Take Five with the One and Only Nobu Matsuhisa
Much like Madonna, Adele and Beyonce, this storied chef is so recognized the globe over that you know him readily by simply his first name.
The one and only Nobu Matsuhisa came to town this week to christen the new Japanese-inspired outdoor garden dining space at his Nobu Palo Alto restaurant and hotel, completely transforming what was formerly a florist shop into a zen oasis.
If you have an appetite for fine Japanese cuisine, you owe a debt of gratitude to him. If you appreciate impeccable sushi and sashimi, especially done with groundbreaking global influences such as jalapenos, olive oil, garlic, and lemon, you have him to thank for introducing this new style. Matsuhisa helped turn what was once considered exotic into a mainstay of which we now can’t get enough.
His accomplishments are nothing short of breathtaking, opening 21 restaurants in the United States and Canada alone, not to mention 16 in Europe; five in Mexico and the Caribbean; six in the Middle East and Africa; and eight in Asia and Australia. In all, 56 restaurants across the globe. Moreover, his hotel in downtown Palo Alto is one of 34 operating or in process of opening worldwide.
It’s been quite the journey for Matsuhisa, one that began with the most challenging of circumstances in Japan, when he lost his father at age 8 in a motorcycle accident, only later to get expelled from high school for acting out. Looking to turn his life around at 18, he moved to Tokyo to apprentice in a sushi restaurant. What followed next were a series of soaring highs and crushing blows — moving to Lima to open his first restaurant, only to have that business partnership dissolve badly, then relocating to Alaska to open a Japanese restaurant, only to see it destroyed in an accidental fire less than two months later.
Eventually, armed with a green card, he immigrated to Southern California with his wife and two young daughters for a fresh start. In 1987 he opened Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. There, a regular nudged him repeatedly to open an outpost in New York until he agreed to do so, debuting restaurant Nobu in Manhattan in 1994. That regular was none other than actor Robert DeNiro, who would go on to partner with Matsuhisa in all his future projects and be instrumental in steering him to opening hotels, too.
Yesterday, I had a chance to spend a few minutes with Matsuhisa in the tranquil garden with its decorative bronze gate, seasonal blooms, and boulders that were hand-picked and flown in from Japan.
With covered tables, the garden is available for dining reservations (weekends only right now, but weekdays eventually to come) and for private events.
We chatted about the pandemic’s effects, when he knew he wanted to be a sushi chef, what his favorite fish is, and how he judges the mettle of a skilled chef.
Q: You’ve overcome many challenges in your career. Was the pandemic the worst one?
A: I was worried. I was so appreciative of our customers. Some of them came for takeout five times a week and would give big tips to our employees. We never did takeout before. But we started offering it at all our restaurants, and we still do now. Our customers supported us so much. At Matsuhisa, my first restaurant, we were able to keep all our staff during the pandemic. They are like family. I could not just say to them, ‘Sorry, you are not my children now.’ I appreciated that we could do that.
Q: When you were 12, your older brother took you to a sushi restaurant, and that was when you knew you wanted to be a sushi chef. What captivated you most about that experience?
A: I remember the sliding door opening to the restaurant, the chef saying ‘Irasshaimase!’ (‘welcome’ in Japanese), the smell of the rice vinegar, and everything just smelling so good. Sushi was very high-end, very expensive, and not something you ate often. We sat at the counter, where the chef makes the sushi and immediately places it in front of you. Sushi is so sensitive; it is best eaten in that minute. When the chef hands it to you, it just tastes so completely different. In that one second, in that one moment, I was so inspired.
Q: You started apprenticing at age 18. In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you would go on to create all of this?
A: I never thought about making more money or making more restaurants. I just think about trying to do more in the moment. Kids dream of being soccer players or baseball players. This was my dream.
Q: You are 74 now, but you still have no plans to retire anytime soon?
A: Maybe one day I will slow down, but it’s not that time yet. I still want to try my best in every moment. I still love what I do.
Q: When French chefs evaluate cooks to hire, they will often test their skills by having them make a French omelet. What Japanese dish tells you the most about whether a chef is qualified or not?
A: Steamed rice and miso soup. They are both simple, but they have to be done right. The soup has to have the right amount of umami. With the rice, it’s all about how many times it’s washed and how much water is used to cook it.
Q: What fish is your favorite to eat?
A: White fish like red snapper, sea bass or fluke, because they taste very clean whether eaten raw or cooked. Just don’t overcook it.
Q: I know that you prize Japanese cuisine. What is your next favorite cuisine?
A: Greek or Italian food. I like simple dishes, not complicated ones, like grilled meats or grilled fish, and seasonal salads.
Q: Are you glad to see just how insanely popular Japanese cuisine has grown?
A: Yes. People didn’t eat raw fish so much before. I remember years ago, Tim Zagat (co-founder of Zagat) didn’t want to eat uni. So, I went to go make him uni shiso leaf tempura and didn’t tell him what was in it. He ate it and liked it so much that he wanted seven more. I like to change people’s minds.
Q: What Japanese dish or ingredient do you wish people knew more about or appreciated more?
A: Maybe snapping turtle soup, which is served in Japan. People get scared of it because of the name and the way it looks.
Or maybe fugu (blowfish), which you have to be licensed to prepare because parts of it are poisonous. I have had it. One time, I filmed an episode with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where we went to the prefecture where blowfish are caught. Jean-Georges wanted to try part of the kidney, which is where the poison is. He wanted to try just a tiny bite to see what it was like. I told him ‘no.’ He asked me three times and I told him ‘no’ every time. I didn’t want him dying during the shooting. [laughs]