The name Nobu Matsuhisa needs no introduction. One of the world’s most widely acclaimed restauranteurs, the master chef’s influence on dining and hospitality extends to all four corners of the globe.
Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, Executive Chef & Owner – known to the world simply as “Nobu” – is the acclaimed and highly influential chef proprietor of Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants located across five continents. Born and raised in Saitama, Japan, Nobu served a rigorous apprenticeship at a respected sushi bar in Tokyo. It was not long before his dreams of seeing the world moved him to open a sushi bar in Peru. A classically trained sushi-chef, Nobu was challenged by the new culture and regional ingredients, which kindled his inventive style, known today as Nobu Style. After three years in Peru, Nobu moved to Argentina, then home to Japan, then on to Alaska, before finally settling in Los Angeles. Nobu opened his first restaurant in the United States, Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in January 1987. An instant success, it was here that his relationships with Robert De Niro and Meir Teper began, leading the trio to open their first Nobu restaurant together in 1994.
Tell us about how your career started.
I started out by learning the art of sushi-making with an apprenticeship at a respected sushi bar in Tokyo. At the age of 22, one of the regular customers invited me to open a restaurant in Lima, Peru. I had never left Japan, and my dream was to travel the world. When I went to Peru, I realised that different cultures meant different foods – I was so excited to taste their food and to learn about their culture… After Lima, I went back to Japan. A friend of mine then introduced me to Anchorage Alaska. After 50 days of working straight after the grand opening, it was my day off on Thanksgiving Day and my partner called me to tell me that there was a fire. I has lost hope in my career, but a friend convinced me to start again and I eventually settled down in LA. In 1987, I opened my first restaurant in Beverly Hills, Matsuhisa.
How did you start your business venture with Robert De Niro?
Robert was a regular customer at Matsuhisa. One day, out of the blue, he asked me to open a restaurant with him in New York. I flew over to look at the site but eventually, I said ‘Bob, thanks for the offer but it’s too early’. Robert continued dining at Matsuhisa, and eventually took me aside again. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting four years, now can you come to New York?’ I was surprised he had waited for me, because he’s a big star. I thought, ‘This guy I can trust’, and we opened a restaurant.
What is Nobu style cooking?
It means simple Japanese cooking using some of the finest ingredients and styles from Peru such as cilantro, jalapeno peppers and ceviche.
Why did you decide to expand into hospitality?
We noticed that when people were asking us to open Nobu restaurants in new cities, it was mostly inside hotels. The pattern was always the same – the restaurants would be a success, and the hotels would thrive. So one day Robert said, ‘Why don’t you open a hotel?’ and that’s how it started.
What are the values you’ve brought to your hotels from your restaurants?
The last couple of years have been exciting because I have seen my values transcend the dining room. The Nobu experience remains true in whichever form. Detail is key. I spend a lot of time in hotels, travelling ten months in each year, so I know what requires attention. I have learnt that it takes time to build a team strong enough to deal with the challenges, and that training is invaluable.
Sushi is such an ingredient-focused cuisine – how do you maintain that level of quality on a global scale?
The quality of the fish is the most important consideration, wherever you are. At my first restaurant, the food cost was 50 per cent. I chose all the fish myself daily. Although I didn’t make any money, it meant that I got a reputation for quality – something I’ll never compromise. We have restaurants all over the world and we use the freshest local ingredients. There’s no central buying policy and the menus reflect the best ingredients available in each country. We grow our own rice in California and will go to such lengths to maintain quality.
What’s your favorite thing about hotels?
I travel 10 months a year and in every city, I stay in a hotel. You spend most of the time in the room, so you have to have a nice, comfortable bed and a large bathroom with a big showerhead in the shower. I like an iPhone plug near the bed, a big-screen TV. It’s the details that make it comfortable. I like warm service, like a home away from a home. Black cod in miso is a staple of Nobu restaurants.
What’s the signature dish of the hotels?
Black Cod is special because it is something I had started. My other special dish at Nobu is scrambled eggs donburi. In any country, eggs are always served for breakfast and I wanted to create a breakfast dish, Nobu style. For scrambled eggs donburi, it is served with rice, grilled salmon and seaweed. The scrambled eggs are also cooked in tomato juice and onion.
What’s the difference between feeding someone dinner and having them spend the night?
In the restaurant, people are spending a few hours eating, drinking, in a beautiful surrounding with excellent service. In the hotel, there are more team members, more points of service, more time, and we need to be sure to take care of our guests every minute through check-in, housekeeping, and room service.
How do you keep the quality of food consistent throughout all Nobu Hotels and Nobu restaurants?
I like to test my food with Robert because he has been all over the world and when he comes to visit, he always says he just wants a little bit but when I send more dishes and I see him keep eating, it makes me smile. It means he still loves my food.
“I realised that different cultures
meant different foods”
Tell me about your team.
We keep growing, because we have such a good team. Yes, it was my philosophy, but each person brings with them a wealth of experience and they might know for example, the best wasabi in that area for that particular restaurant.
Tell me about Peruvian cuisine.
I am happy to share my experience of Peruvian food with the world, because it is tasty and very similar to Japanese food. They use fresh produce and they have great spices and chilli, which I started using, as I felt it complemented my food.
Why is a spa important to have in hotels?
I travel 10 months a year. After a flight, the muscles tighten up, so it is great for business people to unwind and loosen up. After the spa, I like to use the gym as it helps with my jetlag.
What is the one thing you must always travel with?
My swimming goggles. I used to carry my own knife, but now every Nobu kitchen has my knife as well as a pair of my running shoes. What do you miss most about home when you’re away? Of course, I miss my family the most