Nobu-san, in a nutshell

Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa’s question stumps me: “What is white coffee?” he asks, before taking a sip of the iced drink.

The plastic cup in his hand bears the logo of a popular local kopitiam franchise. One of his staff members has just handed it to him, saying: “You had this the last time you were in KL. You liked it.”

The chef looks at me for an answer – which, for some reason, escapes me.

“You’re letting Malaysia down. For god’s sake, tell him what white coffee is!” I berate myself silently for my inability to enlighten Nobu-san.

After all, this is the Nobu-san we’re talking about – the man behind the successful Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants, the man who feeds and hangs out with Hollywood’s elite, and is a bona fide celebrity himself. Madonna once said that “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if [a] Nobu is in it,” a quote often repeated by Nobu-san in interviews.

We are seated at Nobu KL on the 56th floor of Petronas Tower 3 on a quiet morning – the restaurant only opens at noon – and I still don’t have an answer for Nobu-san.

“It’s a popular coffee from Ipoh,” intercepts Nobu KL general manager Ai Sunaga. It’s not the complete answer, but I nod enthusiastically, and Nobu-san accepts the explanation with a smile.

The 67-year-old celebrity chef has a face that breaks into those smiles easily, and eyes that reflect their genuineness. He is happiest when talking about making other people happy, and that he does with his unique Japanese-Peruvian cuisine. Think of exotic South American flavours with clean-cut Japanese taste profiles. Nobu’s food is enticing, different, delicious and loved by many all over the globe.

“Nobu has grown in the last 20-over years, which means that the staff too is growing like a family. And I am happy to know that there are Nobu-inspired Japanese dishes around the world.

“As a chef, I like to see my customers smiling. This is my business, and when customers come to my restaurants and enjoy the dining experience, the money and success automatically follow.”

With his current estimated net worth of US$20mil (RM80mil), it is hard to believe that Nobu-san was once heavily in debt. He has admitted in several interviews that this dark period in his life had driven him to suicidal thoughts. But looking back today, he says that he wouldn’t do anything differently.

“If I could go back in time, I would advise my younger self to always try his best and not to give up. Even if you make mistakes, learn from them.”

For the love of sushi
Born and raised in Saitama, Japan, Nobu-san was seven when his father, a lumber merchant, died in an accident. He was 10 when he had his first sushi experience, and to say that he fell in love with sushi – and the idea of being a sushi chef – at first bite would not be incorrect.

After completing his secondary education, he moved to Tokyo, where he did a rigorous apprenticeship at Matsuei Sushi restaurant. It was only in his third year at Matsuei that Nobu-san was allowed near the sushi bar. Before long, a regular customer of Peruvian-Japanese descent approached Nobu-san and convinced him to pack up, leave Japan and open his own restaurant… in Peru!

There were two things that he wanted to do in his life – be a sushi chef and travel the world, and this gave him the opportunity to do both. So, despite his mother’s protests, Nobu-san left Japan.

“[My time in] Peru was the most important time of my life. I went at 23, and stayed there for three years. The country inspired me and my cooking in many ways,” Nobu-san reminisces.

Peru is the birthplace of the distinguishable taste of Nobu, as a lot of what he experimented with there became part of his repertoire later on.

“I learned to use ingredients like olive oil, garlic and coriander, which are foreign to Japanese cuisine,” he says. A dispute with his then-business partner led him to relocate to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where he stayed for a year before returning to Japan.

Knowing that he had to keep pushing the envelope in his cooking, Nobu-san moved his family of four to Anchorage, Alaska in the United States to open a sushi restaurant. On its 50th day, the restaurant burnt to the ground. This was when Nobu-san fell into depression, and entertained ideas about ending his life.

It was the thought of his two young daughters that kept the father going – and he decided to give his dreams a final shot.

In 1987, in Beverly Hills in California – nine years after the disaster in Alaska – Nobu-san opened Matsuhisa, which attracted the attention of one Robert De Niro, the venerable Hollywood actor. Long story short: Nobu was born.

“We know each other very well and have been good friends and good partners all this while,” he says of De Niro.

“Robert and I meet three to four times a year, travelling, and spend some time together. I like to keep the good relationship alive. I don’t request much from him, and just am happy with the way things are between us,” he says.

The evolution of Nobu
There are over 30 (and counting) Nobu restaurants in the world, but Nobu-san says that the idea and passion behind each restaurant is the same as when he opened the first Nobu in 1994, in New York.

“My personality, my character, and my mind have not changed. I don’t think about the money that the restaurants make. God gave me this job, and I appreciate it. I know many rich people who are not happy. The money can mean success, but it cannot guarantee a happy life. I want to be happy and make other people happy,” he says.

Nobu guarantees good food and service, and here they are of equal importance. “Taste is important, and visually, the food has to look good too.

“The best quality food comes from simple cooking. Here, food is made by hand. I always tell my chefs to cook from the heart because people will definitely feel it. Every-thing relates to passion, which is most important.”

While Nobu has the same signature dishes in all its restaurants across the globe, Nobu-san likes to highlight the local ingredients available in a particular city.

“For example, London has the best Dover sole, so we use the fish in our Nobu specials at our restaurant there,” he says. “Nobu KL is still pretty new, and I want to see more of what we have here before deciding on the local specials,” he says.

Nobu-san places priority on top quality and expensive ingredients at his restaurants, but doesn’t knock the cheap sushi found at supermarkets and elsewhere either.

“During my younger years, Japanese cuisine was a national heritage that wasn’t shared with many people, but now everyone is looking for Japanese food. More young people are wanting to learn about Japanese cuisine, and that is a good thing,” he says.

“Even if someone’s first experience with sushi is at a supermarket, that is actually an introduction to Japanese cuisine.

“The people who try sushi at a supermarket may go to a sushi restaurant to try it again – but this time, it’ll taste different. And they keep learning the new taste of sushi, until one day they decide to try sushi at Nobu. It’ll be like motivation for them… to eat at Nobu,” he says.

Chef at home
As a man who has worked almost every day of his life, Nobu-san appreciates his rare down time.

“I stay at home, and I don’t want to see anybody,” he says, with a big laugh.

One of Nobu-san’s favourite things to do is exercise every morning.

“I like to swim and think about what I should do for the rest of the day. I don’t want to have a too-tight schedule, so I use the morning to think about it.”

If you’re interested in that schedule by the way, just keep an eye out for Nobu-san’s Instagram posts.

The grandfather of two little girls is active on social media, and constantly posts photographs of his family, food, and of course, celebrity friends.

From De Niro to David Beckham to Martha Stewart, Nobu-san’s Instagram account is like a giant Hollywood photobook.

And because he loves Instagram, he understands his patrons’ obsession with photographing their food.

“I don’t mind people taking photos of their food, because I do it too. Although many restaurants don’t encourage that, it doesn’t bother me,” he says.

For the lucky ones, Nobu-san is also a chef at home.

He had a big celebration for Christmas last year, at which he prepared sushi for his family and friends at his home in Los Angeles.

But what about the dishes after the meal? Is he excited about reliving his dish-washing days at Mitsuei?

“Doing the dishes? That is not my job anymore,” he says, with a wave of his hand.

The interview comes to an end.

It is only after saying goodbye to Nobu-san that I remember that white coffee is made from coffee beans roasted lightly with margarine and without sugar. Oh well…

The Star2, Published: JULY 14, 2016
The chef who made Nobu a big name

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