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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001

Book Bites

NOBU: The Cookbook, by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Kodansha International, 2001, 200 pp., 3,900 yen (cloth)

World-famous restaurateur Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, whose clientele includes celebrities such as Madonna, Steven Spielberg and Giorgio Armani, came close to committing suicide in 1977 after his restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, burned to the ground.

His third attempt to carve out a career overseas as a sushi chef had failed. Despairing, in debt and without a source of income, he decided the only way out was death.

"What saved me was my daughter," he writes in the introduction to the newly released "Nobu: The Cookbook." "Looking at her innocent face, I began to think about trying again . . . at least for her sake."

His determination was richly rewarded. Thirteen Nobu restaurants around the world now serve his unique fusion cuisine, an imaginative blend of Japanese, South American and European flavors. "The Cookbook" lays bare the superchef's secrets, making it possible for anyone to create a Nobu-style feast at home for considerably less than the $150 average price of a dinner at a Nobu restaurant. The chef insists on using only the very best and freshest ingredients.

Lavishly photographed and offering more than 50 original recipes, "The Cookbook" includes explanations of basic equipment and cutting techniques, four suggested dinner plans and detailed instructions on how to prepare unusual ingredients such as octopus and eel (octopus, for example, must be rubbed around the inside of a ceramic mortar for 5 to 10 minutes before cooking to remove sliminess, otherwise it smells "fishy" when cooked).

Although Nobu got his start the traditional way, serving as an apprentice in a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where he spent his first two years doing nothing but cleaning, carrying and observing the master chef, the hallmark of his cuisine has always been experimentation. In Peru, where he set up his first restaurant in 1972, in Argentina, and then in the U.S., he reworked local dishes to come up with his own original creations.

In "The Cookbook," he lists foie gras, Kobe beef, shark's fin and caviar as unusual toppings that he has recently added to his sushi repertoire. "I even made moose sushi in Alaska once when I was given the meat by a hunter!" he recalls.

Cooking, as Nobu explains, is an ephemeral art. "For all the passion and attention (a chef) puts into making a dish, it disappears at the touch of a pair of chopsticks," he writes. "The Cookbook" will ensure his achievements are not easily forgotten.

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