The Japanese chef Nobuyuki 'Nobu' Matsuhisa paid a four-day visit to Dubai this month. Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane visited his restaurant at Atlantis, The palm, and received a private cooking lesson.
Chef Nobu's recipe for success
Chef Nobu, you now have 26 restaurants worldwide. How does the clientele and footfall at Nobu in Dubai compare with New York, London, Tokyo and so on?
It’s amazing to think it’s already been here five years, since the opening of Atlantis itself. In the beginning, it was much harder to get the produce needed for the restaurant from other countries. Now it’s easier as the air transport links have improved – before there weren’t direct connections to Japan, for example. Japan’s also had its problems in the past few years with the tsunami and the nuclear plant disaster, which made people worry about the radiation’s effect on things. Now it’s much better. Also, Dubai is such an international city that the people who eat in our restaurants in Los Angeles, New York and London eat here, too.
What local or regional ingredients do you use in the restaurant?
There are some local fish that we have sourced and use. Every Nobu restaurant uses as much local produce as possible but in this city it’s a bit difficult to get all the yellow-tail tuna that we need, for example, so we have to import it from Japan or Europe.
This was also our first restaurant in the Middle East and there were some important religious considerations, a main one being no use of alcohol in the food. Now, soy sauce – our most important ingredient – is fermented and naturally produces alcohol even though it isn’t mentioned on the label. So I wanted to make sure we had an alcohol-free one and finally found a company that was willing to produce it specifically for the Middle East.
How do you respond to those who criticise your use of bluefin tuna?
I understand some people’s concerns about it being endangered and needing to be saved but I must say, we’re doing nothing illegal. I can also tell you that we are growing bluefin tuna in Japanese farms, so there are technological advancements in the field trying to solve the problem. What we’re doing is in line with the government, because it decides how many tonnes can be caught. If it said stop using it, of course that’s what we’d do.
Your black cod with miso dish is legendary. How do you feel about other well-known restaurants putting it on their menus?
When my first cookbook came out about 15 years ago containing the recipe, my customers asked: “Why would you reveal the secret?” But you know what? Yes, anyone can cook it and everyone can copy me, but nobody can get inside my heart. It makes me very proud when people make Nobu-style food, because it means they like it.
Let’s talk about Robert De Niro, a good friend of yours and the founding partner of the restaurant. How did you two first team up?
I was in Los Angeles and opened my first restaurant in 1987; he came in and liked my food. He’s a little bit spoilt because he wanted my food to be near his house … in New York. [laughs] So he asked me to come there, which I did and he asked me to set up the restaurant there. I had to say no as it was too soon and I needed to stay focused on my first restaurant. So he still continued to visit my restaurant all the way from New York and he didn’t mention the expansion again for four years. I received a call from him and all he said was: “So Nobu, you ready to come to New York again?” and honestly, I didn’t know what he was talking about. He doesn’t talk too much, you know, just short sentences! But eventually I got it and we opened a restaurant in New York.
What does he like to eat when he dines at Nobu?
He never orders anything, he lets the chef decide, but one thing he doesn’t like is oysters. He always comes to the restaurant and says: “I can’t eat too much, give me just a little bit.” But whatever I send him, he eats. Believe me, he likes to eat! [laughs]
You’ve appeared in films from Casino to Memoirs of a Geisha and Austin Powers; if you hadn’t been a chef, would you have liked to become an actor?
Well, in cooking you cannot make any mistakes but with movies you can have as many takes at one scene as you like. One mistake in cooking and the customers will be disappointed and never come back; it’s a much more serious business.
Has De Niro given you any advice?
Actually, Bob hasn’t given me any. But he’s such a professional; whenever I had scenes with him, of course I was nervous.
Nobu’s dried miso salad (serves two)
8-10oz baby spinach
1 palm heart
2 tbsp dried red miso, soya bean paste
60g sliced and fried leeks
2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
a few drops truffle oil
1 tbsp Yuzu juice
Wash and place the spinach leaves in a large mixing bowl.
Using a mandolin or sharp knife, shred the palm heart into julienne strips and add to the bowl.
Add in the olive oil
and a few drops of truffle oil
to the leaves.
Add the Yuzu juice – a Japanese
Season with pepper but
no need for salt.
Add some fried leeks to the bowl.
Sprinkle the finely grated Parmesan into the mix.
Add the dried miso to the salad, toss and plate.
Serve as a starter or as a main dish with lobster tails, scallops or prawns.
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