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Meet Nobu San, Japan’s Culinary Global Citizen

Meet Nobu San, Japan’s Culinary Global Citizen

A chat with restaurateur and legendary Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa about his culinary empire and "family": a staff of 3,000 people worldwide.

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“LA to Peru, Miami, Bahamas, New York, LA, Melbourne, Perth, Kuala Lumpur, Manila…here to Hong Kong, then Tokyo and Paris.” A typical month’s schedule in the life of global restaurateur and legendary Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa is dizzying for anyone, but the 66 year old seems to take it in his stride, saying with a smile: “I like to see people! The teams in my restaurant are my family, so I try to see them all.”

Maybe travel is in his genes. His life has clearly marked him out as a global citizen, an enthusiastic and passionate embracer of tastes and cultures around the world. Born and raised in Saitama, Japan, he lived for three years in Peru, a year in Argentina and a year in Anchorage, Alaska where his restaurant burnt to the ground and he reached rock bottom.

Following the painful episode he moved to LA and set up his first restaurant branded Nobu, a spot that quickly became one of the most coveted spots in town thanks to its sublime Japanese cuisine – and Nobu’s own gentle warmth and charisma.

Such was its popularity that a regular, Robert de Niro, asked him – twice, because he turned him down the first time – to open in New York. When he relented, it too became the top table in town. In London, Nobu at the Metropolitan Hotel helped define Cool Britannia of the late 1990’s, the ultimate see-and-be-seen restaurant. Today there are 32 Nobus, 8 Matsuhisas and two Nobu hotels, with three more to come in Miami, Riyadh and London. Oh, and the first Nobu ryokan, opening in Malibu.

The night before we talked in Hong Kong at his restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the iconic harbour, he was with his new team at Nobu in Manila, overseeing service for 300 diners. You get the impression he wouldn’t have missed it for the world: “I like to see them all so I keep travelling. I cannot stop – I never think about getting tired. I’m a father and they’re all my kids, I like to give energy to them.”

These kids, the Nobu family of staff – now some 3,000 strong around the world – have delivered Nobu marriages, babies and countless restaurants of their own. In Hong Kong he graciously greets every diner as they enter, many clearly starstruck to see him in the flesh, before explaining the critical importance of ‘kokoro’ or heart, in his cooking: “It’s easy to slice and cook, everyone can learn. But I grew up with my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking (Nobu’s father was killed in a car crash when he was 15) and it was always cooked with kokoro – or from the heart. They worried about balance – but not just technically.”

Given his schedule and demands from the public and media, his time in the kitchens these days is limited, but he shows total faith in his Hong Kong team and head chef Sean Mell, someone who spent 10 years working for him in New York before the move to China.

The busy and buzzing kitchen plates his stunning signature dishes for an international crowd, including his A5 Miyazaki Wagyu with a sensational wasabi pepper sauce, tiradito, honed from his years in Peru and, of course, black cod with miso. He explains the story behind the iconic dish: “Back in LA, I was using salmon and yellowtail but wanted a different fish. I went to the market and saw the black cod which I knew from Japan - but no one knew it in America - it was from Alaska and frozen - so also very cheap! I blended miso paste, mirin, sake, sugar and marinated it for a full three days. Americans really loved this texture and taste, soft and sweet. The black cod recipe is in my cookbooks which people can copy - but no one can copy my heart!”

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