Harold Hurtada A Crown Fit for a Sushi King
How Head Chef Harold Hurtada, veteran of Nobu's International Culinary Empire, has brought local flavours to it's famous menu at Crown Sydney.
Sushi-making is a calling, says Harold Hurtada, head chef at Nobu, Crown Sydney. But it was one he was nearly talked out of heeding.
Hurtada was a student working as a kitchenhand in a Japanese restaurant in his home city of Manila, when he expressed an interest in training as a sushi chef. He was told it was impossible for him, being a left-hander.
“It’s because of the knife blade – they are made for right-handed chefs,” he says. Known as yanagiba, the long, thin knives traditionally used in sushi-making are only sharpened on one side.
Fortunately, Hurtada, (who points out that the venerated Jiro Ono, considered the greatest living sushi master, is also left-handed) trained himself to become ambidextrous, and his future was set.
In 2009, with the end goal of becoming a sushi sous-chef, Hurtada joined the Nobu Restaurants group, at the-then freshly opened Nobu at Atlantis in Dubai under chef Masa Ouchi, who Hurtada credits as one his most important mentors.
“Masa-san is one of the most phenomenal sushi chefs that I’ve worked with,” Hurtada says of Ouchi. “He doesn’t teach as such but he has a way of doing things – it’s like an art.”
After seven years of honing his skills in Dubai, Hurtada accepted his first head chef position in Nobu in Cape Town, South Africa – but only after originally turning it down.
“The first time I said no, because I didn’t feel ready to become a head chef. I don’t jump into water, if I don’t know how deep is it, but when I took this job, I was really, really ready.”
Under his helmsmanship, Nobu Cape Town was awarded Two Plates by JHP Gourmet Guide in 2018 – South Africa’s version of the Michelin Star, and comparable in prestige.
Hurtada had a dream of Australia however, and with the opening of Nobu’s third iteration (after Melbourne and Perth) he achieved his goal, taking up a position as head chef when the restaurant opened in Sydney in December 2020. “I got my love story,” Hurtada laughs.
Left: Harold Hurtada's Prawn and crispy shitake salad with goma dressing; Right: Harold Hurtada's Salmon sashimi new-style.
It wasn’t quite the smoothest introduction, however, with Covid putting paid to the company’s usual policy of sending other Nobu staff to support the opening and demonstrate the Nobu way of doing things.
“It was just me and a sous chef who were from Nobu, something that had never happened before,” he says.
So, with consistency part of their ethos and 80% of Nobu’s dishes being ubiquitous in their 42 restaurants worldwide, how does Hurtada create a sense of place with the menu?
“Local ingredients. One thing I learned from Nobu is that you need to source local ingredients first to turn it into a Nobu dish and make something exceptional.”
Thus, classic Nobu kingfish with jalapeño, or wagyu tacos – dishes that can be ordered in Nobu from Moscow to Mexico City – utilise Australian produce in Sydney. What is immutable, Hurtada says, are the twin principals of simplicity and quality.
“Four or five ingredients maximum and all the best quality – you won’t see sushi piled up with many different things,” Hurtada says. “Usually it’s just rice, protein and seasoning.” Which does not include mayonnaise!
Nobu sushi ingredients utilise blue fin tuna sustainably farmed in Japan, rice grown in a Nobu-exclusive paddy, and seaweed sourced from the premium seaweed-producing areas of Japan, along with the best Australian produce such as premium wagyu and seafood. The latter is something that chef Hurtada appreciates more than anything.
“The first place I went when I came to Australia was to the fish market. You can get everything here – there is so much choice and the quality is just amazing,” he says.
Fish is only as good as the person preparing it though, and according to chef Hurtada, the secret is in how you wield the knife.
“When preparing fish for sushi, tuna for example, you need to ‘go with the flow’ – look to see where the sinew is and to cut along with it so it will not be chewy but rather it is as soft as butter. Unless it’s toro (the fatty tuna belly), then it doesn’t matter where you cut it.”
Other tricks to mastering sushi is to use a good quality short-grain rice, to achieve a soft, fluffy texture and ensure the rice is not hard and compacted when rolled. And contrary to supermarket sushi or many of the ‘fast food’ sushi shops, sushi should be made and served instantly, Hurtada says, with the rice at body temperature rather than chilled, to both amplify the flavour and stop it drying out.
Etiquette-wise, sushi is designed to be eaten by hand; wasabi and soy sauce are not meant to be mixed together and never, ever leave your chopsticks upright in your rice, Hurtada says – it’s a practice seen only at funerals, said to bring bad luck when used outside times of mourning.
Above: Harold Hurtada's pink snapper sashimi in dry miso
LESSONS LEARNED AND SHARED
Nowadays, while Hurtada has handed over the reins of the sushi making to a dedicated sushi chef, it remains his passion; and, he says, when it gets busy he will instinctively head to the sushi bar to lend a hand.
It’s been an eventful journey for Hurtada, from kitchenhand to head chef, from Manila to Barangaroo. So what has he taken from it and the people who have guided him on the way?
“Learn from your mistakes and do not give up. Everyone is important in a restaurant, down to the person washing the dishes, and if you work together, you will always be able to find solutions. Nothing is impossible in this life.” Even, it seems, for a left-handed sushi chef.