It was 2009. Stadiums were popping up like wild mushrooms across South Africa, the soccer World Cup approached at an alarming pace (would we be ready for it?) and Nobu Matsuhisa opened his first African restaurant at Sol Kerzner’s newest folly, the One&Only Cape Town.
Ten years on and the hallowed homes of penalty shoot-outs are white elephants, corruption commissions take centre stage, and yet, Nobu-San is in the Mother City to celebrate a decade of his restaurant serving up sashimi on our shores.
Mercifully, as I discover over a dinner conjured up by the star chef (he owns and operates 50 of these worldwide, in part with his business partner, Robert De Niro), there is still a bastion of authentic but visionary Asian food holding strong in South Africa. Where so many South African restaurants have an alarming inclination for sushi adorned in sweet-chilli sauce, cream cheese, and strange items such as strawberries, Nobu keeps it real. Cuts of fresh fish sparkle, flavours are clean and striking, and simplicity holds strong.
How have food and restaurants changed in the past 10 years?
Globalisation and the booming of big cities has meant there are a lot of new restaurants. And it’s like fashion — things evolve and they change. With social media it’s so easy to find new restaurants and ingredients. For example, my signature dish uses black cod. Forty years ago, no one knew the fish: now it’s all over the world. You create something, someone copies it, then they do it in their own style. It all evolves.
What do you love about Cape Town and Nobu here specifically?
This Nobu feels like home: I’ve got the kitchen, my team is here. And Cape Town — it’s got to be nature (the ocean, the mountain) — but also, the people. They’re kind and humble. And being humble is one of our philosophies at the Nobu group.
The most important part of a business is the people: without the good people and good leaders, what have you got?Nobu Matsuhisa
What would you cook for yourself after a hard day at work?
I have a private chef at my house — my wife! Though I’ve got my own sushi bar at the house and once or twice a year I invite friends and family around and I make sushi. But my wife is a great chef and she’s always cooked for me, the kids, and now the grandkids, too.
The luxury item you’d take to a desert island?
Wine! A great wine every day would definitely be it. I think a bordeaux. The 10th of March is my birthday (his 70th) and I have a magnum of Château Lafite Rothschild 1949 (the same year that I was born), which we’ll be taking to Japan to drink to celebrate.
What has been your proudest moment?
We’ve got restaurants around the globe: they’ve all been a success and have great reputations. We have team members who’ve been here since the beginning. We’ve got a couple of thousand team members: I travel and see them all and think, hey — we did it! It’s like a family. The most important part of a business is the people: without the good people and good leaders, what have you got?
Where do you want to go on holiday next?
I’ve built a house in Hakone, Japan. It’s about an hour from Tokyo. It’s got mountains and the ocean, and a hot spring. That’s where I’m going for my birthday.
What’s always in your fridge at home?
Eggs, milk, yoghurt, fresh fruit… and tequila!
What meal brings you joy?
I always love traditional Japanese food. Things like soba noodles. My mom was a great cook and I really miss her food. Rice and miso soup, pickles, fish for breakfast — very simple. Noodles for lunch — I still like the food I grew up with.
What are you reading at the moment?
Not books, but newspapers. And I just watched Bohemian Rhapsody — what a great movie. When I’m travelling I read the local papers, The New York Times, and Japanese newspapers, if I can get them.
Which restaurants do you love eating at?
I always like comfortable, homey restaurants. Ones that do real, simple food.