The Codfather on life, fish and Nobu’s enduring success

IF it weren’t for Nobu, it’s hard to know where Victoria Beckham, Madonna and Kate Moss would eat out when in London. Synonymous with tip-top Japanese fusion cuisine and celebrity glamour, nobody has ever synthesised food with “scene” in quite the dynamite way that Nobu has. With restaurants in LA, New York, London, Mykonos, Dubai, Moscow and more, it’s an empire whose cache never wanes and has spawned a thousand imitators.

Nobu the man, Nobu Matsuhisa, was in town for three days (he returned home to LA this morning) to put in a personal appearance at a series of sake dinners at Nobu Park Lane. Famously the close friend and business associate of Bob DeNiro, as well as being the most famous man in celebrity dining culture, it could have been daunting to meet him.

But on Friday night, when I joined the 60-plus crowd of avid Nobu munchers for the first of the dinners – and again yesterday morning when we met for the interview – he proved himself to be a charmer. I must blushingly report that he said, in reference to yours truly, that he “never forgets a beautiful – no, gorgeous face” in the flattering light of Friday’s dinner. On Monday morning in the stark light of day, he appeared to have forgotten that comment but was still frank and engaging.

Nobu is still very much a restaurant man – his eyes kept darting from me to the preparations for lunch service and when a surly waiter dropped something, Nobu became agitated and told him to quieten down.

He was most keen to promote the concept of umami – the lynchpin of the sake dinners. To help him, he had a sidekick, a woman known as the Umami Mummy, to clarify the meaning of the “fifth taste”.

In my experience, umami mostly means “deliciousness”. But, as the umami mummy explained, this tastiness has a specific origin and comes from the amino acid glutamate and the nucleotides guanylate and isoinate. Dried shitake mushrooms are one food that is heavy in guanylate and consequently, in umami.

Dinner was indeed a festival of divine, moreish flavours; from lobster salad to wagyu beef all lifted with umami-tastic flourishes such as bonito flakes and miso. But why the feverish interest in umami – which has been “known about” for a century? We put a few questions to the Nobu himself about this and more.

Why has umami’s moment arrived now?
People are always interested in the next big thing, and they’re fascinated by the idea of the fifth taste. Umami is normally overshadowed by the other four – sour, sweet, salty and bitter. It’s like the basement of the orchestra. Other chefs too are interested in umami –Heston [Blumenthal] is very interested.

How did you come up with the idea for your iconic black cod in miso?
I didn’t know about umami back when I started selling this dish 30 years ago. Black cod in the States was cheap then – nobody used it. I marinated the fish in a local miso for three days – the sugar, miso and fish combined to make a texture and flavour that people loved. I had no idea it would become what it did. Now I’m known as the Codfather!

You’ve spawned thousands of imitators. How do you feel about them?
I feel proud! You started writing because you were inspired by other writers; same with artists and chefs. When I see black cod done in “Nobu style” in Spain, Italy and so on I feel proud of myself. It’s good to inspire.

How did you know you wanted to be a chef?
My brother took sushi lessons. I was 11 or 12 and went to a sushi bar with him. We sat at the counter and he ordered a variety of raw fish. I’d never eaten sushi before – my generation didn’t because it was considered very high-end food. There were so many energies in this sushi restaurant. I continued to go to an architecture high school but didn’t forget my dream of being a chef.

Was your chef training gruelling?
Well, I left my family at 18 and moved to Tokyo. I spent three years washing dishes, cleaning fish and going to the market with fish masters. But a dream is stronger than working hard.

What is the secret to your success?
Patience, never giving up and passion. It’s very difficult to become a success. You must learn from your mistakes – not make the same mistake twice or three times.

What’s it like working with Robert DeNiro? Is he a good business partner?
Bob doesn’t know anything about business, but maybe he likes me a lot. He loves raw fish!

What do you think about the London restaurant scene?
When I opened Nobu here 17 years ago I wasn’t very interested in London. Everyone said: Nobu, why are you opening in London? The food sucks. But now people get it and it’s very stylish.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I am very happy right now. I am not greedy and don’t have a big ego. But I would like to pass the dream onto others.