While the Food Network has made celebrities of many chefs, a select few have become legends in their own time. Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa is one such chef.
Born in Saitama, Japan, the future culinary wizard decided he would be a chef after his older brother took him to a sushi bar for the first time.
He began his career as an apprentice in the sushi bars of Tokyo, becoming fluent in the techniques of turning raw fish into sushi and sashimi. Nobuyuki then emigrated to Lima, Peru, where he absorbed the local culture and ingredients, integrating them with his classical training and developing what would become his unique culinary style.
Ever on the move, he traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina, back to Tokyo, then to Alaska, and next to Los Angeles, where he opened his first restaurant in 1987.
A generation ago, many Americans could not imagine eating uncooked fish. Nobu changed all that when opened Matsuhisa on La Cienega Boulevard. The modest restaurant quickly became a celebrity magnet, and a reservation there became one of the city’s hottest tickets.
The young chef dazzled diners with such innovative fare as Sashimi Salad with Matsuhisa Soy Sauce Dressing, Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapenos and Black Cod with Miso, which soon became one of his most famous signature dishes.
In 1989, Nobu was named one of “America’s Ten Best New Chefs” by Food and Wine magazine, and in 1993, his restaurant was chosen as one of the “Top Ten Restaurant Destinations in the World” by The New York Times.
One of the celebrities who “dscovered” Matsuhisa was Robert DeNiro, who, with his partner Drew Nieporent, had several New York restaurants. The actor made the chef an offer he couldn’t refuse, and in 1994, Nobu, as he would come to be known, opened his eponymous restaurant in trendy Tribeca.
Before Nobu came to New York, the city’s Japanese restaurants served traditional Japanese cuisine. Nobu not only brought a sensibility and attitude to New York, he also upended any preconceived notions of what his native cuisine could be. He was an instant hit, wowing foodies and celebrities alike with such innovations as “funazushi” (freshwater trout buried in rice for one year), squid “pasta” (squid sliced to resemble pasta) and a new style of sashimi, in which the fish is seared on the outside, left raw within, then marinated in olive oil and garlic.
The downtown restaurant generated such star power that celebrities—Madonna, Bon Jovi, Paul Simon and Cindy Crawford, to name a few—quickly staked claims to “their” tables. More kudos followed. In 1995 Nobu was named “Best New Restaurant: by the James Beard Foundation and awarded three stars by The New York Times critic, Ruth Reichl. A Michelin star came later.
Nobu’s great success predictably inspired imitators all over the world; that has not concerned Chef Matsuhisa, not even when one of his dishes is replicated on another chef’s menu. He once explained that he cooks with kokoro or “heart.” And while others may copy his recipes, no one can copy his heart.
The chef who changed the way America eats has a worldwide presence, with 12 hotels (and six more planned) and more than 40 restaurants on every continent (except Antarctica). That should be a comfort to world travelers who don’t have to look far for a meal of Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño or Black Cod with Miso. As Madonna once said: “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a restaurant in it.”
Black Cod with Miso (Serves 4)
4 black cod filets, about ½ pound each
3 cups Nobu-style Saikyo Miso
Pat the filets thoroughly dry with paper towels. Slather the fish with Nobu-style saikyo miso and place in a non-reactive dish or bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Leave the filets to steep in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.
Preheat the oven to 400◦ F. Preheat a grill or broiler. Lightly wipe off any excess miso clinging to the filets, but don’t rinse it off.
Pl ace the fish on the grill or in a broiler pan, and grill or broil until the surface of the fish turns brown. Than bake in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
Arrange the black cod filets on individual plates. Add a few extra drops of Nobu-style saikyo miso to each serving.
Nobu-style Saikyo Miso (Yield: 3 cups)
½ cup mirin
2 cups white miso paste
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
Bring the sake and mirin to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Boil for 20 seconds to evaporate the alcohol.
Turn the heat down to low and add the miso paste, mixing with a wooden spoon.
When the miso has dissolved completely, turn the heat up to high again and add the sugar, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon to ensure that the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn.
Remove from the heat once the sugar is fully dissolved. Cool to room temperature.