Meeting the master

Shereen D’Souza talks black cod, Robert DeNiro and home cooking as she goes head-to-head in a sushi cook-off with chef Nobu Discuss this article

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A celebrity, owner of a culinary empire and a legendary Japanese chef – there’s only one name that comes to mind – Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. His black cod might rule the hearts of many, but what’s truly enchanting about him is his charisma, his passion for sushi and his sense of humour (even if that means he laughs at us). On his recent visit to Qatar, we caught up with him for a cook-off. We had a simple task – learn how to make nigiri and then recreate it without his help. The audience had to guess which one is Chef Nobu’s. And we were fully prepared to make sure it wasn’t easy for them.

Stepping into a kitchen, more specifically a sushi kitchen, with a sushi master, is the stuff culinary dreams are made of. We’re already lost in thought but, just as soon as Nobu notices the stars in our eyes, he yells, “Wash your hands!” Between rigorously scrubbing any last trace of bacteria in our palms under a faucet that initially doesn’t work and anticipating his next move, we experience a weird but wonderful tension. Our hands are sparkly clean and we are one step closer to creating sushi history with a culinary legend.

“I’m going to show you how to make sushi,” he says. Without focusing on the fact that his words echo at least 17 times in our head, we obediently adhere to his instructions and first open our palms. “I won’t show you how to slice the salmon because the knife is very sharp,” he exclaims. Understandable. We’ll steer clear of the sharp knives just for tonight so we can keep our fingers on for this very special class. Nobu slices a chunk of salmon with the utmost precision and sophistication. Every slice is exactly as thick as the last. We slightly wet our hands and grab about 20g of rice and shape it to a long, oval form.

Cooking from the heart
While he’s teaching us how to perfect the rice technique, we can’t help but wonder how he’s become so skilled, given that there was a serious dearth, more like total non-existence, of sushi schools when he was growing up. “I didn’t need a sushi school,” he says. “I had a mentor who taught me everything. I started by working in a small restaurant in Tokyo and my mentor taught me how to select good fish, how to slice, how to make sushi rice and everything else.”

In a very emotional (for us, at least) student-teacher moment, we gently press down on the rice with our thumb to make it flat and then fold in our fingers to make it perfectly oval again. It’s a bit tricky because the rice is quite glutinous and, this is an excellent quality rice, obviously. “With Japanese food, it’s not just about cooking. Anybody can cook and people will eat,” he explains. “When we cook, we choose the best ingredients possible and we cook from the heart.”

That would explain why sushi is so intricate and delightful. Nobu continues to guide, we follow thoroughly and as we come closer to creating our very first piece of nigiri, we realise this is not plain sailing. He laughs, “Did you think making sushi was easy?”
In our defence, from the way he was making it, it did. “No, not at all,” we sheepishly answer, as we struggle to get the right oval shape without dropping grains of rice on the sparkly clean counter.

Black cod
Between saying “sorry” at least seven times, Nobu guiding our fingers to make the perfect curve and hearing sniggers from the onlookers (basically, sushi experts looking at us and wondering how anyone can be this terrible at just shaping rice), we try to distract our thoughts from our very public initial failure and change the subject to his signature black cod – a 72-hour marinated fish. “The black cod is very special to me mainly because it comes from Japanese culture,” he explains of his most indulgent preparation of cooked fish. “It wasn’t always the signature dish, but people loved it as soon as they tried it. A couple of media interviews later, it just became our signature dish and launched us globally.”

Robert DeNiro
He speaks fondly of his Doha venture with Robert DeNiro – also the world’s largest Nobu. “Doha happened step-by-step. People in Doha love spending, and there are so many beautiful places here like the museum, for instance. We wanted to create something that everyone will love, especially for those who appreciate beautiful views. Over the last ten years, Doha has magically transformed.” We prod him a little more on DeNiro. “He’s a good partner and a great friend who has always supported me,” he says. We ask if they go out for coffee together. “Of course yes, but not the kind of coffee that you’re talking about. We go out for the Irish kind,” he laughs.

The challenge
Finally, there’s a resemblance of something edible in our hands. He’s done his part, he’s taught us how to create simple sushi and we are about to go head-to-head with Nobu himself to make another nigiri. The challenge is simple – both of us make the same thing and the audience (mostly the restaurant staff and a few photographers) are going to guess which one is Nobu’s and which one ours. We’re feeling pretty confident as we slap on some sticky rice and fold away.

As we’re battling it out (possibly even creating culinary history with two identical pieces of nigiri), we talk about home cooking, and if his wife feels the pressure. “We’ve been married for more than 40 years and I can safely say she’s a good cook,” he proudly says. “She’s not professional, of course, but we have two daughters and grandchildren, so she cooks with her heart.”

No time to dwell on the touching family moment, the pressure is building up. We have to make a nigiri that’s as perfect as Nobu’s and outsmart the audience, even if most of them are on his payroll. It almost feels like we’re on television, on a popular reality show. Nobu seems super calm, and why wouldn’t he be? He’s been on Austin Powers even. “Cooking is my life, movies come second,” he admits. But what about a movie based on his life? “No, cooking is still number one for me. It could be good for my career, though. If there was a movie based on my life, it would be exciting. The climax would be the part where my restaurant burned down,” he says, referring to the 1977 blaze at his sushi restaurant in Alaska. “But I learned from my mistakes in the past, and that’s why I’m here today,” he adds.

The result
We’ve completed the challenge. We patted the rice, placed on the slice of salmon, rubbed on some fresh wasabi, turned it around, folded it to perfection and positioned it next to Nobu’s perfect looking nigiri. This was possibly the easiest guess for every staff member – our limp, sad, frustrated-looking sushi sits right next to Nobu’s glorious piece of Japanese perfection. Not a grain of rice is out of place. This obviously requires a lot more practise. We can hear people giggling in the background wondering, “What were they thinking even attempting this?” But Nobu cheers us up, “You did a good job.” And that’s all we need to hear. “Now let’s eat,” he says followed by a very stern, but innocent, “You eat yours and I will eat mine.” The audience roars with laughter and we have to admit, embarrassment aside, we laugh along, too.

Nobu shares some tips on how to make sushi at home. “You have to keep trying until you perfect the techniques, it won’t happen immediately, as you can attest from today’s experience. Use good quality ingredients and be sure to cook from your heart.”

We learned how to make sushi with Nobu, and then challenged him to it. We’ve just had the most exciting hour of our lives, with one of the culinary world’s most exciting chefs. We may have lost the challenge, but we’ve definitely won the hearts of… our readers? (Now is the time to raise your hand in support).

By Shereen D’Souza
Time Out Doha,

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