Dining: Nobu Doesn't Panic, Goes Organic

A visit with Nobu Matsuhisa, and a considerable entourage, at Waianae’s Mao Farm.

Nobu Matsuhisa and Nobu Waikiki general manager Wanloe Konyak harvest baby kale at Mao Farms.

Photo: Matt Mallams

From the back of the van, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa asks, “Where we are?”

Nanakuli, Farrington Highway, on our way to Lualualei Valley, Waianae.

“Nanakuli,” says Nobu. “Maybe I should put restaurant here. Good name—Nobu Nanakuli.”

“I’d have to make Spam musubi all day,” says Nobu’s head sushi chef, Yoshio Ono.

Nobu peers out at the Waianae Range. “The mountains remind me of Cape Town,” he says.

He should know. Nobu has a restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa. He has a restaurant almost everywhere, from Moscow to Melbourne to Mykonos.

“How many do you have now?” someone asks.

He starts to count them. “18 Nobu,” he says, “and three Matsuhisas.”

At any given location, it’s a big deal when the master himself is in residence. This week he’s at Nobu Waikiki—for sushi classes, cocktail parties, book signings, guests wanting their pictures with him and dinners prepared with his celebrated touch.

A Mao Farm student intern harvests small, spicy Hakurei turnips, which will end up served with Wagyu beef in Nobu’s Mao Farms dinner.

Photo: Matt Mallams

For a man whose word is law in kitchens on five continents, Nobu is reasonably modest and easy to talk to. Still, he can’t help exuding an aura everywhere he goes—in this case, on a pilgrimage to Waianae’s Mao Farm.

Mao is a social action/sustainable ag outfit that has managed to produce a considerable aura of its own, selling $300,000 a year in organic produce and attracting a number of government and private grants.

A glut of vehicles packs the farm’s unpaved parking lot. In addition to Nobu, sushi chef Ono, Waikiki executive chef Lindsey Ozawa and general manager Wanloe Konyak, there’s Team Nobu, as they call themselves, a dozen or so sous chefs and servers, all here on their own time. They are a diverse bunch, with looks that range from East Coast punk to Texas cowgirl.

Add to that a translator (for Nobu, who doesn’t really need one), four reporters and five photographers, a videographer and a public relations director, who hops on a tractor to get her picture snapped.

That’s not all. Also visiting Mao are two program specialists, young women who usually sit in Washington, D.C., cubicles, monitoring grants from the Administration for Native Americans—a federal agency that has funded Mao Farm to the tune of $2 million.

Even that’s not all. The Mao Farms staff is out in full force, wearing “No Panic, Go Organic” T-shirts. This includes its married directors, Kukui and Gary Maunakea-Forth, and its education specialist, Kamuela Enos, whose job it is, he says, to help us “contextualize” what we are going to see.

Nobu’s mizuna and cilantro salad, which turned out much better than you’d expect.

Photo: Matt Mallams

Which is not just bright fields, organic cilantro and basil, red and yellow rainbow chard, feathery fennel, with white butterflies winging around the leafy, deep-green kale.

At its heart, Mao is a cultural activity, the whole organic farming thing fraught with spiritual and educational overtones. Mao’s major crop is college students. It recruits two-year student interns from Waianae, which traditionally doesn’t send many kids to college.

The farm pays them $500 to $600 a month and puts them through Leeward Community College—as long as they pass their courses. If they don’t pass, they have to pay the tuition back. The interns don’t have to become farmers; the hope is they’ll become leaders.



Back in the kitchen of Nobu Waikiki, the master himself demonstrates how he wants the mizuna and cilantro salad to be served.

Photo: Matt Mallams

Today the 20 interns are all working, some planting, some hoeing furrows, many washing herbs and vegetables in the packing shed. It’s the old packing shed, with barely room for the workers, much less Nobu and entourage.

There’s a new packing shed, four or five times bigger, ready to go except for city permits, on 11 acres of land the farm has newly purchased with money from the state and the Omidyar Foundation.

Nobu’s ehu.

Not your typical farm lunch: Nobu’s chirashi with plenty of ikura, shrimp and egg.

Photos: Matt Mallams

On the old shed’s wall is a list of the farm’s customers—Alan Wong’s, Whole Foods, Kokua Market, Roy’s, Town, Nobu, a dozen in all—with their orders for the day. Nobu moves through the shed with Manny Miles, former intern and assistant farm manager. Both Nobu and Miles smile habitually, but their smiles grow brighter and brighter as they move through the arugula, curly top lettuce, green onions, multicolored cauliflower and tiny, spicy Hakurei turnips, the last of which will end up in Nobu’s miso soup.

“Beautiful product, beautiful place,” says Nobu. “You need a restaurant. I show you how to make Nobu dressing, Mao Farm Salad Nobu Style.”

The farm visit takes several hours. There are chants and an introductory circle, not to mention considerable contextualizing, with words like sustainable, empowerment and paradigm. The point is simple: Waianae was once a self-sufficient community that handled its land and water resources well. “Organic farming wasn’t invented in 1970,” says Enos. “The Hawaiians practiced it, and fed themselves in extreme isolation.”

We tour some new facilities, including a gathering/party space made from entirely Earth-friendly materials and several buildings repurposed from chicken sheds, since the new acreage once included Takahashi Chicken Farm.

Nobu follows farm manager Gary Maunakea-Forth into the fields, alternately praising what he sees—arugula, mizuna, baby beets, radishes—and asking Maunakea-Forth to grow things he’d like to have, such as Japanese yuzu and Peruvian rocoto peppers. The farm already grows almost 40 products. “We’d like to grow 100,” says Maunakea-Forth.

The Mao Farm Meyer Lemon Drop with grilled shishito pepper.

Photo: Matt Mallams

The biggest fuss comes in the citrus grove. Meyer lemons. It’s hard to find a steady source of Meyer lemons in Hawaii. “Great for cocktails,” I gush. The next thing I know I am puckering my mouth around a Meyer lemon wedge in the company of Nobu’s bartender, David Newman, who is of the same mind.

In the introductory circle, we are asked to name our favorite fruit or vegetable. Says Newman, “My favorite is any fruit marinated in Jack Daniels.” Newman’s been charged with creating cocktails using Mao Farm organic ingredients. The lemons seem to make him happy. Tonight, he’ll make a Meyer lemon-vodka cocktail with a grilled Mao Farm shishito pepper.

Nobu is equally happy. He will use the Meyer lemon juice instead of Japanese yuzu—after all, yuzu in Hawaii comes in a green plastic bottle and these are organic, right off the tree.



The sushi bar at Nobu Waikiki gets down to business.

Photo: Matt Mallams

“No yuzu. These,” he says to executive chef Lindsey Ozawa when we get back to the small farm kitchen. Nobu, ever the gracious guest, will make lunch. Except it’s Ozawa who goes to work making a giant salad of tatsoi and baby red Russian kale, some of which Nobu personally harvested about 20 minutes earlier.

Ozawa adds grated Parmesan, plus an ingredient Nobu pioneered and is exclusive to him, dried miso. The dressing, in addition to the hand-squeezed lemons, gets a dash of truffle oil. At the last minute, Nobu comes by, takes one bite, says, “You forgot the leeks.” There’s a container of julienned leeks Ozawa has overlooked. “I have to check every time,” says Nobu.

It’s a killer salad, better than the cilantro and mizuna salad that Nobu himself whips up with a shoyu-based dressing. Still, you have to marvel. Cilantro and mizuna salad? Mizuna is mustardy, and there are Web sites, blogs and Facebook pages devoted to people who loath cilantro. They call it “gasoline-soaked grass” or “the fetid weed,” among the more printable epithets.

You’d expect an entire salad of cilantro to be overpowering. This one is delicious, not really because of Nobu’s magic touch, but because Mao Farms grows a remarkably fresh, reasonably sweet cilantro. “No panic, go organic,” says Nobu.

One of the Mao staff told me, “I think Nobu gets the bigger picture of what we are doing here.” That’s true: 20 percent of the proceeds from this week’s Mao Farms dinners will go to support the farm.

But it goes the other way as well. A chef of Nobu’s caliber is notoriously picky about ingredients. Nobu gets the “bigger picture” at Mao because the cilantro, the red Russian kale, the turnips, the Meyer lemons and so on, are all good.

What matters finally to a chef is what’s on the plate.

That’s true at lunch, which isn’t just salad. Sushi chef Ono suddenly whips up three massive metal pans of chirashi, sushi rice with a dense scattering of toppings: tomago, unagi, shrimp, fish, octopus, ikura. A single portion of chirashi on Nobu’s lunch menu is $28. Here there’s more than enough for everyone, including all the interns, who have finished their farm work for the day and are ready to head to class. Everyone seems buoyed by the generosity from Nobu’s kitchen.

Nobu is all about the kitchen.

Flash forward. After the drive back, Nobu still insisting he’s eyeing a location next to Subway for Nobu Nanakuli. After a couple of hours off, the rest of the press gone, I’m still hanging around, this time in the kitchen of Nobu Waikiki, pestering Nobu about how he’s going to use the ingredients he’s gathered from Mao in his special $125, seven-course dinner.

He gets out a sauté pan, sizzling a small fillet of ehu, the local snapper. Into a second sauté pan go maitake mushrooms, purple cauliflower, chard and a variety of mizuna called Ruby Streaks. Some shichimi pepper (a Japanese spice blend), a dash of a sake-shoyu mix. Then onto a plate, first the fish perfectly cooked, then the vegetables, still bright, leaving behind the cooking liquid. Instead, Nobu wields a squirt bottle of what he calls ginger sauce. I taste a fingertip full. There’s shoyu—and acid. Lemon? I ask. “Vinegar,” says one of the sous chefs.
“Take this to the bar,” says Nobu, who seems relieved to have found a way to get rid of me. “You eat.”


Scallops tiradito is a Peruvian dish filtered through a Japanese culinary sensibility.

Photo: Matt Mallams

On my way to the bar, sushi chef Ono hands me another course from the dinner, scallop tiradito. In the ’70s, Nobu had a sushi bar, his first, in Lima, Peru. Tiradito is what’s called Nikkei Peruvian food—a Japanese-style variation on ceviche which Nobu himself helped popularize.
This tiradito is scallop slices, each slice touched with Mao Farms Tahitian lime juice and a single cilantro leaf, then a bright red dot of sauce, made from those rocoto peppers Nobu wants Mao to grow. Subtle, subtle, subtle, accenting rather than diminishing the sweetness of the scallops.

Both these dishes, simple really, add up to more than a sum of their parts. Nobu has something of a magic touch—made up of one part precision, another part quality ingredients, and finally a willingness to let things be as they are, which makes the whole point of going to the farm crystal clear.

Customers have begun arriving for dinner. Nobu’s in the bar, uncomfortable in a lei, posing for pictures. He notices I’ve cleaned the plates. “OK?” he asks.


John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.