Love him or loathe him, it’s difficult to imagine what the world would be like without Nobu Matsuhisa.
There’d be a lot more black cod in the sea, that’s for sure. The ‘contemporary Japanese’ phenomenon probably wouldn’t have happened, so Dubai would only have about six restaurants. Former tennis star Boris Becker might not have got up to a certain act in a certain broom cupboard. And Robert De Niro may well have gone into business with Ainsley Harriott instead, which really doesn’t bear thinking about.
Well, Nobu is here, and at the end of last year he was here in Dubai. I caught up with him at his restaurant in The Atlantis just over a year after its launch, to ask him about his impressions of Dubai, his restaurant here and its signature dishes. But the interview took an interesting turn as we discussed his imitators and the controversy surrounding his refusal to remove the endangered bluefin tuna from his menu.
Parts of this interview were used in Esquire magazine in the Middle East, but in this two-part blog post (I know you love the suspense) here’s the rest in all its glory...
JB: How’s Nobu Dubai coming along?
NM: We just passed one year, and it’s much, much more comfortable than in the beginning - maybe in the last six months. The quality is higher and the people know how to work now, the organisation is stronger.
Has it exceeded expectations?
I knew it would happen like this. When I come here and people are working, they are very comfortable and smiling. When you’re comfortable in the kitchen you want to try something more challenging. So this kind of energy makes everybody happy, there’s a happy feeling at this time.
How is Dubai different?
It’s the religion here. I was a little confused at the beginning. We cannot use soy sauce with alcohol because of the religion. But now we know how to do it. Alcohol is the difference. And costumes. In the west people wear suits but not here. And sometimes husbands and wives have to sit at different tables. I don’t know why, but... It’s this kind of thing that’s different from New York or any other country.
It’s the culture. I learn from the culture. There’s nothing strange about doing something different. There are a lot of beautiful people here. People come to dress up. Americans come in t-shirts and jeans, but mostly at nighttime here they dress up.
You create your own dishes for the menu, but tell me about your Dubai chef’s own creations...
Herve, our chef here, used to work at Nobu Paris, so already he knows the basic Nobu menus. He loves cooking - he’s French - and he shows me his creations, we discuss them and finally we made like three or four dishes. I don’t want to say to the chef, ‘you must make exactly this,’ because chefs have a lot of creativity. We are not KFC or McDonald’s restaurants. We have recipes, but the chef has a lot of opportunity to make his creations, but basically we have the sauce, flavours, style...
So it’s like a guideline?
Yeah. I don’t want to say, ‘don’t do this’. Try as much as possible. Food is like fashion. Fashion changes - the style, the quality, the colour - it changes every year. Also, it depends on the country too. New York and London are very fashionable, that’s why there’s always more competition. Dubai has a different style of fashion, but Nobu is still new here - one year. Still we have to teach the basic signature dishes to our kitchen staff. But a lot of people coming here know the other restaurants - New York, Canada... no not Canada (laughs). I confuse myself!
You say food is like fashion, what about the competition that comes with it? I’m thinking about places like Zuma and Mirai.
In Zuma, it’s the guy who used to work for Nobu Tokyo, he moved here. Of course, he knows my style. Then there’s Scott (Hallsworth) at Mirai. I don’t know when he moved here, but he was with me in London and Melbourne. So, automatically they know Nobu’s food. Then they open their restaurants here and they know the most popular dishes. I don’t want to say that they copy everything from me, but it’s like in fashion - somebody is copying, then little by little he makes something original. I am very proud because people understand and accept my food and it’s popular. I’m very proud that my dishes are popular in the world.
Have you been there - Zuma, Mirai?
I went to Zuma once - just for a drink. I have no time, too busy (laughs).
Why do you think this type of contemporary Japanese restaurant is so popular?
I don’t want to call it contemporary. Its background is Japanese, but it has a Nobu style. It means that we have a lot of choice on the menu - we have raw fish, shellfish, meat, lamb chop, quail, vegetable, noodle. Customers choose a lot of varieties. But some Japanese restaurants are very traditional. The service is very traditional. Here people choose the atmosphere, the energy, the good food and good service. The background is Japanese but the difference is in the service, style and hospitality. Customers have to enjoy their time in the restaurant because they are spending money. So this is Nobu’s philosophy, I guess. I enjoy to see customers eating, smiling, laughing.
Nobu restaurants have been going for more than 20 years, so this is my style. For an example, if I go to a French restaurant with Michelin stars, it’s very quiet but beautiful presentation and the service is very formal. Just me - I don’t enjoy much this kind of restaurant. I enjoy restaurants that are more casual, but service is perfect. Food can be eaten with chopsticks or a knife and fork. It has to be comfortable. This is Nobu’s concept. When a customer comes in, we say ‘Irashaimase’, which in Japanese means ‘welcome’. Many people don’t understand. They ask what it means, and we say, as a joke, ‘spend money!’ Jokes make people comfortable. At Nobu people are comfortable - in New York, London and other restaurants - because it’s the same feeling. Immediately they know it’s a Nobu. The good food, the service, the communication. Traditionally, at French Michelin restaurants they never talk or say ‘hi, how are you doing?’. It’s tight silence.
About Nobu’s small portions, are they popular in the Middle East because they are like mezze?
It makes sense. We have a lot of varieties and if five or ten people sit down, we do it sharing style. Not individual plates. You can order a lot of different things, do a lot of tasting. Maybe this is one of the reasons?
Tell me about black cod miso and the many versions of the dish outside of Nobu?
I have the black cod in this restaurant.
Obviously! Do you mind that they do it elsewhere - Zuma, Okku...? Have you tried it?
No. I’m very proud because I started black cod more than thirty years ago. In the beginning nobody used it, it was very cheap to fish. Now the price is up. All the restaurants in five continents use black cod. Best seller - number one.
What do you think about everybody using the recipe?
I’m very proud. It’s nothing to feel bad about because it’s a good image. People talk about black cod and they know it’s Nobu’s signature dish. Even Zuma makes black cod - oh, this is a Nobu dish (laughs).
It’s like free advertising...
One time in the London newspapers they said that Robert De Niro is the Godfather, but Nobu is the Codfather! (eruptions of laughter).
To be continued...