Global acclaim

WM caught up with Matsuhisa Nobu during one of his recent whirlwind visits to his Tokyo restaurant
By Rob Allanson
Ask any diner in London, New York, Milan or Dubai to name their favourite Japanese chef and the odds are that ‘Nobu” will be the name that first springs to their lips.

But just what is “Nobu Style” and why does it seem to be more successful overseas than in the land of his birth?

Born in Saitama Prefecture in 1949, much of Nobu’s critical acclaim and recognition has come from outside Japan, with a total of 25 restaurants (21 branded as ‘Nobu’ and 4 as ‘Matsuhisa’) spread over five continents, as opposed to a solitary ‘Nobu’ in central Tokyo. Although a location in the lee of the legendary Hotel Okura in Toranomon can hardly be described as low-key, one gets the feeling that the ultra-conservative culinary scene in Japan is not yet ready for what has become known as “Nobu Style”.

Nobu enjoyed a classic sushi training at a restaurant in Shinjuku, spending three years washing dishes and accompanying his ‘master’ to the fish-market every morning, before being allowed finally to prepare food himself for customers. A traditional enough start to his career as a Japanese chef, but it was however time spent abroad, firstly in Peru and Argentina, and then in Alaska that really shaped the unique style that defines him today. These early days were far from easy, but rows with business partners, a restaurant lost to fire and deep debts were all put behind him in 1987 when he opened his first “Matsuhisa” restaurant in Beverley Hills.

It was in Beverley Hills that he met Robert De Niro, who was eventually to become his partner when they opened their first restaurant together in New York in 1994. Both California and New York were instant successes and blazed a trail for the restaurant group that now extends from Malibu to Melbourne and Miami to Milan.

But just what is ‘Nobu Style’?

“It’s passion” said the man himself, with a flash of teeth that matches his freshly-pressed chef’s whites. This smile and the infectious enthusiasm never seem far away, particularly during evening service as Nobu works the room, greeting old friends and new customers alike. A glass of wine here, a shared joke there; these are vital elements of the customer experience and it is difficult not to come under his spell.

The cult of the celebrity chef, although now well-established overseas, is still largely alien to Japan where traditional food is reverently prepared by nameless and often faceless masters. The resistance to outside influence is also apparent in the mixed reception that the Michelin Guides to first Tokyo, and subsequently Kyoto and Osaka, have received. Japanese Kaiseki Ryori pays homage to the unique produce of the distinct seasons but only allows its practitioners to operate within well-defined boundaries, whereas Nobu Style has dared to think outside the box. His raw materials would not be out of place in any Japanese restaurant-the freshest catch of the day, the choicest seasonal vegetables, the finest hand-reared beef- but to this tried-and-tested formula he has brought his own interpretation.

"My cooking is not fusion cuisine, it is Japanese food prepared with the highest quality ingredients"

The desire to be creative, rather than to slavishly follow established norms, came out of necessity during his time in Peru, an opportunity that came about after a chance encounter at the Shinjuku sushi restaurant where he was working with a Peruvian customer of Japanese descent.

“This was some 35 years when it just wasn’t possible to purchase all of the ingredients necessary to produce authentic Japanese food in Lima, so through trial and error I created dishes and sauces from scratch using locally available vegetables, fish and spices”. Many of these personal creations have stayed with Nobu and now form the backbone of his unique style.

“My cooking is not fusion cuisine, it is Japanese food prepared with the highest quality ingredients, using locally-sourced products where at all possible”.

It is undoubtedly Japanese food, but taken to an extreme, where subtlety of taste and appearance are superseded by challenging flavour combinations and a boldness of presentation. Signature dishes such as the Black Cod with Miso, Creamy Spicy Shrimps or Yakitori skewers with Anticucho Sauce are based upon Japanese cuisine, but with western and South American influences.

“I am often approached by farmers and fishermen, who will offer me their special seasonal vegetables or freshest catch and that then inspires me to create new dishes”.

Customers also often make suggestions and, although his time in the kitchen is now limited, there is nothing that Nobu enjoys more than standing at the stove, experimenting and innovating.

The current economic environment has proved a challenge for many in the restaurant industry, but Nobu has seen this as an opportunity to go onto the offensive, creating new dishes and offering new experiences for his customers. “Many people look to cut costs and economise on the ingredients used at times like this, but I believe it is essential to maintain quality at all times”. This unwillingness to cut corners and to take the easy option has meant that his customers have stayed loyal to him around the world; this area of discretionary spending is one of the last they will look to reduce.

Maintaining quality is a key to Nobu’s success. In the age of the celebrity chef where, for some, television appearances have become more common than time spent with knife in hand, some restaurant groups are now little more than branding exercises, the culinary equivalent of the jeans stitched in a developing country with a designer label then applied. Even Nobu cannot be in 25 places at the same time, so how does he ensure that every diner every day gets the genuine experience?

“I cannot oversee everything so rather than trying to control directly, we operate by having all of our kitchens run on a shared philosophy” he says, referring to his ‘family’, a group of highly-motivated chefs who have stayed with him over the years and have absorbed the essence of the Nobu Style. “They prepare food in this manner because they believe in it, rather than because I have told them to do so”.

Nobu has gone one better than many international celebrity chefs, having appeared in several major films, including Casino (1995), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).

Steven Spielberg, Mike Myers and their wives were dining in my Beverley Hills restaurant one day”, he recalls, “when they suddenly turned to me and said: ‘Hey Nobu, do you want to be in a film?’. I had to go for an audition but after two minutes they told me I’d got the part. It was a lot of fun, although the humour was a little difficult to understand”.

Would he do it again? “Who knows?” He replies with a smile as wide as one of his California Rolls. “Jackie Chan approached me to appear in Rush Hour 3 but I declined”.

What does the future hold for the man who spends 10 months a year travelling the world, visiting his culinary empire? He has plans for a Nobu Hotel where not only cuisine but also the décor and atmosphere would be very much modern Japanese. “That kind of project would be very difficult for me to do in Japan, but overseas customers are much more receptive to my ideas”.

This point is reinforced when looking around his restaurant in Tokyo, where the crowd (at least on the night WM were visiting) is heavily weighted towards overseas customers, many of whom have come into contact with the Nobu brand in their own countries. The innovation and challenge that his cuisine offers does not seem to fit comfortably with all of his countrymen and a Nobu customer is much more likely to be somebody who frequents the finest Italian and French restaurants of Aoyama and Nishi-Azabu than the sushi bars of Ginza.

A foreigner in his own country? Nobu laughs: “I have recently received awards as a Japanese culinary ambassador from both the American and Peruvian embassies, so they appreciate what we’re about”.

The parallels with Japanese whisky are immediately apparent; it was only after successes at international competitions such as “The Best-of-the-Best” (now “World Whisky Awards”) and the ISC that domestic producers started to take the quality end of the market seriously and the past few years has seen a huge re-rating in terms of the perceptions of Japanese customers.

Culinary ambassador, designer chef, Hollywood film star; take your pick. What isn’t open to debate is that Nobu has moulded together the ingredients of fate, good fortune, hard work, and passion to create a unique dish we know as Nobu Style.