Why Nobu must evolve

Anyone who has listened to the radio, watched television, read a newspaper, surfed the internet, or chased after celebrity gossip in the past couple of weeks has likely heard about something about a particular sushi chain getting called out for a history of nefarious behavior.

The chain in question in Nobu, the fantastically successful joint venture of renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the Raging Bull himself Robert De Niro, and three other partners. Nobu is a sushi giant, with twenty-four locations that dot the most chic neighboorhoods of many of the world’s most glamourous cities, and a menu replete with dozens of price tags that would make the average recession-choked American both green with envy and red with rage.

Countdown to extinction

Countdown to extinction

Nobu is under siege from all sides for its continual disregard for the health of our planet.  The high-end chain sells a tremendous amount of bluefin tuna, much of which is critically endangered Northern bluefin (Thunnus thynnus) from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.  Despite repeated warnings about the looming commercial extinction of this majestic fish from a vast international amalgamation of scientists, actors, conservation organizations, foodies, bloggers, aquaria, filmmakers, and even a European Prince, Nobu resolutely presses forward, offering no comment and refusing to alter its menu in the slightest.  The restaurant’s response is akin to a tantrum-throwing child clapping his hands over his ears while stomping his feet, or perhaps to a yoked horse charging towards a cliff regardless of its own life or the lives of those in the stagecoach attached to it.  Nobu’s arrogant denial of the reality of our mutual challenge — the continual decline of the health of our oceans — is a serious problem.

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

Not in my ocean: Elle MacPhearson is one of the many celebrities boycotting Nobu

But this is not about just one restaurant.  Nobu is a symbol; it represents the old guard of restaurateurs whose lofty perches often distance them from the plebeian masses.  Moreover, Nobu is a rallying point — as an endangered species-slinging, celebrity-owned, stratospherically-priced haunt for the upper crust, it’s a perfect target for those who are itching for a greater level of corporate responsibility within the restaurant industry.

For those of you who are not yet aware, I have recently accepted the position of Senior Markets Campaigner for one of my favorite conservation organizations, GreenpeaceThis does not indicate the convergence of Greenpeace and www.sustainablesushi.net, which remains an independent forum – but the arrangement allows me to work with a large group of passionate individuals towards the greater goal of a healthy planet.  One of the ways that we can reach this goal is through the reformation of the sushi industry, and there’s no better way to accomplish this than to get some high-level trendsetters on board.  Enter Nobu.

Nobu has already been “outed” on their unsustainable practices (this interaction is featured in the forthcoming documentary The End of the Line, based on the excellent book by Charles Clover).  Nobu promised to label bluefin as an endangered species on all of their menus, but subsequently changed tactics and cut off communications.  The one menu that reflects any change whatsoever is at the London branch, which uses a microscopic footnote to indicate that bluefin is “environmentally challenged.”  This thunderous understatement aside, Nobu has done absolutely nothing to protect that very fish which has so heavily contributed to the jingling pockets of the restaurant’s owners.  Our oceans cannot endure this situation any longer.  Enter Greenpeace.

I am not a fan of direct confrontation.  I view it as an avenue of last resort, only to be used when all other tactics have been exhausted.  In this case, Nobu has been stonewalling environmental entreaty for over a year while the chain contiunues to plunder the ocean for its own insatiable greed.  To expose and spotlight this edacious behavior, John Hocevar, Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign Director, developed a mock Nobu menu — a Swiftian satire of Nobu’s reckless quest for profit at all costs.  What is the difference, the menu suggests, between Northern bluefin and mountain gorilla, Iberian lynx, or California Condor?  All of these animals are critically endangered.  Why is it acceptable to serve the former, when the presence of any of the latter three on a restaurant menu would no doubt solicit a restaurant critic’s verbal equivalent of a molotov cocktail through the front window?

Spreading the word
Spreading the word, one menu at a time

Over the past week, Greenpeace activists in both New York and Los Angeles have staged “dine-ins” at Nobu’s TriBeCa and West Hollywood locations, festooning the restaurant with mock menus, taking up table space, and demanding to speak to the manager about Nobu’s egregious disregard for our planet’s welfare.

The actions were conducted in a precise manner that was aimed at sending a message to upper management without undue disruption of other restaurant patrons.  Nobu servers were generously tipped by Greenpeace activists; after all, the  restaurant ownership’s head-in-the-sand mentality does not justify behavior that would send the waitresses and waiters, who have no decision-making power but who do have families and livelihoods, home without the tips on which they depend.  We are, after all, in a recession.

The point of all this is to take the issue to Nobu on the restaurant’s home turf.  In addition to being lambasted in the press, demonized in a documentary, and boycotted by celebrities, Nobu now must contend with activists that march directly into the restaurant to speak their minds.

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

The stubborn legend himself: Matsuhisa-san

Nobu is a trend-setting establishment that not only spans the globe, but wields incredible influence at the top of the sushi industry food chain. The innovative akumen and staggering talent of Nobu Matsuhisa are undeniable; he is undoubtedly capable of creating delectable dishes from both sustainable and unsustainable sources alike. Why, then, is he so resistant to use these gifts in an environmentally friendly manner?

Still, viewing this issue as “environmentalists v Nobu” is missing the point. Both groups want the same outcome: a healthy and productive ocean that can provide all the ecosystem services to foster sustainable business and healthy living. If Nobu were to drop bluefin and adopt a sustainable business model, it would be in the interest of the environmental community to promote the restaurant and encourage consumers to patronize it, rather than the unfortunate current situation.

Nobu needs to change their practices and begin to demonstrate corporate responsibility. Although environmentally rapacious and irresponsible businesses no longer have a place in this changing world, it is in everyone’s interest that sustainable and wisely managed establishments thrive and succeed.

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9 Comments

Andrew
Jun 8, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Not to take any pressure off Chef Nobu but it is important to note the role that illustrious restaurateur Drew Nieporent plays in this controversy. We can’t let the real decision makers slip through the cracks, especially when they have a reach of influence that transcend that of even Chef Nobu. Mr. Nieporent’s company Myriad Restaurant Group owns and operates numerous restaurants, many of which are known for their celebrity clientele, and in some cases celebrity co-owners. Tribeca Grill, Rubicon in San Francisco (now closed), Nobu, Nobu London, Next Door Nobu, Nobu 57, Centrico, Pulse, The Coach House, Proof on Main, Montrachet(now closed), Corton, and Mai House are all well know restaurants in his empire.

Lets examine some of MR. Nieporent’s comments. Upon realizing the high levels of mercury in fish Drew Nieporent stated in January 2008 “I’m startled by this. Anything that might endanger any customer of ours, we’d be inclined to take off the menu immediately and get to the bottom of it.” Really? Interesting that he would make such a bold statement, and yet now is virtually silent when it comes to serving bluefin tuna (which is still proven to have high levels of mercury).

Drew Nieporent is a celebrity amongst restaurateurs (2009 James Beard award winner for best restaurateur). Google his name and you will find a plethora of videos, articles, and presentations made by the gregarious, opinionated Nieporent. Interestingly, many of these presentations are made alongside NYC sustainability pioneers such as Dan Berber of Blue Hill.

On the theory that an innocent man would loudly deny a serious charge, my rule holds that a suspect silent in the face of an accusation has admitted the crime. Drew Nieporent’s silence is disappointing and in my opinion furthers his knowledge of guilt. Is it his ego that is restricting him to make the appropriate changes here?


 
Deborah
Jun 9, 2009 at 10:37 am

Fantastic article! How much longer can Nobu continue to ignore what is in its own best interests?


 

[...] can tell you exactly where the fish is coming from.  The sushi restaurants I visit are not like Nobu – chefs resisting customers’ pleas on behalf of the oceans and continuing to employ virtually [...]


 
Mel
Jun 10, 2009 at 12:02 am

Nobu should definitely do the right thing & EMBRACE the sustainable seafood movement. I’m surprised that Robert de Niro has not made a public statement re: this already. When will he step forward & endorse what Casson Trenor & Greenpeace have so clearly shown to be in all of our interests.


 

[...] highly-lauded Nobu restaurants. Greenpeace and those same celebrities have recently launched a boycott in hopes of forcing a menu [...]


 
ralph
Jul 31, 2009 at 3:07 pm

while i agree with everything you’re saying – did you really need to include a bikini shot of elle mcpherson? i mean – any need? at all? by any stretch of the imagination?

makes your point considerably less palatable.


 

[...] critical issue.   Support Greenpeace’s actions in France and help us get Paris back on track.  Avoid sushi restaurants like Nobu that serve endangered bluefin tuna. Most importantly – don’t give up on this amazing animal just yet.  We can still turn things [...]


 

[...] industry has exploded in recent years, bringing with it a skyrocketing demand for bluefin tuna.  Many of the world’s most well-known sushi icons are based in the United States, and there is no shortage of American consumers willing to shell out [...]


 
Sterling Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Feb 18, 2012 at 11:28 am

magnificent submit, extremely informative. I ponder why the opposite experts of this sector don’t realize this. You must proceed your writing. I’m positive, you’ve a great readers’ base already!


 

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