Chef Nobu on De Niro, snake soup and his fave restaurants

By Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Mar 27 2015 01:07 PM | Updated as of Dec 30 2015 07:01 PM

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa talks to selected members of the media over lunch at the Philippine branch of his restaurant, Nobu, at City of Dreams Manila. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA – Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is recognized across the globe for his unique and clever take on Japanese cuisine, but he believes that there is another reason behind his success.

Matsuhisa was in town last week to hold a special dinner at his Nobu property in the Philippines, which is located at the City of Dreams resort complex in Paranaque City.

The world-renowned chef stressed the importance of communication in running a restaurant business, not only among the staff but also between the servers and diners.

“We talk to a lot of people and ask what they are looking for. Always, the restaurant is about the people. I don’t just cook, I also take care of the guests. We always ask the guests what they like, what they do not like and what they don’t eat. It’s all about communication,” he told selected members of the media over lunch hours before the main event.

“I trust my team. I explain to my staff that passion is important,” he added. “Do people come here to see Robert de Niro? No. People come here to see me (laughs). Most of the time, I am not here. Nobu is popular because of my team – the chefs, the managers, the reception people, and even the dishwashers. All the people working here are part of my team. That is my philosophy.”

Matsuhisa went on to remind chefs and restaurateurs to maintain their unique identities and not be easily swayed by food fads and trends.

When asked how he addresses challenges brought about by the changing restaurant landscape, the chef said: “I use it as an excuse to do my best… I live by the day. It’s one main event each day. I just try my best.”

Here are some of Matsuhisa’s thoughts on food, his career as a chef and restaurateur as well as his ties with Hollywood star Robert de Niro:

On what Nobu-style cuisine is about

“What is most important about Nobu-style cuisine is that it is very fresh – the fish, the vegetables, etc. And any dish has something Japanese in it, whether it’s miso or yuzu. I like to put something Japanese in it.”

“I like to use local products as much as possible. This is Manila, the Philippines, so there are a lot of ingredients here. In Hong Kong, for instance, we have to bring raw fish from Japan because the people there don’t trust local fresh fish. They say the water in Hong Kong is not clean.”

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Lapu-lapu is used by the local culinary team of Nobu to make Matsuhisa’s new-style sashimi, which is raw on top and seared at the bottom. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

“We have our signature dishes in all the restaurants, but each also has local dishes.”

On maintaining the identity of Nobu restaurant

“I like to keep the Japanese Nobu-style food at the restaurant, so we have a different in-room dining menu that is more on the burgers and sandwiches.”

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Even dessert gets a Japanese twist at Nobu, as seen in this Miso Cappuccino. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

On Hollywood star Robert de Niro

“I was convinced to partner with him when I saw that he understood my philosophy and supported what I want. He is a good partner and a good friend. When he asked me the first time to open a restaurant in New York, I said no because I feel that it’s not time to. I was not ready yet. Four years later and he asked me again, come to New York. I was surprised because the last offer, I said no to him. But he waited for four years for me. Now, I can trust him.”

“Now, I get to cook for more people. He was waiting for me for four years, what can I do? What can I say (laughs)?”

“He likes the black cod. He eats almost eats everything. He likes seafood but not much shellfish, like oysters.”

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Nobu’s Black Cod with Miso, one of Matsuhisa’s signature dishes, is a favorite of Robert de Niro. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

On what he likes, doesn’t like to eat

“I grew up in Japanese culture and I like Japanese food. I like to try anything, I’ve been to Italy, France and Australia, for instance, and I’ve tried their local food. I’ve also tried Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian food.”

“I try anything except the strange (laughs). I remember in Hong Kong, they offered me snake soup. They told me, ‘You want to try it?’ I said, ‘What is that?’ ‘No, you should try it.’ ‘You tell me about this soup.’ Then they said it’s snake soup, I said, ‘No, thank you.’ Maybe it tastes good, but the imagination can make a person feel sick. I don’t want to get sick. Some people, because of their imagination, can feel sick even if it’s good, fresh fish.”

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This simple salad shows Matsuhisa’s respect for fresh, quality ingredients. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

On his favorite comfort food

“My comfort food is my wife’s cooking… She cooks anything, but she’s Japanese so she usually makes basic meals with miso soup and fish. Sometimes, she makes pasta. Sometimes, she makes steak. I like anything she makes, but I like rice and noodles the most.”

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This shrimp and vegetable dish served at Nobu is comfort in a bowl. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

On the difference between good and bad sake

“There has been a big change in sake quality in the last 20 to 25 years. Now, the sake is very pure. It’s now made from very polished rice. Drink it cold and you get a very clean flavor. It’s very good for pairing with food.”

“When it has residue, that is bad sake. Sake should be very clear. We can introduce more sake here in Manila.”

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Matsuhisa said good sake should be clear and free from residue. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

On his favorite restaurants in Japan

“A friend of mine, he’s Japanese but he does modern Chinese cooking. His name is Wakiya and he’s like my brother. His restaurant is in Akasaka.”

“I also like a lunch place, a noodle place called Toryu. It has the best dumpling and ramen in Tokyo.”

“For sushi, I like Sushi Zen in Ginza. I also like a tempura restaurant called Tenko at Kagurazaka.”