As a boy, Nobu Matsuhisa had two dreams — to be a sushi chef and to go abroad. He quickly achieved that when he became an apprentice at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, and then was asked to open a restaurant in Peru. It was then that he was exposed to a different food culture for the first time.
“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’,” reminisces the man behind globally acclaimed Nobu restaurants.
He opened his first restaurant ‘Matsuhisa’ in Beverly Hills in 1987, then partnered with actor Robert De Niro to for Nobu New York in 1994. From then on, Nobu-san has opened 41 Nobu restaurants including 10 Nobu Hotels and 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 that 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 sustaining 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.