Born and raised in Saitama, Japan. At the age of just 24, three years in Peru. A year in Argentina. A year in the decidedly unglamorous city of Anchorage, Alaska where his restaurant burnt to the ground. Nobu Matsuhisa may be one of Japan’s most famous sons, but his early years marked him out clearly as a global citizen, an enthusiastic and passionate embracer of tastes and cultures around the world.
He travels, by his reckoning, around 300 days a year. His dream, he says with a smile, is to spend an unbroken month at home in L.A with his wife of 41 years. It was after moving there, following the painful demise of his Anchorage restaurant, that in 1987 he set up Matsuhisa. It quickly became one of the most coveted spots in town thanks to its sublime, healthy Japanese cuisine – a perfect hit for the California – and Nobu’s own gentle warmth and charisma.
Such was its popularity that a regular, Robert de Niro, asked him – twice, because he turned him down the first time – to open in New York. When he relented in 1994, ‘Nobu’ in Tribeca quickly became the top table in town. In London, Nobu at the Metropolitan Hotel helped define Cool Britannia of the late 1990’s, the ultimate see-and-be-seen restaurant. Today there are 32 Nobus, 8 Matsuhisas and two Nobu hotels, with three more to come in Miami, Riyadh and London. Oh, and the first Nobu ryokan, opening in Malibu.
The night before we talked in Hong Kong, he was with his new team at Nobu in Manila, overseeing service for 300 diners. He explains that “I like to see them all so I keep travelling. I cannot stop – I never think about getting tired. I’m a father and they’re all my kids, I like to give energy to them.”
So much so that the Nobu family of staff – some 3,000 strong around the world – has delivered Nobu marriages, babies and countless restaurants of their own. In Hong Kong alone, Lindsay Jang, one half of the team behind Yardbird, Ronin et al spent seven years at Nobu New York, while Daniel Garner at the newly-opened Okra worked for Nobu around the world, as did Erik Idos, behind the excellent Chino.
2016 marks ten years since Nobu opened in Hong Kong at the Intercontinental Hotel. A decade on and he’s generous with his time, unfailingly courteous, with a quick and ready laugh. He greets every diner as they enter, some clearly starstruck to see him in the flesh.
How often are you in Hong Kong?
Between three and four times a year. This time it’s for some gala dinners, my sushi masterclasses (more here) and overseeing a special two week menu.
Do you spend much time in the kitchens here?
I cannot stay in the kitchen all night – there’s lots of interviews, social media and technology, selfies, Instagram and more! My head chef Sean Mell has been here a year. He was with me in NY for 10 years.
What’s special about Nobu HK?
We can bring in fresh fish 3-4 times a week from Tokyo. I just asked Sean five minutes ago what we have in. Tokyo is obviously number 1 when it comes to quality, but Hong Kong is better than LA and NY. We can make the best sushi here.
You talk about the importance of kokoro (heart) in cooking.
It’s easy to slice and cook, everyone can learn. But I grew up with my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking (Nobu’s father was killed in a car crash when Nobu was 15) and it was always cooked with kokoro – or from the heart. They worried about balance – but not just technically.
I did a piece for CNN last year trying to explain why Tokyo is such an extraordinary Michelin paradise – do you have any thoughts on what makes it so successful?
There are very few walk-in restaurants, most are set menus so the food comes automatically. The four seasons change the plate – even the condiments and garnish change, you can really feel the seasons. Also each dish, fish, technique and service has to be absolutely perfect.
Which chefs do you most like working with?
Eric Ripert, Jean Georges, Thomas Keller, José Andres, Daniel Boulud.
I’m continuing work on my own brand sake, while Arita porcelain in Japan have celebrated their 400th anniversary and I am designing a range of porcelain and glasses with them. http://matsuhisa-japan.com/aritanobu/english/#gallery
Quick answer questions:
Q: What was the first dish you cooked for a paying customer?
A: A cucumber roll.
Q:Which one utensil do you use most?
A: A Japanese knife
Q:What’s your guilty food pleasure?
A: Chocolate – any kind.
Q:Who would be on the menu at your last supper?
A: No choice. It has to be sushi.
Q:Good childhood food memories?
A: Miso soup!
Q:Any memorable kitchen disasters?
A; My whole restaurant burned down in Anchorage!
Q: What did you have for dinner last night?
A: During service at dinner in Nobu, at Manila’s City of Dreams, there was no time to eat as we had 300 guests. So afterwards I asked for steak and rice with miso soup.
Q: Have you ever felt intimidated cooking for someone?
A: I was cooking for Princess Diana in London, just a month before she died in the car accident. I was nervous, wondering how can I talk to her or say hi? When I introduced myself she said ‘Oh Chef Nobu I know you, I’ve read about your story’. I was so impressed and honored that she knew who I was.