After 27 years, 60-plus restaurants, and countless times cooking the same dish, Nobu Matsuhisa remains innately curious about new food.
It was supposed to be me asking the questions at an interview with the celebrated chef last month, but during a point about serving Singapore-only items at his eponymous restaurant, Nobu started examining me.
“What local ingredients do you like?” he asked. I said pandan. Nobu turned to a minder and asked her to get it. He looked back at me and said, “It is very difficult for me to learn the local ingredients because I don’t know much, but local people know. What’s another one?”
Neither is the 74-year-old slowing down the expansion of his empire. Since opening his first Nobu-branded establishment in 1994, his name is now splashed across 51 restaurants and 14 hotels across five continents, not counting the 11 Matsuhisa restaurants, a more upscale chain he also owns. Nobu Singapore debuted earlier this year.
All of Nobu’s restaurants serve a form of contemporary Japanese cuisine that has become synonymous with him. The Saitama-born chef began his career at a sushi bar in Tokyo before honing his craft in Peru and Argentina, which led to him combining Japanese flavours with South American accents. Just don’t call it fusion food. He prefers Nobu style.
“All the influence comes from Japan plus a little from a different country,” he said. “The base is Japanese: cooked simply, tastes very clean, not complicated. And we use max five flavours: sugar, salt, bitter, sour, and umami. I like to taste sour as sour, sweet as sweet, salty as salty. We also use max five ingredients because too many ingredients look and taste confusing.”
Even if you have never eaten in a Nobu, you probably would have tasted his food. His signature dishes, especially the Yellowtail Jalapeño and Black Cod Miso, have been have been imitated by chefs around the world. Recipes can be found all over the internet. But this mimicry does not bother him.
“I’m very proud,” Nobu said. “People copy, but customers know it’s my work. It’s like when a newspaper article reviews a new (unrelated) restaurant that has miso black cod and yellowtail jalapeño. They say it’s nice but it’s just like Nobu. It’s a credit.”
Part of any high-end restaurant’s draw is exclusivity. KOKS has people travelling out to Greenland to dine at the world’s most remote Michelin-starred restaurant, while Noma has a wait list that stretches into months. Despite having so many restaurants around the globe offering the same thing, Nobu is not worried about mixing it up.
“Why do I have to change?” he said. “Customers come to eat this dish, so it doesn’t make any sense for me if I change it. We have local dishes at different restaurants, but people want Nobu food.”
Nobu then leaned back, folded his arms, and grinned, “And it’s good, right?”
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