Meet the master Nobu

Amy Mathieson chats healthy eating, globetrotting and black cod with world-famous chef, Nobu

Meet the master Nobu

When you only need to go by one name, you know you’ve made it. Madonna, Cher, Sting, Bono, and Nobu all fall into this prestigious category.

The others may be famous singers, but the Japanese maestro needs no introduction, so synonymous is he with Japanese food. Nobu Matsuhisa, to use his full name, has become a worldwide brand in his own right.

And now, aged 68, Nobu shows no signs of slowing down, spending ten months of the year globetrotting. When we meet, he has just stepped off an overnight flight from London.

“I’ll then fly to Japan, then to Hong Kong, then to New York. Every month my schedule is like this,” he says. “Before I was in London, Moscow, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC…” We’ve got jet lag just thinking about it, we tell him. “Jet lag is always my problem,” he laughs. “It was cold when I left London, now it’s hot. My body is so confused.”

But living in Los Angeles, with more than 40 restaurants around the world (and seven hotels for good measure) there’s good reason he’s racking up so many air miles – he visits each restaurant to help update the menu a couple of times a year. He stays in each city for around two or three days, to chat with the chefs and discuss menu changes and ingredients.

Although Nobu uses as many local ingredients as he can and tweaks each menu to the region it’s in, there’s nothing dramatically different on menus around the world, as he doesn’t want flavours to “become confusing” or move to much away from the “Nobu style”.

What’s vital is good produce. And with all the food trends that come and go, Nobu’s dishes are here to stay, especially his world-famous black cod. Nobu himself can be credited with starting several of these trends. Setting up a restaurant in Peru when he was just 24 years old led to a fusion of Japanese-Peruvian cooking, which is popular today. Other trends are simpler, such as the rise of the simple green soy bean.

“Three years ago I started serving edamame hot. Before that, it was always a cold snack. Now it’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s the same with the black cod. Forty years ago it was 20 cents a pound in the US, now it’s more than ten dollars. Forty years ago almost nobody knew of it in cooking. I thought it was good, so started using it, and now, it’s all over the world,” he beams proudly.

“We marinate it in miso for three days so that it soaks in the flavour and becomes sweet. At the beginning, people didn’t know about it, but then they tried it and loved it. Then there was an article about Matsuhisha [his Beverly Hills restaurant] talking about Nobu’s black cod, saying it was Bob’s favourite food, and so people started wanting it more.”

By Bob, he’s referring to long-time friend and Hollywood star Robert De Niro, who loved the black cod so much he set up the restaurant chain Nobu with the chef, starting with a branch in New York in 1993. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another trend Nobu is witnessing is the upturn in appetite for healthy food around the world. He says his restaurants are receiving more requests for vegan and gluten-free dishes, which he also accommodates on his menu. “We’re very flexible,” he says in his softly spoken manner. “Japanese food is very healthy, low-calorie food, which is why it’s still so popular.”

Healthy food is key to Nobu, so much so that he has cut back on using sugar in his restaurants. “I stopped using sugar and replaced it with the monk fruit,” he says. “You know the monk fruit? It has zero calories. Zero. It’s still sweet but it has no calories, so we use it in sushi rice, desserts and even our signature mixed drinks.”

Nobu discovered this ingredient – which comes from China – in Japan where hospitals wanted to reduce sugar intake for patients. “After three years, maybe, we’ll see it all around the world. It’s still brand-new,” he says.

So being surrounded by food each and every day, what does a chef of Nobu’s standing like to eat? “I eat at Nobu’s as I hear he’s the best in the world,” he laughs.

“No, I have no time to eat out so I eat at my own restaurants. But I like anything from noodles to caviar and truffles.”

Despite his reputation for high-end dining, he does also like simple foods, and “nothing too spicy or complicated”. And perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t cook at home – or not, when you consider all the travelling.

“Maybe once a year after Christmas and New Year when all my kids and grandchildren come to LA I’ll make sushi, but that’s it,” he says.

Family is important to Nobu, too, and despite having lived in LA for 35 years, he still goes back to Japan once a month to see his grandchildren. And it’s a country he’s clearly very proud of. “Japan has three more Michelin stars than France,” he states, beaming. “Japanese people know their food. It’s in our history and culture. We also have the best ingredients – you’ll see a lot of chefs now going to Japan for ingredients.”

Things seem to be ramping up further, with a reported five more hotels in the pipeline. But after more than 40 years in the industry Nobu is an exceptionally humble man.

“Always, I try my best,” he says smiling. “I’m very happy and proud of myself. People ask me to open all over the world. But I’m not looking for more, I like to go one by one. It’s all about learning from experience. You need patience and not to fret about the mistakes. Just try your best and keep going. And don’t forget to be appreciative,” he says.

“Passion is the most important thing to me. I like to look at what people are eating and see they are enjoying it. The most special moment for me is seeing them eating and smiling – it’s lovely. I like to make people happy.”

And judging by the popularity of his dishes around the world, and here in Doha, it’s safe to say he does just that.
Nobu Doha: Open daily 6.30pm-11.30pm. Four Seasons Hotel Doha, West Bay (4494 8888).

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