After Hours with Roy and Nobu
By Joan Namkoong
Forget the caviar and truffles—ask any chef what he craves after a long day of tasting and cooking, and the answer is tasty, quick comfort food.
The choices of two of Honolulu’s star chefs might surprise you. Roy Yamaguchi and Nobu Matsuhisa are longtime friends who travel constantly to oversee their expanding empires of scrumptious restaurants.
The founder and chef of Roy’s Restaurants—at last count numbering 34 in the U.S., Guam and Japan—often works late at his flagship Hawaii Kai restaurant, just minutes from his home. “Close and convenient” are his operative words for late-night bites. “I only go to places that are really easy,” says Roy.
At Zippy’s in Hawaii Kai, a steaming bowl of oxtail soup or a fried chicken platter will satisfy his appetite. Or tofu soup at nearby Ba-Le Sandwich Shop, or a bowl of wor won ton mein, hot and sour soup or half a crispy chicken at Fun Lung Chinese restaurant in Niu Valley Shopping Center.
On a night off Roy might take his now-grown children to Tokkuri-tei in Kapahulu, where sashimi, grilled skewers of gizzards and liver, mozuku (seaweed in vinegar) and other simple izakaya specialties define the meal. And when he's in the neighborhood, Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits on Dillingham hits the spot. Roy's picks? White-meat chicken with gravy and a side of dirty rice.
Late night at home might find him pouring hot green tea over rice--the soul-warming Japanese staple known as ochazuke--to eat with salty tsukemono pickles from the fridge. And he does sometimes take home a treat from his restaurant kitchen: an incredible spicy chicken soup made by Mr. Kham, one of his prep cooks.
The founder and creator of the globe-spanning Nobu restaurants is equally simple in his personal food preferences. Home for Nobu is in Beverly Hills, where his restaurant empire was born. When he’s there his wife, Yoko, is his private chef. “She cooks everything—traditional Japanese dishes, pasta, steak. She cooks healthy. I like her steamed rice and miso soup, her homemade Japanese pickles, grilled fresh salmon with salt—simple foods made by her hand, not bought from a market.”
His wife’s cooking follows his own style: cooking from the heart. It’s a style he has perfected, fusing his Japanese origins and training with his years in Peru, Alaska and California. His is a sophisticated cuisine based on fine ingredients and refined tastes, simply imbued with his touch.
In his frequent visits to Honolulu to check on his newest location at Beachwalk, Nobu stays at the Halekulani Hotel across the street, where the tradewinds and tranquil atmosphere offer relaxing breaks in his hectic travel schedule. He likes to start his day with yogurt and fruit for breakfast. On a Sunday, he might wander over to the hotel’s brunch.
Eating is my job, cooking is my life. Sometimes I don’t want to see any food.
After a long day of cooking, Nobu often unwinds over a drink, often with Roy. The two might venture over to Hiroshi’s Korean Barbecue in Waikiki, where Nobu orders the cold ramen noodles. It’s the closest thing to inaniwa, a dish of cold udon noodles in a broth of dashi, soy and mirin that he really enjoys but can’t find in Honolulu. “At the end of the day, my body is tired and I can’t eat anything heavy because it’s late,” says Nobu.
Or the two will wander over to Mai Lan, a small Vietnamese restaurant on Keeaumoku Street near Beretania, where a comforting bowl of noodles is Nobu’s choice.
Occasionally he’ll join the legion of chefs who hang out at Side Street Inn after hours for some ahi poke, fried pork chops and beer. “This place feels like Hawaii,” says Nobu. “I like to eat this kind of food.”
Rarely does this yoga practitioner venture into the fast-food world—the last time was several years ago in Shanghai when he rushed to grab a hamburger on the way to the airport. Because he’s constantly eating on the go, he’s careful to watch his diet and overall health. “Eating is my job, cooking is my life. I’m eating every day. Sometimes I don’t want to see any food; sometimes I just want to stay home and eat yogurt.”