In Praise of Regulars and of Nobu Matsuhisa -- Because People Who Work Hard Are Cool
Honest and earnest hospitality, with no false face or bogus promises, is perhaps the most authentic type of performance art when it comes to matters of dining and drinking.
Nobu: A Memoir
There's this half-joke in the Midwest that living the American Dream amounts to refurbishing your basement by putting a bar in it. My little brother called from the Chicago suburbs last year to tell me his home bar was complete and he could now die a happy man. When I last visited him, we spent our time down there every night after he put his three-year-old to sleep. We weren't necessarily even drinking.
The home bar is a national aspirational treasure not so much because it's a bar but because it's a home. Maybe it's a uniquely suburban delight, a personal oasis hiding amongst the great swaths of strip malls. As a metro-dweller, I have my pick of bars. Sometimes I want that baller skyscraper view and a $40 sip of small-batch gin, but mostly—well, you know: I just want to go where everybody knows my name. Not because I'm famous, but because I'm a regular.
That badge of "regular" is the citified equivalent of a suburban home bar dream. It takes a whole lot of patience, some forethought and logistical sense, and a steady wallet. It takes a willingness to try whatever is on tap at the moment, the ability to match faces of bartenders with their names and chat them up just the right amount so they can still do their job at the other end of the counter, and it takes a respect for the boundary of that counter itself. You can't just call yourself a regular; it's a title bestowed upon you with mild, half-joking fanfare at first by one of the more veteran staff members, then word of your title has to proliferate through the organization. Eventually, you walk in and find a glass being put down in front of your favorite seat before you can even plant your butt in it. The other customers—that's what they are, merely customers—can feel how your entrance shifts the space. It's a vibe that says: I'm at home here.
As a noun, a "regular" is a repeat customer. Another meaning of the noun refers to what you order—the regular is your usual thing. Over time, conforming to the standard of the regular order becomes boring and ordinary. Sometimes that's a comfort, but a true regular also embraces the adverbial: "regularly", a frequently repeating action. A regular can regularly order her regular, or a regular can regularly order the new, the experimental, the surreal, the limited edition, the secret menu, the insane idea, the weird thing the kitchen made because the people in that kitchen are thinking specifically about you and waiting for you to come back in so they can give you their weird thing.
This is a kind of hospitality that most people only find in their own house, but certain bars and restaurants can also nail it, can also build that kind of trust and attention that most people reserve for family in their own homes. It's often found at hole-in-the-wall sushi joints where most of the English is broken. The Japanese word for this is omotenashi. According to the Michelin guide: "'Omote' means public face – an image you wish to present to outsiders. 'Nashi' means nothing. Combining them means every service is from the bottom of the heart – honest, no hiding, no pretending."
Honest and earnest hospitality, with no false face or bogus promises, is perhaps the most authentic type of performance art when it comes to matters of dining and drinking. "We don't need a manual for hospitality," declares Nobu Matsuhisa in his new memoir, Nobu. Yeah, that Nobu. maybe you've heard of it. No—of course you've heard of it. Because it's expensive? Nope. Because the menu is cutting-edge? Nope. Because it's the most rapidly expanding namesake restaurant group in the entire world? Nope. Though all of those things might be true. I've never personally been to a Nobu, but have always wanted to go. A lot of people go to a place like this for a special occasion.
Viewing a restaurant as occasional freaks me out; I'd rather feel welcomed and at home wherever I am. Many people feel intimidated or even policed by the severe attentiveness of a sushi spot. They feel they don't know the rules, or the cuisine, so they're constantly at risk of making wrong decisions and being an embarrassment. I always thought Nobu would be one of these places, but after reading the memoir, I feel at ease and am looking forward to visiting a Nobu soon. One is even expected to land in my city of Atlanta next year and I full expect to be meeting Matsuhisa himself at that time.
When he opens a new restaurant, he knows he "must never lose sight of the company's roots or the philosophy of its founder. If we condense that into a manual and assume that just by reading it, the staff will understand, the future of our business will be limited" (183). This limitation is regularity in the automatic sense. He understands that "manuals and systems never change once they have been made, unless someone deliberately revises them. Communication, on the other hand, is constantly evolving in response to circumstances" (183).
The anxiety that customers often feel will eventually prevent them from becoming regulars at those places that confuse automation with communication. Matsuhisa's standard of evolving communication is what is sometimes read as severe attentiveness. Not everybody can get on board with it, but they certainly should try, for "this is the consideration that everyone working at the restaurant shows the guests and each other. If the servers merely perform each task mechanically—welcoming the guests, guiding them to a table, giving them a menu, taking their order, serving the food, and bringing them the bill—it's not a real restaurant" (146).
The proliferation of Nobu spots does not then imply that his restaurant concept has become routine. It's a growth that's proof of having regularly experimented. The memoir delightfully extends this restaurant lesson as a metaphor for Matsuhisa's own life, where he has "tended to just go ahead and try things, instead of planning them through carefully in advance, and for the most part, the results have been good. More important than calculated plans, I think we need to have the courage to try something that catches our interest and the determination to do it right once we get started. […] If we just get started, the value of what we're doing will become clear to us later on" (180).
Written in short, conversational essay style, the memoir approaches Nobu's career in chronological order. The anecdotes are good ones and Nobu has a flair for telling his own story, yet the lessons of his life's work tend to repeat themselves in the most surprising, gratifying manner. This is certainly not a Bildungsroman, where the protagonist grows and changes or finds resolve at the very end. Like the incessant training of a proper sushi chef, Nobu's memoir itself puts emphasis on the regularity of the obstacles we encounter in life. The things he cared for as a young chef as the same things he still cares for, so many of the anecdotes feature the same set up—either an encounter with one of his regulars or a risk he took in the kitchen.
The memoir details his many failings, both professional and personal. Despite the occasional epic disaster, he says, "I am a very happy man, but if you asked me what the secret of happiness is, I could not tell you. Because you can only understand life by living it for yourself. You will never find the answer without making your own efforts" (197). The chief leap of faith in Nobu: A Memoir is that effort always generates value one way or another. Effort: that's what it takes to be a regular, to progress by way of regularity.
Indeed, Nobu is a narrator in good spirits throughout, able to disclose and laugh at his own errors because he is committed to doing better next time. Though the memoir can be read cover to cover linearly, the eternal return of its main themes means the book is also fit for flipping through. Many a chef might take comfort in a two-minute meditation on any given chapter segment. The book cleverly performs its own argument about the nature of regularity.
A lot of foodie types might begrudge Nobu Matsuhisha his success, but this book reveals the genuine extent to which he is a workhorse who had earned it, and I think that's a damn fine thing to aspire to be. I may turn out to be a regular with Nobu some day, because you know what a workhorse is really up to? "I'm simply trying to do my best at all times. […] For me, that's just the easiest way. Just think about it. If you're always doing your best, you never need to make excuses. People who work hard are cool. People who give everything their best shot are forgiven when they make mistakes. […] You can just carry on doing your personal best" (192). I can certainly make a home in that idea.