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Nobuyuki Matsuhisa: The transformation of a modest sushi chef into a global superstar

by Matt DeLucia

October 1, 2007

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa ear is perhaps the most potent and misunderstood of emotions. On the one hand, it can be a positive, motivational force for our careers. We fear the boss, so we work harder. We wonder how we’ll feed our family if we lose our job, so we keep our eyes open for opportunities. Fear can be exhilarating; when our airplane touches down after a turbulent flight fear is relieved; just before the drop of a particularly frightful amusement park ride it is anticipated. But it can also be debilitating. Many people live their otherwise normal lives with varying degrees of post traumatic stress, causing angst that is often undetectable, but nevertheless affects their decisions, their relationships, and their self-esteem. Generally this is caused by a single event, a life-changing experience that pushes us close to the edge of our world, even for just a moment. For Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, that defining moment came in Anchorage Alaska, on Thanksgiving night in 1977, when he received a call from Ki Oi, the restaurant he had opened only two months ago. “It’s the middle of the night, like maybe 11 o’clock. And my business partner calls and says the restaurant is on fire. I was thinking it was a joke, but Anchorage is a very small and quiet city and I could already hear from far away the sirens, the police cars, and the fire department.” Matsuhisa rushed to the scene – on the way he could see distant flames lighting up the city’s skies - to find the restaurant he had spent six months building completely enveloped in flames. As an early snow fell that night in Anchorage, the fire’s heat kept him and others at a distance where he could only watch helplessly. Ashes fell to the ground all around him, little pieces of his charred dreams collecting at his feet as he watched the fireman try in vain to save the building. The restaurant had no insurance, and Matsuhisa had borrowed heavily to fund this, his first restaurant. “I was so shocked and stunned. It felt like everything stopped, it was like I froze. After that, I don’t remember much.”

The sight of that burning restaurant 30 years ago remains permanently etched in his memory as if it happened yesterday. The experience provoked a deep depression, and the distraught chef seriously considered ending his own life. “I started thinking of suicide,” he explained, “and which way would be the best way; to jump in front of a train, or to go into the ocean.” But in the end he managed to recover with the help of a family who had rarely seen him since he began building and working at the ill-fated restaurant. “The children were happy because I was home the whole week. That’s why I appreciate my wife and my children so much today; because maybe my children and my wife saved my life.”

28 year-old Nobuyuki Matsuhisa had worked hard for ten years chasing success, which he had always internally defined as opening his own restaurant in a foreign land. That desire originated as a child when his father, an oat exporter who often traveled to the Philippines to trade, died in a tragic car accident. His death left the 8 year old Nobuyuki with little memory of his father besides a few photographs. In one photograph, his father stood proudly next to a native of Palau, and Matsuhisa had a recurring dream that he would travel and become successful in a country like his father.

Matsuhisa’s cooking education began at 18 when, right out of high school, he began working at Matsuei-zushi, a sushi bar in Shinjuku, Tokyo. “It’s a small restaurant, only about 20 seats at the sushi bar and a couple of tables,” Matsuhisa remembers. “It was run by the grandmother, the father, the mother and the son, and they only had 3 employees. I woke up early in the morning because my mentor went to the fish market at 5.30. The youngest chef is the training chef, so I always carried the luggage; the fish. The mentor walked through the fish market to find the nicest fish and to negotiate how much, and then he put them in my basket.”

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa King Crab Tempura with Amazu Ponzu Sauce

From there it was back to the restaurant to prep, then lunch service, followed by deliveries, some dish washing, and then a dinner service that often lasted until 1 or 2am. “My mentor controlled me. I liked to drink, I liked to date, but there was no time to in those first 3 years. But in this sense, I learned a lot of patience and became more focused and concentrated about the fish.” Indeed. So focused was Matsuhisa that at 23, he was offered the opportunity to be a partner in a new Japanese restaurant in Peru by a customer whom Matsuhisa trusted. The last two years he had become a skilled chef, and had dated long enough to meet his future wife Yoko, who agreed to marry him and go to Peru. The Peruvian offer seemed to satisfy Matsuhisa’s dream of being in a country like the one his father visited, so he took his new bride and moved to Lima. He found the fish markets there to be very exciting, but he didn’t initially like some of the local flavors he found there. “In the beginning, I didn’t have much interest in Peruvian food, which is called Comida Criolla. They use cilantro, garlic, and the chilies - much too strong for me. One dish is called Arroz Con Pollo, which is chicken rice with garlic, oils, and coriander. I could eat it from the first smell! But in Peru lots of friends invited me to their houses, and they all made me Peruvian food, so I was eating it little by little. Then one day, I found I cannot eat without the cilantro. That’s why I started my own restaurant with sashimi with cilantro; it’s a habit. In the beginning, you don’t like it, but eating it all the time, one day you cannot eat without cilantro.”

Matsuhisa decided that 3 years in Peru was enough when his partners began to question his penchant for desiring the best (and therefore most expensive) fish that he could find. “I’ve liked to use the best quality since I was a kid. Peru has a lot of fish, and sometimes it’s expensive, but we always negotiated with the fishermen. So one day, we had a big meeting. My partner was drunk and he started yelling at me. ‘Don’t buy expensive fish!’ ” Although Matsuhisa had a wife, a daughter, and another child on the way, he knew it was time to leave. After a transitional year in Argentina, he went back to Japan where he was not happy to be working. “Japan had changed. It used to be that the economy was very strong. After 4 years, the economy was weak. It was called the oil shock. Then I started working in a small sushi restaurant because I had to make money, as I had lost everything in those 4 years in South America. So I started working, but it never felt good anywhere. Maybe I was a little spoiled, but after 4 years away, I knew different cultures, and I was disappointed with the Japanese culture. Very traditional, and very negative, and it was almost like hitting a big wall. Then one guy who’s a very famous actor, his name is Mr. Kaneko, introduced me to his friend who was opening a Japanese restaurant in Anchorage. So I have no choice; yes, I’d like to go. It’s almost like I wanted to escape from Japan.”

It wouldn’t be the last time a famous actor became intimately involved in Mr. Matsuhisa’s career. But in Alaska, all his hard work was destroyed in the fire, and once again he came back to Japan, nearly penniless and feeling defeated. “I had a small bag and maybe $14 or $17, and I went to Los Angeles because I only had one friend left, a sushi friend in LA. The friend introduced me to a small Japanese restaurant that had just opened for two months. So this is how I started my Los Angeles life.”

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Beef tataki with onion ponzu and garlic chips

Working at Mitsuwa restaurant for three years gave Matsuhisa a chance to get his life back together, acquire his green card, and learn how to drive and how to establish credit. The restaurant owner recognized Nobu’s talent and encouraged him to find a higher-class Japanese restaurant to further his career. He landed at Osho. “I worked there for 6 years,” Matsuhisa says proudly. “I’m in charge there. I’m still an employee, but I’m in charge of all the sushi, of buying the fish and I was more like management.”

As his reputation grew along with a considerable customer following, real estate agents began approaching him with deals and possible locations. But he was still not over the Alaska ordeal, and trust for him was very difficult. Then a friend from Japan handed Matsuhisa the ultimate gift – a check for sixty thousand dollars to help him open his own restaurant. “I started looking for a small restaurant because it was only $60,000. Then I found one Japanese restaurant that was for sale. It cost $70,000 but it included everything, so I put down the deposit. All my friends started helping with painting and fixing the restaurant. And everything was finished at the end of the year, at Christmas time.” Just after New Years, January 7th 1987, Matsuhisa opened for business in Beverly Hills. Nobu, as he was becoming known, was 37 years old, and nearly ten years had passed since the fire that almost ended his career.

Not long after opening Matsuhisa, the chef remembers the day that L.A.-based restaurant newsletter writer Jay Weston came into his restaurant along with celebrity comedy writer Larry Gelbart. Gelbart was the producer of MASH, and an Oscar Nominated screenwriter. Nobu apparently impressed his first batch of celebrity customers. “I had 16 or 17 courses in small portions,” he remembers. “That’s when I started omakase at Matsuhisa. Mr. Weston was so happy. And when he wrote about Matsuhisa, the business people started coming to my restaurant. Then the New York Times and the L.A. Times.”

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Tasmanian salmon tartar with caviar

Matsuhisa was still a modest restaurant a few years later when the New York Times listed the restaurant in a feature proclaiming it one of the “world’s top ten restaurants.” Nobu laughs as he recalls the memory of the first stream of limousines pulling up to his corner, then seeing the puzzled looks on the faces of these customers at the sight of the 18-seat place. “Men in tuxedos and ladies in their evening dresses would come here, I’d watch them opening the door, and they’d be like ‘what is this?’ Because the tables are shaky and the tablecloths had plastic on top.”

Undoubtedly the most important celebrity sighting those first few years at Matsuhisa was the day Robert DeNiro strolled in for sushi with friend and film director Roland Joffe. Matsuhisa and DeNiro became friends, and in 1990 DeNiro flew Nobu to New York to consider a business partnership. “17 years ago I came to Tribeca. It was dark here, and after 7 or 8 o’clock nobody was out walking. I remember I walked from here to Bob’s house, then I walked to Montrachet and I didn’t see anybody! Bob said ‘Nobu, this is your restaurant,’ and he showed me all the beauty. But at that time my vocabulary was not good enough to explain myself, so I said that Matsuhisa restaurant was still and my organization is not good enough yet.” Nobu had likely never seen DeNiro in the Godfather and was possibly unaware of the concept of making “an offer you can not refuse.” In the back of his mind, the vision of the restaurant he had built going up in flames was still a strong one. “I also worried about Alaska,” he admits. “I don’t want to be going back to Alaska,” he said.

Luckily for Matsuhisa, New York native DeNiro kept coming into his restaurant whenever he was visiting or working in the L.A. area. DeNiro had opened Tribeca Grill with Drew Nieporent in the space he had offered to Nobu, but after four years he called Matsuhisa again, this time about another space that was on the same block as Tribeca Grill. “Bob called me again and said, ‘maybe you should come to New York now.’ At the beginning, I didn’t understand what he was saying - he’s not talking much. Then I was surprised because wow, he was waiting for me for four years. That’s why I can trust this guy. I did business with him because I can trust him.” The initial partnership included Nieporent, and a DeNiro associate and friend named Meir Teper, a movie producer whose credits included “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and the “From Dusk Till Dawn” trilogy.

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Nobu Sashimi Tacos

Nobu’s relationship with Robert DeNiro spawned more than just one of the most successful restaurant groups in New York – it also gave birth to the chef’s acting career, beginning with a cameo in DeNiro’s brutal “Casino” where he played a Japanese gambler. Back at his Beverly Hills restaurant, Steven Spielberg, Mike Myers and their wives were having dinner and Nobu went to their table to say hello. “The guys were talking about Austin Powers, so I said ‘Oh, do you need me?’ And I was joking.” The following week the producers called Nobu in for a casting call, and he was hired on the spot. “My favorite scene was with Mike Myers and Beyonce, and I was a businessman. I asked them to please eat, and she eats a mushroom, but the subtitle says ‘please eat the shit’. Steven Spielberg was watching this scene, and after the cut I said ‘Hey Steven, if you need me in your next movie, you’d better close the deal with me right now, because after this movie, my price is going to get higher!’”

In between movie roles, chef Matsuhisa has been busy expanding his growing list of global restaurants. Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants now number 19, a denomination that will grow in the next two years, when chef Nobu will open restaurants in Moscow, Mexico City, Dubai and Cape Town. Once Matsuhisa decides that a city is right to host a Nobu restaurant, Meir Teper takes over on the business end. “Meir and I go together to the location. I like to get the feeling of the country and also the fish market and the cultures and all the foods. When I feel it’s good, Meir starts negotiating for the business. And we have to explain the Nobu philosophy, its concept.

I asked chef Nobu if there was ever a city he visited where he wanted to open a restaurant, but changed his mind after visiting.

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Fresh Fluke Sashimi with Dried Miso

“I went to Mexico City about 4 years ago. Mexico has a lot of rich people, and Mexican people love my food. A lot of people asked me to please open in Mexico City, so that’s why I went there. But I couldn’t go to the next step because it’s not possible to get fresh fish. This past spring, like April or May, I went to Mexico City again. The new potential partners wanted to show me what had changed, so they brought out all different kinds of fish, including tunas. I cooked it myself and we tasted it. I said, ‘this is ok, we can do it.’ I was so surprised that 4 or 5 years later, Mexico City has changed completely. Local fish and imports have changed, and the Mexican government changed the laws, so now in the Mexican cities we can get lots of vegetables. It used to be nothing, and that’s why I had no interest in opening there.”

Up until very recently, the prospect of a major culinary star opening an expensive restaurant in Moscow didn’t appear either promising or prudent. But by 2009 that is exactly what Matsuhisa will be doing. I asked him what his thoughts were about the market conditions in Russia. “Moscow’s fish market was dead except for the caviar. But now they have beautiful vegetables, beautiful fruits. Also in Moscow, Japanese restaurants, especially sushi, are very, very, popular and very expensive. We can bring the fish in from Japan everyday, so that’s why we decided to do it. And also from London to Moscow, it’s only a three hour flight.”

The most recent Nobu opened this past August in Melbourne Australia, and I asked chef Matsuhisa why he chose Melbourne over the larger city of Sydney. “It’s all in the partnerships,” he explained. His partner there is James Packer, otherwise known as the richest man in Australia. “I don’t want to be in business with a cheap restaurant. Restaurants cost a lot of money. It used to be $1 million 12 years ago, but Nobu 57 cost $12 million. During its first six months, maybe its first year, its operation will cost a lot of money. That’s why we always budget it past one million. But most people in business are looking to make money immediately after the opening, and in the restaurant business, that’s impossible. You have to invest lots and lots of money and then it takes a year, sometimes two years. Cheap partners sometimes give up and cannot give you more time.”

    photo of: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Kumamoto Oysters Tiradito style

Over the years, Chef Matsuhisa has been known for many innovations, but one of the most dramatic effects he has had on chefs is the creativity of his dish’s presentation. His cookbooks now number four (Nobu the cookbook in 2001, Nobu Now in 2005, Japanese Finger Food - Nobu style in 2006, and Nobu West in 2006), each a bestseller, and in each the color and beauty almost makes you overlook that fact that many of the dishes are difficult for a novice to reproduce. I asked Chef Matsuhisa what he would say to chefs who are seeking to improve their presentations, and his advice was quite simple. “Look at more art,” he said. “Go to museums, all different ones. Look at Michelangelo and all the contemporaries. I say that the plate is my canvas. Each chef is a different color, a different presentation. It’s ok, it’s his own. But you have to maintain the balance. Balance means you have to see lots and lots of art; even flowers.”

Before closing, I asked Nobu if he felt that there was still a lot more for Americans to learn about Japanese cuisine. “Yes, but not only Japanese cuisine. Cuisine has become more international. French cooking takes Japanese techniques. Japanese cuisine takes French cooking techniques. All cooking has become international. It used to be that French, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese were different. Each cuisine had its walls, but now those walls have come down, and there’s more blending.”

This past August, Nobu Matsuhisa and his partners Robert De Niro, Meir Teper and Richie Notar opened the 19th Nobu restaurant in Melbourne, Australia. The Head Chef at this new restaurant is Chef Scott Hallsworth, who spent 6 years at Nobu London at Park Lane, a restaurant that has been consistently voted one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. Hallsworth sat down with NYRI in Melbourne Australia just after the opening to talk about his role with the company, and how it has been working for chef Matsuhisa.

NYRI: Might be an obvious question, but I assume you’ve learned a lot from working with Nobu?
Chef Hallsworth: Yeah absolutely. Not that he’s going to be standing next to you every five minutes, but when he does, he’s really got something quite important or valid to tell you, a really good message about food or even working with people for that matter. He taught me about working with a team, working calmly and rationally.

NYRI: How long did it take you to develop the menu to suit Melbourne?
Chef Hallsworth: I’d say at least a couple of months. We had the base menu, that’s for sure, but then we had to try out so many things and then figure out which ones were going to be consistent. Consistency is a real problem, but we’ve made some really good supplier relationships here.

NYRI: What has your experience been like with the local purveyors?
Chef Hallsworth: In terms of vegetables, I’ve been told by some of the chefs that I know here whom I worked with in London that they never chase after you; you have to chase after them. It’s a bit of a snobbery thing, and you’re coming here as a no one. I eventually found this one guy who started a small company and he was really, really keen. He’s just running around all the time finding the stuff I need which is really, really helpful. In terms of the fish, people have been making trips to South Australia to check out the tuna for us and coming back and reporting on it.

NYRI: Do you get to create some of your own dishes with Nobu?
Chef Hallsworth: That’s been a bit of a main highlight being allowed to do that. Even though we’re doing Nobu’s dishes and Nobu’s food, he does want us to work on new stuff. That’s how new dishes get done. Recently, someone created a new one in Malibu for instance.

NYRI: If you’ve created something new, does Nobu come in and judge it?
Chef Hallsworth: Not in such a formal sense, but when he was here last time, I took a couple of things out to him and I said ‘what do you think about this?’ He’ll taste it and he’ll just sort of say ‘I don’t like it.’ That’s when you know that you need to figure out why he doesn’t like it. He’ll be quite brief, he either likes it or he doesn’t.

NYRI: What do you think you could say that would contribute to young student chefs in Australia or in New York who want to work their way up in this field?
Chef Hallsworth: Something that comes from Nobu is that, if you try and be humble when you’re learning you can take on a lot more information. I used to work in Toronto and there were some people there from CIA, and some of them thought they could come out of there and become executive chefs immediately. If you can be humble, then you can learn more I think.

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