Photos Credit: Nicolle Monico
It can be hard to know what a world-renowned person will be like upon meeting them for the first time. Will they be humble and gracious or carry an air of self-importance? You always hope for the former but at times, can be let down by the latter.
Either way, most of the time you’re just hoping you don’t slip up and say something embarrassing. Yesterday I had the honor of participating in a 10-person sushi rolling class with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa (yes, the Nobu). Held inside a small room at his San Diego restaurant inside the Hard Rock Hotel, we gathered around a table, eager to meet the legend and of course, dine on Nobu-approved rolls.
When Nobu walked into the small room, he barely made his presence known. Dressed in jeans, a chef’s coat and donning a sweet, grandpa-like smile, he quietly checked the ingredients on the table before greeting us. Then, as if sensing our need to relax, joked that Champagne was needed before the class began. We happily obliged.
Warm, funny and demure, Chef is exactly as I had hoped. Discussing an omakase dinner in Vegas for charity, Nobu mentioned that guests paid $1,000 a person for their coveted seats. With this story we were quickly reminded that a private audience with him should not to be taken for granted. “One, two, three, flip, four, five, six,” Chef counted as he showed us the six steps it takes to make nigiri. We had trouble keeping up, even with his one-on-one demonstrations. If you’re trying this at home, wet hands are essential to keep rice from sticking everywhere. Unlike us, he shared that he can make a roll in around seven seconds (to our almost 30-second attempts).
Five pieces down and three hand rolls later, we were being taught the correct way to dip our sushi into soy sauce—fish side down—and learned to ditch the chopsticks. “Use your fingers,” he told us, “and eat it in one bite.”
Nobu is the only chef is in his family; pretty impressive considering his name now correlates to some of the best sushi in the world. Chef currently owns 32 restaurants in 28 cities and travels 10 months out of the year. “It’s why I’m still married,” joked Nobu. Year after year, the chef is recognized with various accolades, his biggest ones including America’s 10 Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine (1989); induction into Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America by the James Beard Foundation (2002); Nobu Fifty Seven awarded Three Stars by Frank Bruni of The New York Times (2005); and Nobu Berkeley St., Matsuhisa Beverly Hills, Nobu Las Vegas and Nobu San Diego all awarded one Michelin Star (2005-2008).
When asked what Americans do that is incorrect or disrespectful when eating sushi, he urged that it’s more of a question of how you were taught than what is impolite. Americans love their soy sauce, but Nobu emphasized that sushi shouldn’t be drenched in our wasabi-mixed, soy-sauce concoctions. A quick upside down dip is all it needs, and be sure to eat it quickly since the fish begins to be less fresh the second it is plated. We also learned that years ago, when sushi was becoming more popular and trendy, chefs were using frozen yellowtail in their rolls. When Nobu came onto the scene he began using the fresh fish and, as it turns out, customers complained that it didn’t taste right since it wasn’t what they were used to. Nowadays, one of his most renowned dishes is the Hamachi (Japanese yellowtail) with jalapeño—guess he showed them.
Although you could assume Nobu’s favorite rolls were some of his most unique creations, his favorites are actually quite the opposite. “You know sushi [has] so many different [styles]—nigiri, hand roll, you can also create your own roll—so it depends on the day. I like tuna rolls, simple, just tuna and the wasabi and cucumber rolls, very simple.” And what does he drink with his creations? A Chardonnay (while in California) and finishes the meal with a tequila shot. The last part may have been a quip, but either way, here’s to hoping our next Nobu encounter involves taking shots and shooting the breeze.