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Have Sushi Will Travel
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa was a 23-year-old sushi chef in Shinjuku when a Japanese Peruvian pepper farmer came for dinner. The encounter changed his life and helped to alter the patterns of global cuisine.
“He talked about Peru, he talked about the fish, he was a big success in Peru because in the Amazon they grow black pepper. So one day, he asked me to come to Peru to open a restaurant together,” Matsuhisa says.
By this time, he had been at the sushi restaurant for five years. The thought of leaving Japan to work overseas was appealing, so he decided to take the chance. It was a fortuitous decision. After a long geographical and culinary sojourn, he now has the movie actor Robert De Niro as a partner in 16 restaurants around the world and he is known universally by the name “Nobu.” His 17th restaurant will open in Hong Kong in November at the Intercontinental Hotel.
But besides being one of the world’s top chefs, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is something more. As much as any chef working today, he represents the globalization of haute cuisine.
This, he protests, is not fusion, a word that is now passé among the culinary elite. Most of the great chefs today dismiss what was once the Big Thing as a muddle. The famed Joel Robuchon told us recently in Macau, that “fusion est la confusion.” The phrase echoes across top kitchens everywhere. Donovan Cooke at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Derby Restaurant uses the phrase. So does Rolando Schuler, perhaps Hong Kong’s most exciting current chef.
Nobu feels the same way,
But the fact is that as chefs increasingly learn their trade internationally, the disparate ingredients they find worldwide are creeping into their cuisine. The difference is that the top chefs are incorporating these ingredients into their own frame of reference rather than trying to meld cuisines.
In Asia, there is a kind of circuit of restaurants in fancy hotels for young western chefs trained along classic Italian, French and other lines. With the growing number of luxury hotels around the region, most of which have up to half a dozen restaurants, there are plenty of places to ply the trade.
They may start in Manila, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur, but they work their way around the South China Sea until they arrive in Hong Kong and Japan. Teage Ezard, a Melbourne-based chef who operates the Philippe Starcke-designed Opia in Hong Kong, for instance, learned much of his trade in Indonesia.
It was Nobu’s experience in Peru that catapulted him into a new way of thinking. “It was very uncomfortable, that South American cuisine, especially Peruvian cuisine, because the garlic, the oils, and I cannot eat this kind of food very much because the flavor is too strong.”
But something was gnawing at Nobu’s Japanese roots. “It’s the lifestyle, living every day, it’s the weather. I go to the restaurant, I sample the ceviche, sample the rice, sample the arroz con pollo, and it’s try little by little, pretty soon I start to change.”
The changes led to a brilliant new cuisine that took Matsuhisa from Peru to Argentina to Alaska and ultimately back to Japan, developing new gustatory experiences along the way.
He began toying with tradition. As healthy as Japanese food is, it is perhaps more stylized than any other major cuisine, taking its cues from refined aesthetics that emphasize simplicity and Zen Buddhist elegance. The roots of the cuisine go back to the sixth to eight century with four principal cooking methods –fried, steamed, broiled and marinated. There are variations, but what Nobu started doing violated rules that went back 1,500 years.
He started putting coriander atop sushi, a departure not just from tradition but a violation of the very essence and philosophy of Japanese cuisine. The changes grew more striking. Donburi, a typical Japanese dish of rice topped with meat, grew to include chili and garlic. Rice, the elemental ingredient, was altered to include freshly grated parmesan cheese and thinly sliced white truffle.
Today Nobu’s kitchens, scattered across the earth as they are, are no longer really Japanese. The assembly lines are Western because Asian restaurants don’t have ovens. Some dishes are a wild mix. Dover sole, its antecedents in the Bay of Biscay and the German Bight, are served up in Nobu’s London restaurant deep-fried, salted and dusted and served with Shizu Ponzu – a mix of coriander and Tabasco, red chilies and soy sauce, among other ingredients.
But Nobu still describes himself as a Japanese chef. “I know the different products, the different fish, the different ingredients, basically my cooking style is still Japanese,” he says. “The different countries influence my Nobu food. But when I am going to make the food, I only look for what is gorgeous (in the market), but still the Nobu food is very simple, like the taste, not too much complicated. I have respect for traditional Japanese cooking, Japan means Japan has four seasons, springtime, summer, winter, cold, sometimes snow, the seasons change color, it is very traditional. I have respect for that.”
This is where great chefs depart from fusion cuisine. They remain quintessentially a part of their own oeuvre and they incorporate other elements that they find on an international level. Robuchon told us he looks for local ingredients, like Macanese crab, wherever he goes to add to his cuisine.
Donovan Cooke, brought in by the Hong Kong Jockey Club with the goal of turning the club’s Derby into Hong Kong’s best restaurant, is equally inventive. But, Cooke says, every facet of his cooking stems from the classic cuisine of France.
Asked about his influences from the west, Nobu says that when he opened his first major restaurant, Nobu in Los Angeles, “It was Wolfgang Puck, then Jean-Georges Vongeritchen, Pierre Gagnaire.”
Puck and Vongeritchen particularly have been involved in this culinary revolution. The ubiquitous Puck, whose empire now includes airport restaurants, brought previously unforeseen ingredients to pizza at Spago, then to Chinois in Santa Monica, blending Asian cuisine with California ingredients prepared with French techniques. Vongeritchen is equally eclectic, combining Thai, Vietnamese and Alsatian cuisines.
In a world where chefs can travel the world unlike their culinary ancestors who made do with what they found in the Loire Valley or the Tuscan hills, they can find whatever ingredients they want, using local products augmented by air freight. Hong Kong is perhaps the most extreme example. Cathay Pacific alone flew 38,000 tonnes of fresh food into the city in 2005. In all, Hong Kong imported HK$49.1 billion (US$6.91 billion) in fresh food, most of it flown in, meaning an egg laid by an Italian hen can be on a diner’s table in 24 hours.
For Nobu and the growing legion of high end chefs traveling hither and yon, geography is no longer an issue. The point is the food. As he says: “I learned different food cultures, different habits, so now my cooking, Nobu style food, it just means my food.”