushi restaurant with him in Lima. At the age of 24, he found himself putting everything he had learnt into practice, from cleaning the venue to devising menus and concocting sauces from mystery ingredients. His experimental fare drew officials from the Japanese embassy and company executives but he clashed with his patron, who objected to him spending the company profits on the freshest, highest quality fish and told him to curb his budget.
It was a battle over which Nobu refused to compromise and he left three years later with his wife Yoko and baby daughter Junko for Buenos Aires, where he went back to working as a sushi chef. With their second child on the way, money was tight so the family returned to Japan after a year. But Nobu still had itchy feet and leapt at the chance to open a new restaurant with a friend in Anchorage in Alaska - a decision that proved to be one of the most ill-fated of his life.
While he was enjoying a day off for Thanksgiving, the restaurant was gutted by fire. With no insurance and mired in debt, he was left with little choice but to return to Japan, contemplating suicide as his dreams lay in charred ruins around him: "It was as if all my hopes and ambitions had gone up in smoke." Knowing his family depended on him, Nobu got through those bleak days, swallowed his pride and took a series of jobs as a sushi chef in Los Angeles at a friend's instigation.
Nine years after the fire, a loan from an acquaintance helped him open his own restaurant once again. Matsuhisa opened its doors in 1987 with the husband and wife team in partnership. They were far from wealthy but with his characteristic refusal to budge on quality, Nobu bought the freshest ingredients and most expensive fish for his clientele, who were treated to dishes derived from the best of his travels.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood's finest discovered him and in 1994, Nobu New York, in the Tribeca area of Manhattan, became the first joint venture with De Niro. Despite the scale of his business, Nobu describes his extensive team as a "family" and says: "There are people who have been with me for more than 10 years who have gone on to be a great success. They learn the Nobu philosophies and move on."
His protégés have included Scott Hallsworth, who was head chef at Nobu London before going on to Mirai in Souk al Bahar and then Wabi in the UK, and Masaharu Morimoto, formerly of Nobu New York and now a regular on the American TV show Iron Chef. Since 1994, there have been many more venues with the distinctive and theatrical stamp of the architect and interior designer David Rockwell. His sweeping rattan panels, dark wooden interiors and low lighting are the hallmarks of Nobu Dubai, which opened in September 2008 in Atlantis, The Palm.
The menu at this packed eatery reflects Nobu's love affair with South America, with dishes ranging from wasabi lobster tacos and yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño to the classic rock shrimp ceviche and tempura and, of course, black cod with yuzu miso. There are anticuchos, which in Peru are cow hearts but here are substituted with Japanese Wagyu beef, cooked teriyaki style or with wasabi salsa at an eye-watering Dh860 and sea bass and truffles with yuzu soy butter at a more affordable Dh200.
It must be disconcerting to find most Japanese restaurants now serve their own version of black cod in miso but Nobu says imitation is flattery: "I am very honoured. Even with all the different restaurants serving it, what does anyone think of when they say black cod in miso? Nobu! They can try to copy me but no one can truly copy my style." Did he think about adapting his prices when the recession hit? "I never overcharge," he insists. "I have pride in my food because it is high quality. There is a lot of competition for us now, which is good.
"It is the customer who ultimately decides which restaurant is better. We use the best products, the best cooking methods, the best service. Of course people will try new places, but Nobu is my way of presenting Japanese culture to the world." It was important, he says, not to cut prices in the credit crunch: "2009 was the worst year for us. The recession meant fewer customers and fewer people spending money but I said not to cut the cost of the food. Customers are very quick to see if the quality is different.
"There are other ways to cut back on the ground, such as labour costs. I do not want a false sale." Dubai, he adds, is a "last-minute city", meaning it is often hard to gauge how many covers the restaurant will do per night. Wherever he goes, his first stop is often the market in any country, where he will talk to sellers and chefs to sift out the best ingredients. In the UK, it is dover sole, steamed with black bean sauce. In LA, it is soft shell crabs; and in New Orleans, rock shrimp is one of his most popular dishes.
But Nobu's refusal to compromise on produce has landed him in hot water recently. Once the darling of the A-list, some of the celebrities who frequented his restaurants threatened to boycott them last summer after he continued to serve endangered bluefin tuna, which wildlife campaigners say could be extinct within two years. Stocks of the fish, considered a delicacy in Japan where it is known as the "king of sushi", have fallen dramatically in the Atlantic and Mediterranean because of overfishing and the species could vanish altogether, according to the World Wildlife Fund. While not on offer in Dubai, it is still served in the London restaurants.
The actor and author Stephen Fry said it was "astounding lunacy" that bluefin tuna was still being dished up in Nobu and together with the likes of Elle Macpherson, Sting and Charlize Theron, urged the owner to remove it from his menus. Other high-profile chefs such as Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have already banned the fish from their restaurants. Nobu's response was simply to put a warning on menus saying the fish was "environmentally challenged" and customers should "ask your server for an alternative".
Did he go far enough? The chef's easy smile disappears for the first time and he says testily: "We are not doing anything illegal. Technology means you can grow farms for fresh seafood. I care for the next generation and if the government bans it, I will not serve it, but I like to be fair so the customer gets to decide." What about The End Of The Line, the book that inspired a documentary last year and alleged the species was as close to extinction as the panda or white rhino? Its author, the environmental journalist Charles Clover, said he tried for five years to talk to Nobu about the source of the fish but was repeatedly rebuffed.
"Am I doing anything illegal?" Nobu suddenly shouts, slapping his hand on the table. As the interview is brought to an abrupt close, I am politely but firmly escorted out by a publicist for the Atlantis hotel. Outside the restaurant, where 65,000 fish swim in an endless merry-go-round in the hotel's vast aquarium, a lone brown spotted fish comes to the glass and blows mournful bubbles, as if apprehensive it might be the next rare delicacy to be added to the menu.
Nobu might be an old master when it comes to the ancient art of preparing sushi and a stickler for maintaining standards but the bluefin tuna fight may be one battle where he ends up conceding defeat.