Chef Nobu in Kuala Lumpur: In The Presence of a Master
You know you’re in the presence of someone who is at the height of their respective field when he begins to make sushi and everyone in the restaurant pauses in awe (see video below) as they observe a master in action. Such a scenario may sound larger than life on paper but believe me when I say that this was exactly what happened as I witnessed it. Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, or more affectionately known as Nobu, is an acclaimed Japanese chef that needs little introduction.
For the past two decades, his eponymous restaurant has caused quite a stir in the proverbial pool that is Japanese cooking, where a majority of chefs often opt to stay true to time honoured traditions and cooking techniques. The ripple he caused is known as “Nobu Style”, a unique culinary language invented by the man himself by building and incorporating Peruvian influences into a strong Japanese food foundation.
(Chef Nobu Matsuhisa preparing sushi at Nobu Kuala Lumpur)
During his four-year cooking stint in Peru, Chef Nobu would learn, love and appreciate many aspects of Peruvian cuisine, which would later form an integral part of his signature style. Life soon brought him to work in a small Los Angeles sushi bar, where he was given free reign to experiment with the menu. This would be the defining stage that would eventually lead to the birth of his now famous cuisine.
“I created a cooking style that focused on Japanese cooking with a lot of Peruvian influences. That is Nobu style. It was very unique in the beginning because nobody else made it,” comments the accomplished chef. “It was difficult to introduce Peruvian ingredients into Japanese cooking at first as it was a very strange combination. Through serving customers personally and explaining to them what I was trying to achieve, little by little they began to understand what Nobu food is all about,” he adds.
This year, Nobu’s flagship store in New York turns 21 and has since expanded to every continent and major city around the globe, Kuala Lumpur now included. “Success is not only measured by our food, but also by our great teams. All over the world, if you go to any Nobu restaurant you can be sure that all the key team leaders have Nobu experience, which means that they understand my philosophy, my qualities and how I want the service to be,” says the acclaimed chef.
Cooking with heart is one of the most profound lessons that he has learnt from his mother whilst growing up, which he then translates and incorporates into his culinary creations served in his restaurants. So crucial is this life lesson that every chef who desires to work at one of his restaurants must have that pivotal characteristic: kokoro (heart in Japanese). “Heart is in the details, it is passion. I always advise the younger chefs to take the more difficult way instead of the easier one. I place emphasis on having more steps to get something done as its very important for the final details,” he opines.
(Chef Nobu at Nobu Kuala Lumpur)
In his opinion, a lot of the people that make up his global team have a fire in their belly for always learning something new, for that is the defining trait that best describes the Nobu family. He likes people with that enthusiasm for learning, that undeniable passion that separates the good from the great. He knows that different people have different strengths and he nurtures and plays to their advantages to get the best out of his team. “People with passion are always eager to learn. Smart people learn from their mistakes and that’s why I enjoy talking with the younger generation of chefs about their personal growth,” says Chef Nobu.
There are many lessons to be learnt from an established chef and restaurateur such as Nobu, who has spent the better part of his life pursuing gastronomic excellence through developing his own cuisine language. His empire currently stretches out across 32 restaurants and stands as a testament that hard work, creativity and courage in following your kokoro always has its merits.
Here are some of the highlights during my conversation with Chef Nobu.
What is the proper traditional way to eat sushi?
A lot of people dip their sushi on the bottom side (the rice) in soy sauce mixed with wasabi, which may overpower the taste of the fish because soy sauce has a lot of sodium and sushi is very delicate. The Japanese traditional way of eating sushi is to instead gently touch the fish part of the sushi onto the soy sauce plate before taking a bite.
How is it like working with your friend Robert De Niro?
He understands my philosophy and he respects me. We have a good partnership and friendship because we trust each other. He’s a great actor but he never cooks.
What are some of the most crucial lessons that you have learnt over the course of your professional career?
I learn from mistakes. When I opened a restaurant in Alaska, it burnt down within 50 days due to a fire. From this accident, I learnt a lot of patience, appreciation and not to rush in life.
What are Nobu’s customers like in your opinion?
Nobu’s food is very comfortable because we have so many different types. They want good quality food, communication and service that we provide. The customers that come to my restaurants are global travellers and they feel very comfortable here.
What was your favourite dish from your mother?
Anything that mom makes. Because mothers always make food with heart for their kids, even something as simple as rice or miso soup.
How involved are you in all your restaurants?
I travel ten months a year and I love to see my staff. Before I came to Kuala Lumpur, I was in Australia (Melbourne and Perth). Everywhere I go, I will always stay for a couple of days to discuss, communicate and teach new dishes to my team. It isn’t easy to travel ten months a year but this is my job.
Where do you find inspiration for your dishes?
An idea for a dish sometimes comes from a customer’s request. They would say, “Nobu, can you make it this way?”, and I would start to create what he or she wants. I’m a very positive person and I never say no. Because they come to our restaurant and we charge them for our service, I like to make sure they smile and feel happy in return.
Black Miso Cod is your signature dish but is that your personal favourite?
It’s my favourite dish but I have a lot of signature dishes, like new-style sashimi and ceviche, which I also like. My favourite foods can sometimes depend on the day and my mood.
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