Sitting with one of the behemoths of the culinary world – Chef Nobu – you are immediately entranced by his energy and passion for food.
A Japanese native he grew up in Saitama, and took the long and rough journey to become the Chef – and man – he is today.
His full name is Nobuyuki Matsuhisa but across the world he is simply known as Nobu. He opened his first restaurant in 1987, and seven years later went to open his first Nobu restaurant with his partners in New York. Nobu had the culinary knowledge, Robert De Niro brought the star power, and Drew Nieporent brought the restaurateur know-how.
It was the perfect trinity for a partnership that has made the Nobu brand a global success. Spanning 5 continents the Nobu empire has restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, Vegas, Miami, Hong Kong, London, Moscow, Milan…the list is endless.
One of the newest additions to the Nobu family is Nobu Doha which has entered its second year of operations. It is the world’s largest Nobu restaurant with 26,000 square-foot spread across three levels of sleek design. The architecture reflects the regions pearl-diving history, whilst the menu showcases Nobu’s New Style Japanese Sushi.
The Nobu Doha team is a close knit team, and enjoy seeing Chef Nobu on his visits to Doha, when he checks in with his team and teaches new recipes to the culinary team. Layne Nguyen, General Manager of Nobu Doha, talked about the cheekiness of the Chef and his passion for ingredients.
The Art of Nobu
Currently Chef Nobu is in Qatar taking part in a variety of sushi events at Nobu Doha. He hosted the Nobu Experience with his team and Executive Chef Andrew Bozoki. Nobu taught guests how to make sushi by hand, with tips on how to get the perfect rolled sushi. Guests received personally signed copies of “Nobu The Cookbook”, and enjoyed an Omakase menu that included a sushi platter, grilled wagyu, black cod, and yuzu cheesecake for dessert.
“Hi, I’m Nobu…”
Qatar Eating had the pleasure to talk more with Chef Nobu about his early beginnings, and his love for his Nobu family around the world.
Can you tell us when you first begin to dream about being a Chef?
I had two dreams when I was a kid. My older brother took me to a sushi restaurant; this was my first experience – the sliding doors, the irrashaimase welcome, the energy! We sat at the counters and my brother ordered the sushi and one by one we ate it – “Wow!”. Then I wanted to be a sushi chef, this was one dream.
When I was 8 years old, my father passed away in a car accident and I always missed him. So I would always look at the photo album and one picture stood out to me – he was in Palau island in the Pacific with the native people. I dreamed of going to different countries besides Japan – that was another dream.
What is your earliest cooking memory?
I stayed with my mother and grandmothers, and I liked to watch how they cook, but I didn’t cook then. My first cooking memory was when I started sushi lessons – so how to clean the fish, how to wash rice, how to cook rice, how to make miso soup. All of my cooking experience started with my job.
Can you tell us more about your early beginnings in the culinary world?
I studied architecture at school, but I was always looking for my dreams to be a sushi chef. So I started to work at a small sushi restaurant in Tokyo. My dream was beginning and it was difficult to make sushi, but I did it.
Seven years later a second generation Japanese-Peruvian person came to the restaurant and asked me to come to Peru and open a restaurant together. So I had already had my dream of being a sushi chef, and now my dream of seeing other countries was going to happen. I immediately said yes. This is the start to how I became a sushi chef. It is from these experiences that I had to use my creative skills, as typical Japanese ingredients were hard to source in South America.
After 3 years the business was a success, but the partnership was not a success. We argued and bad things happened so I left and moved to Argentina. But now instead of being a partner I was an employee, and I lost my energy so I decided to go back to Japan. We also went back because my wife was going to have a baby, and it was better to go back.
But still my dreams I could not control.
I spoke to my wife – “I would like to go one more time to another country” – so I asked a friend who introduced me to someone in Anchorage, Alaska. The economy was good then due to the gas pipelines. They were looking for a partner for a new restaurant they were opening. When I went there they were still building the restaurant, so I helped with the construction. Finally in the first week of October the restaurant opened – it was a big success. I worked for almost two months without a break, until the national holiday of Thanksgiving when I took a day off.
The restaurant was a success, my energies were high! I celebrated at a friend’s house but in the middle of the night my partner called, “Nobu you must come to restaurant, it is on fire”. I thought he was joking because it was my first day off in two months, but it was no joke, and the restaurant 100 per cent burnt down. There was no insurance and I had outstanding loans. I thought of suicide, and for a whole week I could not eat or drink – I had lost everything, my dreams were gone, my last chance gone. Thanksgiving will always be a terrible time for me because of this.
But I had my wife and two young children, and actually my kids very happy because they saw me more, but they were too young to know what was happening. My wife was asking me, “are you ok, are you ok?”, but I could not hear anything because always I was thinking how can I kill myself.
But my children were screaming and laughing and I woke up from my mental block with the sound of my kids voices. This experience changed my life – I thought I will try one more time, and I went back to Japan. A week later I went to Los Angeles – I ran away! – to work at a small Japanese restaurant. I only had 24 dollars in my pocket. That was in 1978 or 1979 and now it is 2016…and here I am!
That period of your life was a difficult part of the journey to your dreams. What did it teach you?
I don’t want to go back to the Alaska experience, but because of this big happening that is why I am here today. I learned from it. I thought that God gave me an experience like this, and I must be more patient and appreciative to people.
It taught me to be happy, to show more love – so that’s why I don’t worry about any big problem in my life after this. Good news, bad news, everything has been included in my life, and I accept anything that happens to me now.
At what point did you think that you could do this, that you could make sushi?
Sushi looks easy to make but it is very difficult, so it’s a challenge. If in the beginning you made the perfect sushi you would think sushi is easy. But it is difficult and that is why you want to do more, you want to learn more, and there is always a challenge.
I can make sushi but now my challenge is how can I teach another person – it is very difficult to do.
Can you explain how you teach all the new chefs for the Nobu brand?
Now with Nobu restaurants in five continents we have to have corporate chefs who train the new chefs. But it is a family because the chefs are taught in the Nobu cooking style, and then they train their own teams. Even the Executive Chef here at Nobu Doha was trained in the Dubai restaurant before he came here, and is now training his own team.
The corporate chefs also travel for events. They know my philosophy, my cooking style, and they know how to teach the next generation chef. Like my family…I teach my kids, who then teach their kids. I am lucky Nobu has good teams.
I travel 10 months of the year to keep any eye on the restaurants, and the new recipes being created. Before we put a new dish on the menu we taste it, and discuss and communicate about how to make it better. I also check in and do quality control, and teach new recipes – cooking is my whole life, I never stop. When I travel my wife stays at my Los Angeles restaurant, but we have been married 44 years, we already have two grandchildren. It is not the honeymoon stage and we have a long relationship of trust.
What skills does an Executive Chef need?
When teaching sushi every chef has a different sense. A chef is not only technique, but he has to have personality, and good leadership, and be creative. All is included, but he also has to have passion.
Chefs need to have been working with Nobu restaurants 6 or 7 years or even longer, before they can run their own kitchen. They have to understand my food and concept. That’s why I am a lucky person – my Nobu family is growing, all of my kids are spread throughout the different countries.
What ingredients have you introduced to the Western palate?
In the beginning I started using Yuzu, which no one knew about in the US. And the edamame, the green soybean, is now being used across the world.
I have a lot of signature dishes like the Black Cod, but you know our restaurants have a lot of nationalities, and I respect their cultures. I never say no, and I want to make the guests happy. So I created the new style sashimi when I had a guest who would not eat raw fish and sent the sashimi dish back to the kitchen. So I poured boiling oil over the fish and she ate every bite – it was a success! Many restaurants have been inspired by my new style sashimi with salmon.
When will we see Arabic Sushi from the Nobu brand?
Sushi is sushi, but each culture has a different spice. For Japan it is soy sauce, but some people don’t like soy sauce. But I like to make sushi as sushi, and then make sauces inspired from different cultures. But I don’t like to mix the rice with different spices, or anything like that. I like to keep the sushi simple – classical sushi – this is my way because we have to keep the Japanese culture too.
Why did you decide to open Nobu Doha in Qatar?
My first restaurant started in 1987 so I have been doing this for 30 years. With Nobu we have people approach us to become partners, and to open a Nobu in another country from America, Japan, England, Italy.
My team negotiate with my partners, I train the chefs, and management teams train managers. We already had a restaurant in the Middle East in Dubai, but a partner wanted us to open here, so we started negotiating and we finally opened here in Doha. Before opening we also make sure we can source high quality ingredients for the restaurant, and to use local products were possible.
What’s your experience been like visiting Doha?
The first time I actually came to Doha 15 years ago, and there was nothing here – maybe just one big building! Even in Dubai there was 24 hour construction, and Doha was an hour flight away but there was nothing. But now it is growing so fast!
This is good for us, as we are in the restaurant business and we need a lot of customers, so Doha is growing and the Nobu Doha restaurant is growing too.
Was it a challenge opening Nobu restaurants in the Middle East?
This was a challenge because it is different cultures and habits, and different religions. My first experience in Dubai I was so surprised that we could not use alcohol for cooking. Soy sauce comes from naturally fermented beans, but we can’t use it because of the alcohol. So we sourced halal and non-alcoholic soy sauce.
But my way is very flexible, and I like to use local ingredients as much as possible. I don’t want to say I want to do it my way. It is like marriage – I have a wife, I always ask her opinions – so you have to work together.
I’m still learning to see the different cultures, but people are the heart in any country. We have global restaurants and guests are looking for good food and good experiences, so the concept is the same. But I respect the local culture here in Qatar, because I start learning from the culture too.
What advice would you give to aspiring chefs?
I can say, from my experience, you need patience and appreciation. Always try your best, and don’t fret about the mistake. If you made a mistake learn from the mistake, and just keep cooking with passion – don’t give up!
Art of Nobu Party
On Thursday 24th November Chef Nobu will host the Art of Nobu culinary party from 7.00pm until 11.00pm with Four Seasons Doha and Nobu Doha. Guests will enjoy pass-around Nobu dishes and signature Nobu beverages. The evening’s entertainment will feature the London-based Electric String Duo and DJ Soma.
Tickets cost QAR895 and can be purchased from Four Seasons Doha. Chef Nobu will also be preparing a special 7 course Omakase Menu from 6.30pm onwards, priced at QAR 650. For tickets and reservations call +974 4494 8600.