‘I like to educate the next generation’, says Japanese celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

On his recent visit to Nobu Dubai at Atlantis The Palm, chef and restauranteur Nobuyuki Matsuhisa talks about taking a backseat and expansion in the Middle East.

Japanese chef Nobu at Nobu Dubai, Atlantis The Palm. Victor Besa for The National
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After almost three decades launching restaurants and boutique hotels in partnership with Hollywood star Robert De Niro, and serving up his signature black cod in miso that celebrities wax lyrical about, Japanese celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa hints it might be time to take a kitchen back seat and focus on other ventures, such as hotels in the Middle East.

“Cooking is my life,” says the 67-year-old owner of celebrated international fine-dining restaurant, Nobu, which he and De Niro launched in New York 23 years ago. “I don’t like excuses, but I am getting old. I will always try my best, but I like to educate the next generation.

“Now, Nobu is growing worldwide and a lot of international chefs are working with us. I would like to give a chance to the young generation to take the next step.”

Dressed in chef whites, Matsuhisa appeared at Nobu Dubai at Atlantis The Palm recently, where he met his “restaurant family”, and hosted two exclusive dinners and an after-party for his loyal UAE patrons.

Nobu Dubai opened in 2008, thanks to relentless cajoling from Sol Kerzner, the South African hotel magnate and developer of The Atlantis brand. Previous attempts to get the chef to consider Dubai for his next restaurant venture had failed, due to the lack of availability of fresh produce – a mainstay of his menu.

Now, the Dubai branch, which is part of an international chain of 33 restaurants, is a jewel in the Nobu crown.

“This restaurant is doing very well. The team is growing and I am very comfortable with it,” says Matsuhisa. “Diners are so educated here and they understand the quality of our food.”

The chef travels to Dubai annually to oversee his prized operation.

“I like to see all the chefs and what new dishes they have come up with,” he says. “I also like to introduce new dishes. My team here is my family.”

Matsuhisa’s curiosity drives him to blend flavours – this has helped him become one of the great chefs of today. It all started when, as a young sushi chef in Tokyo, he decided to expand his culinary knowledge by moving to Peru, where he opened his own restaurant.

He then moved to Alaska to open another restaurant, only for it to burn down a few months later. Not ready to throw in the towel, he found an opportunity to open his flagship venue, Matsuhisa, in California, in 1987.

The blend of traditional Japanese cuisine and Peruvian flavours prompted De Niro to extend his hand in friendship – and so the Nobu business was born.

“It was the black cod that brought Bob [De Niro] back again and again,” says Matsuhisa. “We have a good partnership and friendship. When we do the business together, we never lie and it is teamwork. He understands my philosophy and supports me at every opening.

“But he doesn’t know how to cook,” he adds with a laugh.

For all the adulation, the restaurateur has also had his fair share of challenges and criticism over the years. His two London restaurants were stripped of their Michelin star in 2014 due to a perceived drop in quality.

He also came under fire for serving bluefin tuna– long seen as a vulnerable species, although a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes that the Atlantic bluefin tuna is “less vulnerable to overexploitation and extinction than is currently estimated”.

Matsuhisa says he practices ethical cooking. He also is strict about how Japanese cuisine must be presented and eaten, something he takes the time to teach patrons while touring his restaurants.

“There is fusion, but there needs to be a balance in the food – I do not like too much confusion,” he says. “A lot of people eat sushi with a lot of soya sauce and wasabi. I can’t say no to diners, because everyone’s taste is different, but I do like to educate them about the right way. Sushi is simple and there is heart in this food, which should not be tampered with.”

He says Japanese cuisine is like fashion in that it reinvents itself without losing integrity.

“Japanese food is low calorie and uses fresh products. That is why it inspires other cuisines,” he says.

Matsuhisa likes to work with local spices, but will not stray too far from his signature offerings.

“I like to use more seafood and beef products, but here it is difficult as everything needs to be brought in,” he says. “I use a lot of fresh truffle in Dubai because it is like fruit that can be added to pasta, pizza and eggs. But, at the end of the day, I am a Japanese chef. I know French and Chinese cooking, but I like to stay with my roots.”

For now, while he ponders slowing down, the chef – who has written four cookbooks, including Nobu: The Cookbook (2001) – has his sights set on further expansion in the Middle East next year, starting with Nobu Hotel Riyadh.

“There are so many tourists in the UAE, so you never know when a Nobu Hotel will come up here too,” he says with a grin. “But all this only after I take some downtime with my family in January.”

Q&A with Nobu

Did your mother ever influence the menu in your restaurants?

She never said anything about the menu – but I did cook a lot for her.

What important skill did you learn from her?

To cook with heart

What do you do when you take time off?

I take a couple of weeks off in January. I don’t want to see anybody and go into hiding. I stay at home, relax, read, exercise.

Is there a chef you particularly enjoy working with?

During my time doing the TV show Nobu’s Japan for Discovery Channel, I teamed up with so many of my favourite chefs, such as Éric Ripert, Jean-Georges, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. We introduced Japanese cooking to the world, and I also got to learn a lot from them.

Is there a celebrity you would like to cook for?

I can’t name a celebrity, but definitely for my mother if she were still alive.

Has cooking for Robert De Niro ever been intimidating?

De Niro trusts my judgement and eats whatever I make. He just tells me he wants something light and leaves the rest to me.

What dishes do celebrities like to have at your restaurant?

• Black cod with miso

• Tiradito hamachi with jalapeño

• Whitefish with dry miso

• Sashimi salad

• Soft-shell crab roll

• Nobu Dubai is on the Ground Level, The Avenues, at Atlantis The Palm, and is open from 7pm until 11.30pm. Call 04 550 9242 or visit www.atlantisthepalm.com