Nobu Matsuhisa is now the most famous Japanese chef in the world, and among the world’s most famous chefs, regardless of cuisine. If you’ve ever eaten any Japanese food in this country, whether it was at mid-market sushi places or at fancy Japanese restaurants, you have surely eaten dishes created by Nobu — even though the restaurant may not have credited him as the inspiration. And his Nobu restaurants, which he named after himself, are so popular that Americans who have never been to one of his 14 locations scattered across United States, still recognize the name.
Foodies in America are used to a potted, romanticized version of the great Nobu success story. According to this version, Nobu was a bright young Japanese chef who went off to Peru where there is a flourishing Japanese community. He liked the food of that community and loved the chillis and spices of Peruvian-Japanese cuisine so much that when he came to Los Angeles, he opened a restaurant called Matsuhisa with those influences.
Matsuhisa was popular with the Hollywood crowd, and among the many movie stars who came to eat here was Robert de Niro, who liked the food so much that he persuaded the chef to open a restaurant in New York in partnership with him. The restaurant was such a success that Nobu and de Niro were able to open nearly 50 restaurants around the world.
Elements of this story are accurate but it is a little too pat. In 2014, Nobu published a memoir in Japanese called The Smiling Faces of My Guests Mean Everything. Now, Simon and Schuster have just published an updated English translation simply titled Nobu. It is a short, easy-to-read book that anybody who is in the hospitality business should get. And it tells the true story of the origins of Nobu’s `Modern Japanese’ cuisine.
Yes, he did go to Peru. But there was no flourishing Japanese restaurant scene there that served a fusion cuisine created by the local Japanese community. “On my first visit, the country seemed backward,” he writes. “There were only three or four Japanese restaurants in Lima.”
Nobu spent three years in Peru making sushi, and did not immediately actually fall in love with the local flavors: “Peru is where I first encountered cilantro, which Peruvians love. Put off by its pungent smell, I couldn’t eat it at first. Eventually I grew to like it.”
By the time he left Peru and went to work in Argentina, Nobu was still making standard Japanese food. And he continued cooking it when he moved from Argentina to Alaska. It was in Alaska that his restaurant burnt down leaving him suicidal: “all I could think about was death and how to go about dying.”
Almost all of the innovations in cuisine that we associate with Nobu today were created when he began working in Los Angeles. Some dishes drew on the experience of his travels. But to call his cuisine Japanese-Peruvian as many critics still do, is quite wrong. The South American influences were superficial.
For instance, South Americans maturate fish in lemon juice to “cook” it and serve it as ceviche. The Japanese sometimes put little sudachi juice (a sudachi is a citrus fruit not unlike lemon) on fish before serving it. Nobu chose a middle path. He took the stronger Peruvian ceviche sauce but instead of marinating the fish in it, he mixed it with the raw seafood just before serving the fish. The dish that resulted was Japanese-style but the seasoning was South American, giving the fish a much stronger flavor than the delicate tastes of Japanese cuisine.
Other innovations had nothing to do with South America. At an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, Nobu tried soft-shell crab for the first time. He liked it so much that he began serving it deep-fried at his restaurant. Later, he put it at the centre of a sushi roll, creating the Soft Shell Crab Roll, one of his signature dishes. (If you have eaten Prawn Tempura Sushi Rolls, then you have eaten a bargain basement version that has descended from this dish).
Black Cod in Miso, another of Nobu’s signature dishes, now copied all over the world, arose out of convenience. Americans like tender-fleshed fish, so Nobu went looking for some. He came across frozen black cod, which was cheap and easily available. He considered making Saikyo Yaki, a Kyoto dish that requires fish to be marinated for several hours in a local white miso paste with the frozen cod.
But the point of the dish was price (frozen black cod was cheap) so he did not bother to import the local miso from Kyoto. The original Kyoto dish has a delicate flavor because the fish is first wrapped in cloth and the miso is applied to the cloth wrapping so that only a hint of the flavor reaches the fish.
Nobu took normal white miso (not the Kyoto version) added sugar and Mirin (a sort of Japanese sweet sherry) and then applied it directly to the cod. When he grilled the cod, the sweet flavors were loud and pronounced and the dish became a classic.
Other dishes emerged out of the American reluctance to eat raw fish. One day, Nobu served a dish of thinly sliced white-fish sashimi to a customer. She refused to eat it. Nobu then sprinkled ponzu sauce (a citrus-based brown sauce commonly used in Japanese cuisine) on the fish and “cooked” it by drizzling some hot olive oil over the raw fish. When the fish turned opaque and no longer seemed raw, he brought it back to the table.
This time around, the customer loved it. Nobu called it New Style Sashimi.
Some dishes emerged out of American gastronomic ignorance. In Japan, if you were to put a dollop of wasabi into your bowl of soya sauce and mix it all up, you would be regarded as a barbarian. But this style had been popularized by sushi parlors in America, probably to mute the harsh flavor of the synthetic wasabi they used. Though Nobu knew it was wrong, he did not stop his customers from doing it.
In fact, he had an idea. If this was what Americans liked, why not capitalize on it? He took powdered wasabi, dashi (the basic Japanese soup stock) and soya sauce and cooked them together till they reduced enough to make a thick sauce. He seasoned the sauce with garlic, melted butter and black pepper. As he writes, “When I served it over such things as grilled tuna, scallops or chicken, it was a huge hit…I bottled it and sold it in the restaurant and it is now one of our signature sauces.”
Many other dishes were created because of his desire to get around the American aversion to raw fish. “Americans are quite health conscious and often have salad for lunch,” Nobu writes. “I added some slices of seared tuna to a salad, drizzled it with a soya-based dressing and called it Sashimi Salad. It was a great hit. Because sashimi is raw fish, many Americans felt wary of trying it. Adding the word salad made the dish sound more familiar.”
And on it goes. Reading Nobu’s stories of how he created dishes that laid the foundations for a new kind of Japanese cuisine, you realize that, at the time, he wasn’t really trying to create a new style of food. He was simply responding to commercial pressures and trying to create dishes that would sell.
There was, however, one basic idea that guided him: Japanese food is about delicate flavors and the taste of the original ingredients, which is why so many dishes are served raw or nearly raw. Americans, on the other hand, like cooked food with louder, less delicate flavors.
So that is what Nobu gave them.
As an idea, it is not particularly original. But the difference between Nobu and all the other chefs in the world who have tried to adapt traditional cuisines, is that Nobu is a genius.
Only a genius could have spotted the opportunity and tweaked one of the world’s great cuisines so that it appeals to millions of people all over the globe.
The rest of the story is well-known.
Yes, Robert de Niro did partner with him and they now have restaurants all over the world. But what’s really interesting is this: while most restaurant chains pride themselves on delivering the same dish everywhere in the world, Nobu encourages his chefs to adapt to local tastes: “Although we teach the chefs at every restaurant to faithfully reproduce signature dishes that are served worldwide, such as Black Cod with Miso, we must leave the fine-tuning of the seasonings to the judgement of each chef. After all, each country and culture has its own preferences when it comes to such things as the amount of salt or chilli pepper used in a recipe.”
Maybe, that is the secret of his success with the global Nobu brand. He created a template for a modern Japanese cuisine that is followed all over the world. But at each restaurant, most dishes will vary slightly, depending on the needs of the guest and preferences of the chef.
Which is only right. Nobu invented his dishes in response to the tastes of American guests. And now his chefs follow the same principle for guests in other parts of the world.