What Nobu’s sushi chef does on his day off.
At 6:00 a.m. most chefs are still in bed, or just getting there, especially on their day off. But Toshio Tomita, executive sushi chef of the three Manhattan Nobu restaurants and Southampton’s Nobu at the Capri, is not most chefs. Sushi, or otherwise.
“This is how it’s done in Japan,” says Tomita, crouching down in his flip-flops at the edge of the dock at Towd’s Point in North Sea, gutting the porgy he just reeled in from Little Peconic Bay. He says the immediacy is safer (the fish cools down quicker than if left whole; that’s food safety 101) and it’s an easier cleanup at home. Scraping off the scales before putting the fish into his ice-full cooler, Tomita looks up and smiles as if he’s kidding about this bit of practicality. But he’s as serious as anyone should get when they’re not at work. Today, like most every Monday of the summer, is all about fun, even as the rain alternates between mildly annoying and torrential. It’s the day Tomita rises before sunrise to fish. Later, though Nobu at the Capri is closed until tomorrow, there’s inventory to record and sauces to prep for the upcoming week. In between, the day’s catch will become the day’s meal.
As usual, Tomita is not alone in his recreation. “Fishing is about relaxing,” he says. “And getting to know the guys.” He’s referring to his Southampton crew: 10 cooks alternately on loan from Manhattan; five from 57th Street and five from the two Down- town locations, Nobu New York and Nobu Next Door, who come out East two or three at a time. Most all of them love to fish, and other staff do, too. To- day Tomita is joined by Ping Liang Lin, Suko Lugito, Anne Yamamoto and Greg McCarty. Lin and Lugito are sushi chefs downtown and in Southampton; Yamamoto is Nobu’s special events director; McCarty’s the former executive sous-chef of Nobu 57, still friend- ly with the larger team.
Throughout these morning hours you’ll find Tomita and company laughing and smiling, a posture contrary to what you’ve likely seen if you’ve dined at a Nobu sushi bar.
“Someone will complain that we’re not smiling, that we’re always head-down to the cutting board,” says Tomita when probed. He’s grinning as he speaks, at peace with the things not all customers understand: preparing fish for a large, busy restaurant requires focus. Sushi is about knife skills, attention to detail, presentation. Once, however, the sushi chefs played a simple game: no English, which is tricky when customers ask: “What’s that?” “We were laughing and smiling,” he says, still amused by the memory, “and someone complained.”
Undaunted, he slices an orange clam and attaches a piece to a hook. You don’t go into the restaurant business because you think you can please everyone, and you surely don’t stay for that reason. Tomita’s been with Nobu for 15 years. He’s worked in professional kitchens for more than 30, beginning with apprenticeships in Japan where he was taught kappo and kaiseki—traditional styles of preparation and eating, both involving numerous ways of cooking plus awareness of seasonality, quality of ingredients, balance, presentation, and diner experience. Kappo is more simple than kaiseki, says Yamamoto. It’s cutting (knife skills) then boiling, stewing or frying. All dishes are made à la minute, the style of restaurant cooking in which a dish is prepared to order rather than mostly made ahead of time, and the meal takes place at a counter, so there’s a direct relationship between chef and diner.
À la minute is pressure enough. Now consider the attention paid to every individual element of every dish. And everything starts with a knife. Tomita remembers his first knife lesson, a drill his teenage self repeated until he got it right. He had to cut a slice of daikon evenly and thinly enough that you could read a newspaper through it. Try that at home for a sense of this chef’s skills. (Today, Tomita sells his own line of handmade, forged steel knives under the Nenox USA brand.) Clearly the simplicity Yamamoto refers to is relative. Kaiseki involves more techniques. Grilling, steaming, simmering, frying, pickling, presented in a multicourse meal. Again, of course, with thoughtfulness and precision. “Tomita-san is a special case for a sushi chef,” Yamamoto says. “He knows how to cook.” The skills and methodology required of a kappo or kaiseki chef require many years of training. “Tomita-san knows how to prepare almost anything. He once made a white chocolate–Gorgonzola truffle as a palate cleanser after the fish. It was great, and yummy.”
She laughs at her word choice while pulling up the bucket she’s dipping in the water to catch little fish known as white bait or spearing. Today Yamamoto, who grew up in Honolulu fish- ing with her dad and siblings using white-bread bait and bamboo poles, will out-catch everyone. “It’s a delicate balance of water to bread,” she says of her childhood and this morning, smiling to belie the rationale behind not dissolving your bait. Modest recognition and appreciation of logic is a theme here. That, and respect. “Tomita-san is a master,” says Lin, as his boss and mentor reels in his second porgy of the day. “He’s teaching me everything.”
Before weather curtails our party, Lugito takes out his phone to show off photos of their last morning out. “20 porgy!” he says excit- edly, off the Montauk Pier. That’s the group’s preferred spot. They like Towd Point, too, but mostly because this popular North Sea fishing spot is close enough to Nobu at the Capri to fish in the few hours be- tween lunch and dinner service. (I’m compelled to join them in Mon- tauk the following Monday for a perfectly rainless sunrise and the possibility of more porgy, blackfish, fluke, blowfish and striped bass.)
After fishing, the chefs cook. For themselves. While driving from water to house, dish ideas emerge: Tomita likes fish in soup, but that’s time-consuming and we’re hungry. He settles on porgy four ways: steamed, marinated, pan-fried and sashimi. “Of course you can eat porgy raw,” says Tomita. “Japanese people eat every- thing raw—pork, beef, chicken. But not here. In Japan.”
Growing up in Tokyo, where everything that can be eaten is eaten, Tomita fished in the Tamagawa River with his dad. Talking was not permitted, he recalls, shaking his head fondly. “I didn’t like it.” Now the chef plans trips around the activity—last summer he spent a few days on the Connecticut River. When asked about fishing as it relates to his profession, he tells me about a certain subset of commercial fishermen in Japan: small boats, 500-pound tuna by hand. Like cooking, it’s an art. And artistry should be appreciated. Watching Tomita fillet the fish and dance around the three sauté pans going on the gas stove, it’s hard to believe porgy is a fish that’s relatively new to him. One pan holds sake, emit- ting steam. Another has sake, soy sauce, sugar, water and a bonito packet, reducing to a balanced sauce. Oil heats in the third.
In better weather Tomita often fillets the fish on the dock and salts it. “There’s something about fish flavor and salt,” he says. “I don’t know the English, but people eat, and it tastes good.” Salt extracts the water from the fish. After 30 minutes you have a completely different flavor. He’s intrigued by the endless possibilities of taste from the same product. When he cooks and eats, he likes to start with sashimi and go from there.
We’re ready whenever he is. The plates come to the table: porgy saka-mushi (sake-steamed), porgy nitsuke (in a reduction), sautéed porgy with wakame (there’s no Japanese word for sauté), and, of course, porgy sashimi. There’s rice to follow, and if it wasn’t 10:30 a.m. there’d be shochu too, or beer. We all reach in with our chopsticks. It’s an extremely intimate family meal. With the afternoon and evening ahead of me, I’d already had a completely satisfying day, intellectually, socially and physically. Who needs sleep? “I sleep,” says Tomita. “Last night: three hours.” And that’s just enough when nourishment has so many sources.
Editor’s note: Nobu at the Capri is closed for the season and will re- open in the spring.