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Chef’s special

Megha Pai / 20 March 2012

Chef Nobu, of the Nobu chain of restaurants, talks passion, personality, philosophy – and Robert DeNiro

For anyone who knows their maki from their nigiri and their sashimi, Nobu is a household name. Being a fan of the high end Japanese food, I do a little dance when I hear that Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, the man behind the eponymous sushi empire would be present at Taste of Dubai.

With a chain of 29 sushi restaurants across the world, Nobu, the chef, is almost single handedly responsible for popularising Japanese food across the world. The Dubai installment of Nobu, situated in the Palm Atlantis, is counted among the crème de la crème of the city’s gastronomic destinations.

In town to oversee his restaurant’s participation in Taste of Dubai, Chef Nobu, as he is popularly known, couldn’t be more different from the image of his restaurants. He is soft spoken and mild natured, almost shy and devoid of any starry airs. And very accommodating too. After moving around the Taste of Dubai venue in search of a quieter place for the interview, we settle into chairs in the relatively less chaotic area behind the food stalls. How is he finding the food festival, I ask him. But before he can answer a loud generator comes alive drowning out all other sounds. I’m clearly frustrated and anxious to see if Chef Nobu might be too. Far from it, he is already on his feet, scouting for another location. Then he spots an ambulance, and suggests we give it a try. I laugh it off, thinking he’s surely kidding. Cleary, he isn’t. He’s already approaching the police to ask for permission. They are laughing too. But they graciously let us use the vehicle for a bit.

Once we are settled inside the ambulance, Chef Nobu tells me, “The biggest problem with people is that they don’t try. They just assume that something is not allowed or impossible. All you have to do is ask.” He is not just referring to the ambulance incident, he is talking about food. “It is the same with creating new dishes – you will never know unless you try. That is my philosophy in life.”

And what about his food philosophy? “My belief is that food has to be simple. I hate complicating things. As much as possible I like to keep it simple.”

Celebrity friends

Simple isn’t a word that you would associate with Nobu’s restaurants. It’s where the rich, famous and the skinny hang out and the celebs go to be photographed by the shutterbugs. Nobu himself has had quite a brush with fame. He has acted in a few Hollywood films and is friends and business partner with Robert DeNiro, whom he calls Bob. “I know Bob from the starting days of my first restaurant in 1987 [Matsuhisa restaurant in Los Angeles] where he was a frequent visitor,” he says.

“One day he came to me and asked if I would like to open a restaurant with him in New York. He sent me air tickets to visit him in NY. He showed me the location he had in mind for the restaurant. He told me about his dream that ultimately he wants to get into the restaurant business. But I thought to myself, ‘He is such a great actor. Would he really be interested in anything else?’” He is not sure, he says, if DeNiro was serious or just being nice. But he had other concerns. “I told him I couldn’t accept his offer as I was still trying to establish my restaurant in LA. I didn’t want another repeat of Alaska [referring to his restaurant in Alaska that burned to ashes before he moved to LA].” DeNiro respected his decision.

But he had not forgotten. “Four years later in 1994 he called me at my home, saying, “This is Bob.”” Nobu says, then repeats in a lower baritone to imitate DeNiro, “This is Bob!” and bursts into laughter before continuing, “So Bob calls up, asking me, “How about it now, Nobu?” All these years I was so busy that I had had no time to think about it. But I was touched that he had patiently waited all this time. He had been watching how it was all turning out, waiting for the right moment. And now, when my first restaurant was well established, I thought it was the perfect time.”

His friendship with DeNiro landed him a role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino. He has also done cameos in Austin Powers: Goldmember and Memoirs of a Geisha. “That was just something I wanted to try, but I realised it’s not me. Making sushi is my life, my passion.”

Taste matters

Passion, he says, is what sets great food apart. “A mother’s food, although simple, is tasty because she makes it for her kid with all her heart and passion. A mother is always thinking of ways to balance her child’s food, mixing meat and fish with vegetables. That is her passion. Passion doesn’t make the food fancy, it makes the food tasty and memorable. Taste is at the centre of it all. Even today I haven’t forgotten what my mother used to make,” he explains.

Besides passion, what makes food memorable is the chef’s personality, Nobu believes. “If a chef is of a cheerful disposition, he will pass it on to his customers. So personality is the other P, besides passion, that is required.”

The conversation then turns to yet another “P” – philosophy, a topic that Nobu is passionate about. “People always think in terms of years. They always think how many more years they will live – 50, maybe 60 years. But if you look at it in terms of days then an average person has about 20,000 days to live. And today is one of the days. You need to cherish today and work towards your passion and you cannot lose. Now that gives a whole new meaning to life. So your mentality and way of thinking is really what makes all the difference in whether or not you are successful. Even now when I’m talking to you, this is not just twenty minutes. It’s my 20 minutes and your 20 minutes put together. Now that’s a lot of time! I don’t like wasting time.”

That’s my cue to leave, I think, as I realise there are quite a few people waiting to meet the sushi wiz.

As we step out of the ambulance, Nobu thanks the police and paramedics for being accommodating. Then he turns to me, saying as he shakes the hands of all the chefs from the other stalls [clearly they admire him], “You must mention the ambulance people in your article. They didn’t have to agree to help us, but they were so gracious. It can only happen in Dubai.”


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