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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

A culinary act of two parts: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Giorgio Locatelli

Meet Michelin-starred chefs Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Giorgio Locatelli at their neighbouring restaurants in Atlantis, The Palm

Nobu's interior
Nobu's interior

It’s not every day that you get to meet a world-famous Michelin-starred chef who’s preparing a signature dish just for you. To meet two of them, one after the other, and be served food by both, could be considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And yet, here we are, about to do exactly that.

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Giorgio Locatelli are known for their inspirational cooking and standard-setting eateries, and their restaurants, Nobu and Ronda Locatelli, are located next door to each other in Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm. I meet them as they are preparing to join forces for a “Four Hands” dinner, a carefully conceived menu that fuses the two cuisines they are each known for.

Chef Nobu is elegant, a true gentleman – soft-spoken, disarmingly modest and kind in his demeanour. The polar opposite, then, of how you might expect a chef of his stature to be – especially one who is in charge of an empire of 38 restaurants, run in partnership with Meir Teper, Drew Nieporent and Hollywood actor Robert De Niro. His cooking style fuses Japanese classics with Peruvian ingredients and, as anyone who has patiently queued up at Nobu’s stand at Taste of Dubai will know, his signature dish is the exquisite black cod miso.

“The first time I came to Dubai was about 15 years ago,” he recalls, “and there was very little to experience here apart from Middle Eastern cuisine. Now, though, there’s a much more international choice. It’s growing all the time and the quality is fantastic.” This might make lesser brands struggle to differentiate themselves from rival eateries, but Nobu (it’s his nickname) remains confident in the uniqueness of his restaurants’ menus.

“Each Nobu restaurant combines the dishes of the countries they are located in, into the food they serve, but they all have that underlying Japanese and Peruvian identity. We use the same suppliers for almost all of the restaurants, which means the quality is consistent and the produce is sustainably sourced,” he explains. As for that famous cod, he estimates each of his restaurants serves between 50 and 60 portions a day.

A quick dash through Nobu’s kitchen to the adjoining Ronda Locatelli reveals a brighter, more family-oriented environment. Many staff members have been here since the restaurant opened in 2008, which goes some way in explaining its charming vibe; fresh food is prepared in full view of patrons, and the two open-fire ovens housed within an enormous central chimney are in constant use.

The other explanation for such conviviality is undoubtedly Giorgio Locatelli himself. Tall, with a flop of steely grey and exceedingly curly hair, the 55-year-old couldn’t be anything other than Italian. And his celebrity status in the United Kingdom, where his other restaurant is based, means he’s a natural in front of a camera.

That London eatery, the Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli, was nearly the chef’s undoing when, exactly three years ago, it blew up, in an explosion resulting from a gas leak. He and his family were taken to the brink financially, and they seriously considered closing the place permanently, but he couldn’t bring himself to make his loyal staff redundant, especially just before the Christmas holidays. So they soldiered on and, four months later, the place reopened.

The financial hammering they went through forced Locatelli and his wife and business partner, Plaxy, to diversify their income, which meant giving in to pressure to get in front of the cameras again. Locatelli is now a regular face on British television, fronting a show called The Big Family Cooking Showdown. There has been the publication of his third encyclopedic cookbook, too, called Made at Home.

He decides to show us just how simple cooking Italian food can be, by making a giant ravioli with a quail’s egg in its centre. Two offset squares of pasta create a play of textures and, after he’s boiled it for exactly one minute and 20 seconds, he pats it dry, and liberally applies grated cheese and some shavings of white truffle, all the while explaining what he’s doing. He cuts the egg in two, the yolk spills forth to become the ravioli’s sauce, and he offers it to us to try. The taste is beyond description and Locatelli smiles, admitting he’s happy whenever anyone struggles to find the words.

Like Nobu, this culinary genius is the antithesis of a celebrity chef. He takes time to talk and time to listen, and is constantly laughing. “I don’t understand some of these chefs who are always angry,” he says. “What we do isn’t that important, is it? We’re not saving lives; we’re preparing food to make people happy. What’s the worse that can happen? So a chef makes a mistake and spoils a dish – so what? You just start again and the customer might have to wait another few minutes – it’s hardly the end of the world.”

He and Nobu are good friends, and the chefs, along with their colleagues, often dine with each other. Locatelli says that Nobu has been known to recite new recipes over the phone to him, for him to try and then give his feedback. “I usually tell him it needs more wasabi,” Locatelli says with a laugh.

Minutes later, as we leave Ronda Locatelli’s airy environs, we turn around to bid farewell. Diners surround a table at the far end, and it’s immediately apparent who they are: Locatelli, Nobu and some of their team members. They’re oblivious to our departure, deeply engrossed in conversation and the one thing most of us don’t associate with world-class and world-famous chefs: raucous laughter.

See chefs Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Giorgio Locatelli prepare their signature dishes at www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/food

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