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Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa on how to build a successful food empire

Nobu Matsuhisa, may today be a world-renowned celebrity chef, but it is something he worked his entire life, always aspiring to be a sushi chef and a globetrotter. Currently, at the helm of 10 Nobu hotels and several restaurants around the globe, it was after years of grit and determination that he finally made it as an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and then opened a restaurant in Peru. His learnings and experiences exposed him to different food cultures of the world.

“In Japan, we eat raw fish with soy sauce and wasabi. In Peru, they use lemon, garlic, chilli and cilantro. That opened my eyes and became the basis of what I called ‘Nobu Food’,” he reminisces.

Matsuhisa first opened his eponymous restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1987, following which he partnered with actor Robert De Niro for Nobu New York in 1994. From then on, Nobu-san has opened 41 Nobu restaurants including 11 Matsuhisa outposts. “And it is still expanding,” he quips.

For the uninitiated, Nobu is a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant that has establishments across all the continents – from Mexico City to London, Milan to Dubai, Hong Kong to Melbourne. It is not just your typical omakase dining experience but an eclectic mix of east-meets-west flavour combinations. The brand has also delved into the business of hospitality with the upcoming Nobu Hotel set to open this spring 2020 in London West End, the second property in London following its successful debut in Shoreditch.

Despite all the glitz and glamour of his career (he even cameoed in a few movies with De Niro), the 70-year-old chef and restaurateur remains absolutely amicable. Sticking to true Japanese roots, Nobu-san is grateful that people enjoy his food and the concept he puts on the table.

We sat down with Nobu-san during his annual pilgrimage to Nobu Kuala Lumpur to talk about the business of food, building a successful food empire, and how he continues to sustain his eponymous restaurant for the coming decades.

nobu kuala lumpur
Chef Nobu Matsuhisa with his team, Chef Chico & Chef Philip Leong in Nobu Kuala Lumpur
What do you enjoy most about your job?

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.

What has been your biggest obstacle in the business of food?

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.

How involved are you in the business today?

I am still at the centre of my restaurants and hotels. I travel 10 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.

Can you describe a typical day for Nobu Matsuhisa?

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.

What is your secret to making the perfect sushi?

Sushi is a very simple food: fish and sushi rice. While it is crucial to have good products, good preparation, good technique, the most important part is to put your ‘kokoro’ (heart) into it.

chef nobu matsuhisa
Chef Nobu-san explaining the simple techniques in making the perfect sushi.
What’s next for Nobu?

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.

What is your secret to building a successful food empire, especially in the realms of modern Japanese cuisine, in this case Nikkei cuisine?

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.

Never stop innovating according to Chef Nobu-san.
Any advice for those embarking in the business of F&B?

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 story first appeared in Lifestyle Asia Kuala Lumpur

Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa on how to build a successful food empire

Martin Teo


Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. On his free time, he finds time scouring through the latest cafes in search for the best croissant in the city.


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