He worked for a while in his home country, but he wanted to open his own restaurant and the opportunity came when someone offered to finance him. In Alaska. “I didn’t know from Alaska, other than it was supposed to be very cold, with grizzly bears, king crabs and wild salmon. But it was a chance to take what I learned and see if I could do it in a very foreign place.” So Nobu and his family (he now had two daughters) flew to Anchorage and built a restaurant. It had a grand opening and people seemed to enjoy his food. And it had an even grander closing less than two months later when an electrical problem set the place on fire and the restaurant burned to the ground. Nobu felt his life turned to ash as well.
“I was so despondent. I lost everything. I felt shame that my investor had lost his investment as well, and I contemplated suicide. I came very close—I thought how could I end my life? I could jump off a cliff. I could drive my car into a wall. I could take pills. Jump in front of a train. Drown in the ocean. I only had a few friends then and nobody was helping me. But then I looked at my two children and saw in their faces how much they liked having me as their father. I couldn’t be so selfish to them. And my wife was saying it would be okay. So I became determined to get back on my feet, to do whatever it would take to make enough money to pay back my investor, and to make a life for my family.”
He went back to Japan for a month, recouped, and then decided to try Los Angeles where he knew a chef who might hire him. He wound up working as a sushi chef at Osho’s for nine years in L.A., saving his money, paying back his investor, and finally deciding to open his own place again.
“I found this small building on La Cienega. I had a friend who lent me $70,000. I found this place that was $60,000. So I took it. In 1987 Matsuhisa opened. In 1990 Robert DeNiro came to eat and offered him a partnership. In 1994 Nobu said yes and they, along with restaurateur Drew Nieporent, opened the first restaurant which carried his first name (Matsuhisa is his last name).
What became his signature dish was black cod with miso, which anyone with $22 can sample at each of his restaurants. His rock shrimp tempura in creamy spicy sauce and tuna tartare with caviar have also become staples of a Nobu meal. While the standard sushi has never received the raves and exclamations of certain other sushi chefs (Katsu and Tojo come to mind), it’s the breadth of Nobu’s menu which makes a visit such an intriguing experience. Should one try the scallop with jalapeno onion salsa or in spicy garlic sauce? The baby squid with wasabi pepper sauce or the squid pasta with light garlic sauce? The Chilean sea bass moromiso-yaki or with truffles or with teriyaki balsamic? The thin sliced white fish sashimi with ponzu sauce or the tiradito (Peruvian style sashimi)? The cold green mussels with salsa or the hot mussels in spicy garlic sauce? The monk fish liver pate or the salmon or yellowtail tartar, both with caviar? Or should one pay $32 for two oz. or U.S. Kobe style “washu” beef or $44 for “wagyu” tatai, imported Japanese Kobe beef? Or should you just get both and taste the difference? (Though he offers beef at his restaurants, Nobu doesn’t necessarily recommend it. “Japanese people have the longest life because they eat raw fish, especially tuna. Tuna is not only protein, it’s good for the heart. Tuna fat is much healthier than beef fat.”)
Over the years, his various restaurants have been cited among the world’s best. In 1993 the New York Times named Matsuhisa in Los Angeles as one of the Top Ten Restaurant Destinations in the world. Nobu was awarded Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 1995 and New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl gave it Three Stars. Other stars followed, including both the celebrated Michelin for four of the restaurants in London, New York, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas. Nobu himself has received numerous magazine and newspaper citations, including nine nominations between 1997 and 2006 for Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation. “Personality is very important for a sushi chef,” he says with assurance, “along with technique and service. If I go to a restaurant and spend a lot of money, I want to be happy. Sushi is expensive, so you want to have a good experience when you go. A chef must be humble and respect his customers.”
Though he has houses in Beverly Hills and Tokyo (with a natural hot springs on the property), his business takes him all over the world. His two daughters live in Japan. His wife stays mostly in Los Angeles. Nobu himself estimates he spends no more than two months at home with his wife. The rest of the year he’s presiding over a dinner for an American president or foreign head of state, consulting with Crystal Cruises about their menu, trying to explain what makes his food unique to Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, hawking his latest cookbook on the Today Show, preparing a dish for Martha Stewart on her show, trying to catch up with some of his partner’s movies.
When asked what his favorite De Niro film is, Nobu doesn’t mention Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Godfather II or Raging Bull. Instead, he picks one of De Niro’s minor films, Falling in Love, with Meryl Streep. “Yes, I liked that one,” he says with a smile. It’s no wonder De Niro was attracted to the man. He has his own sensibilities. And he doesn’t mind covering a wall between the main dining room and the restrooms with signed posters of some of De Niro’s movies. So if you’re at Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and you happen to notice the inscriptions on the posters of Heat, The Good Shepherd, Analyze This, Ronin, and A Bronx Tale—yes, those are really Robert De Niro’s signatures. And you’ll have to excuse Nobu if he isn’t as impressed with them as some of his L.A. patrons might be. Because Nobu knows, it was De Niro who came to him. And in the world of culinary arts, it’s Nobu Matsuhisa’s star that shines the brightest.