Who would have imagined that adding a few exotic ingredients like Peruvian chili paste, yuzu citrus juice and grape seed oil to the sushi standards–garlic and soy sauce—would make a struggling despondent suicidal sushi chef into the most successful and well known Japanese restaurateur in the world?
It wasn’t just the ingredients, of course. Having Robert De Niro dine at your restaurant and add to his tip an offer to go into partnership with you also had something to do with it. But, in fairness to Nobu, it took four years for De Niro to convince the Japanese chef to take him up on his offer. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that when De Niro first approached him in 1990, Nobu had no idea who he was. “When he asked me to open a restaurant in New York, I wasn’t sure, so I went there first to see. We had good talks—I didn’t speak much English, and he doesn’t speak much– but I didn’t want to do it at the time, so I said no. I told him I needed to make sure my restaurant in Los Angeles did well; I didn’t want to have to divide my attention between L.A. and New York. Bob was very patient. He came back to Matsuhisa four years later and then called me at my home. He said, ‘You look like you’re doing well now. Are you ready to come to New York now?’ I was surprised. By then I had found out who he was and I saw that he was serious and I could trust him. So I said, why not?”
Why not, indeed? Nobu opened to great success in the TriBeca area of Manhattan where De Niro lived, and Nobu wondered if what De Niro really wanted was a good restaurant to eat in that was close to where he lived. Next, London came calling. The businessmen from the U.K. didn’t want to include De Niro as another partner, they just wanted to go into business with Nobu, but Nobu felt loyal to De Niro and said he wouldn’t consider opening in London without the actor. So De Niro was included and Nobu London became his third success. Today there are 22 restaurants in cities all over the world, including Melbourne, Mexico City, Athens, Mykonos, Moscow, Cape Town, Milan, Tokyo, Kowloon, Dubai, Nassau, Honolulu, Aspen, Dallas, Miami, Las Vegas, Malibu, and San Diego. Nobu has also written five cookbooks, has his own beer label, salad dressing, and numerous dinnerware products that bear his name (plates, bowls, spoons, cups and saucers, sake sets, bento boxes, but no frozen food a la Wolfgang Puck, because it’s his food that has brought him all this fame and success, and the food must be served fresh, using local ingredients under carefully trained hands, so to taste Nobu, you have to go to one of his restaurants, not your favorite supermarket.)
Not only has Nobu achieved fame for his food, but he’s also made numerous television appearances and has “acted” in three movies: Casino (a De Niro film), Austin Powers in Goldmember (Mike Meyers came to the restaurant in L.A. to eat and was introduced to Nobu; Nobu joked if he ever needed a chef in his films….and Meyers took him up on it.) And Memoirs of a Geisha. When you ask him about his life, he can only smile and say, life is good.
But it wasn’t always this way. Nobu Matsuhisa was born in Saitama, Japan in 1949. His last memory of his father, who was a lumber merchant, is a sad one. His father always rode a motorcycle and young Nobu often went along with him, but on this particular day his father told him he couldn’t go with him because he had to drive a long distance on business. So seven-year-old Nobu said goodbye to his father….and never saw him again. A large truck came from the opposite direction, didn’t see Nobu’s father approaching, and crashed into him, killing him instantly.
Nobu’s older brother, who was 19 at the time, became a major influence in his life. It was his brother who took him to his first sushi restaurant, where Nobu felt special when the chefs all shouted their traditional greetings when they walked in. He liked the sliding door, the friendly atmosphere, the high energy, the smell of so many varieties of fresh fish, the way the food was served. He felt warm and comfortable. “Japanese people know what sushi means. And to go to a sushi bar and sit at the counter when you are a child, it was very exciting.” He had never felt excited like this before and told his brother, “This is what I want to do.” And though he was still a young boy, he meant it.
Upon graduating high school Nobu didn’t have ambitions to go to college; instead he went to work at Matsuei, a sushi restaurant in Tokyo. He began by sweeping the floors, sorting boxes, carrying the fish. As the years went by he learned the craft of sushi: how to cook the rice so it was fluffy and had some air between the kernels; how to slice the raw fish; how to place the wasabi between the fish and the rice; how to turn the rice six times (not four, not eight) while keeping it away from his face (“I don’t like it when a chef leans over and breathes on the food.”). After eight years, he was known at the restaurant, and there were steady customers who liked his personality, his demeanor, and the way he served sushi with a smile. One customer offered him a job—in Lima, Peru.
“I had a desire to travel outside Japan,” Nobu recalls. “And Peru was near water, so the fish was always fresh. I was married and had a young daughter at the time, and we decided to do it. It was an adventure.”
It would also prove to be essential in providing Nobu with his unique style. “When you are in another country, you have to use the ingredients of the people, and I found that I could combine some of the Peruvian flavors with the traditional Japanese tastes and that’s what I did. We were successful in Lima, but after three years my partners wanted me to cut back on using some of the more expensive ingredients and I didn’t want to do that. So we had a falling out and I decided to leave Peru. I went to Argentina, to Buenos Aires, because I knew someone there, but we only stayed nine months before going back to Japan.”