As a young boy, Nobu Matsuhisa had two big dreams: he wanted to be a sushi chef, and he wanted to go abroad.
The former was quickly achieved when he became an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and the latter completed the dream when he was asked to open a restaurant in Peru. Fast forward an incredible culinary whirlwind of a few years though, and Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is one of the most famous sushi chefs in the world, and the man behind a leading food empire that goes by his very name.
For the uninitiated, Nobu is a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant that has establishments across all continents, from Mexico City to London, Milan to Dubai, and Hong Kong to Melbourne. Not just your average omakase dining experience but an innovative mix of East-meets-West flavour combinations, it stems from Nobu-san’s admiration for a few key flavours. “In Japan, we eat raw fish with soy sauce and wasabi. In Peru, they use lemon, garlic, chill, and cilantro. That opened my eyes and became the basis of what I called ‘Nobu Food’.”
Nobu’s ‘Nobu Food’ has since evolved even beyond restaurants, partnering up with actor Robert De Niro and since opening 41 restaurants, including 10 Nobu Hotels. Yet despite his roaring success (he’s even cameoed in a few movies with De Niro), the 70-year old chef remains absolutely amicable. Hollywood — or Beverly Hills, rather — hasn’t changed him. Sticking to his Japanese roots, Nobu-san is grateful that people enjoy his food and the concept that he puts on the table. Here, he chats to us about the business of food, building a successful food empire, and how he continues to sustain his eponymous restaurant for three decades and counting.
My joy is of course cooking but now I have many restaurants so I look forward to seeing my team grow and seeing happy guests in my restaurant.
I think getting specific ingredients and quality imported products can be a huge challenge when running restaurants abroad. Another obstacle is to get your staff to understand your concept and philosophy; there’s a lot training required. I have a good team to help me to keep the quality of food and service consistent — that alleviates a lot of my headaches.
I am still at the center of my restaurants and hotels. I travel ten months a year to visit them, but since we are expanding, I have dedicated teams to make sure everything is running smoothly when I’m not there. When I come back, it always feels like home.
My day always starts with an hour of exercising. Depending on where I am, I might go to the restaurant right away to check on the food and talk with my staff. For dinner, I am usually in the restaurant interacting with my guests.
Sushi is a very simple food; fish and sushi rice. That is why it is very difficult. While it is crucial to have good products, good preparation, good technique, the most important part is to put your ‘kokoro’ (heart) into it.
New locations are always in planning with more hotel projects coming as well. These new locations come with new food cultures and local products. I am currently experimenting different ways using monk fruit sweetener, for its health benefits — that’s exciting as well.
I try to use local fish and produce as much as possible but there are essential products that need to be sent from Japan. It’s important to get the best products to meet the guests’ expectations. Also you need a good team who understands the concept and that not only keeps it consistent, but strives to improve. That’s why each local team are always encouraged to create something of their own signature every now and then, but still maintaining the Nobu ethos.
Always do your best. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and remember to learn from them. Think from your guests’ point of view, and never let passion slip out from what you do.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Kuala Lumpur.