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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa: The sultan of sushi

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, the man behind the iconic Japanese fusion restaurants, tells Burgess Baria that one of the most important ingredients for success is a never-say-die attitude

Image Credit: Grace Paras/ANM
From being broke following a blaze at his restaurant to becoming a celebrity chef: Nobu has built an empire, but not without struggles.

Robert De Niro, Steven Spielberg, Mike Myers and illusionist David Blaine... Nobu Matsuhisa has them all eating out of the palm of his hands.

The man behind Nobu has 30 restaurants on five continents, including one in Dubai at Atlantis, The Palm, and can now afford to smile at his success and loyal celebrity fan following.

But the 64-year-old culinary legend very nearly gave it all up after he experienced a series of challenges and setbacks at the start of his career. He still shudders when he describes how his sushi restaurant in Alaska went up in smoke just 50 days after its opening in 1977.

“The fire incident was particularly harrowing,’’ says Nobu during a recent visit to his Dubai restaurant. “I felt like ending my life.’’ He had put his culinary heart and soul – and all his savings – into the venture and was devastated to see it go up in flames.

Luckily a close friend – well-known chef Hero Nishimura – helped him get back on his feet. Nobu worked hard and from the ashes rose a global chain of restaurants – ones that are considered by many to be some of the best in the world. Nobo’s Los Angeles location was ranked 13th in the Elite Traveler World’s Top Restaurants Guide 2012 and his signature dish, black cod in miso, has guests raving.

Nobu is acclaimed for his genius in combining traditional Japanese cuisine with contemporary South American – namely Peruvian – ingredients and flavours. His culinary wonders such as sashimi salad with Matsuhisa dressing, yellow tail sashimi with jalapenos and squid pasta with light garlic sauce are served at all 25 Nobu and five Matsuhisa restaurants.

Earlier this year Nobu topped his culinary success by opening the first Nobu Hotel with business partner Robert De Niro. It’s a 181-room hospitality extravaganza at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas - effectively a hotel within a hotel.

The acclaimed chef has garnished his career with cameo roles in Casino, Austin Powers: Goldmember and Memoirs of Geisha and has written six cookbooks. In an exclusive interview with Friday, Nobu talked about his early life, sushi and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars.

“The first jolt I received in my life was when I lost my father in a motorcycle accident when I was eight,’’ says Nobu. “I would have been with him if he hadn’t turned down my request to go out with him that afternoon.”

The young Nobu wasn’t interested in studying. He made up his mind to be a chef when he was 12 and went out to eat in Tokyo with his older brother Noburu. “We went to a restaurant on the outskirts of Tokyo for what would be my first sushi experience,” he says.

“I still remember it. The doors slid open and the owner said, ‘Irasshai!’ which means ‘welcome’, in Japanese. It was magical – the ambience, the decor, the delicate fragrances of foods like toro, gyoku, vinegar and soy. Each taste of the exquisite sushi gave life to my desire that day to become a sushi chef.”

Small steps

By his own admission, Nobu wasn’t a model student, so after graduating from high school in Saitama, Nobu moved to Tokyo to take his first job at a restaurant called Matsuei.

It was owned by Tadayuki Nakame, a renowned chef in the area. “He was my first mentor,’’ says Nobu. “I was the youngest apprentice. I washed dishes, delivered orders and cleaned the tables. That was the way it was. One had to patiently work their way up, learning at the hands of their master for years before they were permitted to work behind a sushi bar.’’

Every morning, except on Sundays, Tadayuki would take Nobu to the fish market. “I would carry the fish basket and observe how he chose fish. ‘A good chef must know his ingredients well,’ he would tell me. He taught me to touch, feel and smell any ingredient before including it in a dish.’’

Nobu spent three years watching Tadayuki make sushi. “The fine art of preparing sushi is something that you watch and learn,’’ he says. “I got my chance to move up the ladder when a senior chef left. I still remember the day when I took my place behind the sushi counter. I would have liked to tell you that I was brimming with confidence, but actually I was trembling because I was so nervous.’’ Once he was able to get over his nerves, he settled down and made a name for himself in Tokyo. Nobu set up a small sushi outlet of his own and it was successful. Although he loved Japan, Nobu’s dream was to take Japanese cuisine all over the world.

“The time to realise my first dream of working overseas came when a regular customer, Matsufuji, a gentleman who was based in Peru, asked me if I would like to partner with him in opening a sushi place in Lima,’’ says Nobu.

Sensing a great opportunity, the young chef, who had by then married his wife Yoko, sold his sushi business in Tokyo and moved to Lima in 1973. “So there I was, a 24-year-old  with a 49 per cent stake in a sushi restaurant  in a foreign country. It seemed my dreams  were taking off.’’

Creative substitutes

The style of creating signature dishes evolved while Nobu was in Peru. “Since I was not able to find several sushi ingredients in Lima, I was obligated to improvise by experimenting with substitutes that were available locally. Fortunately, the basic sushi ingredient – fresh fish – was in abundant supply.’’

Not a person to back down from a challenge, Nobu remembers how he got Peruvians to eat a fish that was not very popular. “Once, while I was in the market, I came across a variety of eel – popular in Japanese cuisine but not a very popular fish with Peruvians in those days. I was told it was fed to pets there, so I made up a story, saying that my pet dog was missing his eel meals terribly and a bit of that fish would relieve his homesickness. The fishmonger gave me a heap of eel. “For your dog,” he said. “It’s free!”

“Out of the eel I made tempura and sushi, which were received very well by our customers – predominantly Japanese businessmen and diplomats residing in Lima. They now had a taste of home, but with a Peruvian twist.’’ It was a huge hit with customers who soon came to his restaurant asking for the dish.

The business was a huge success, but soon a friend suggested Nobu make a move to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a short stint at a Japanese family restaurant, he returned to Japan where he worked in a local restaurant. “For a sushi chef in Buenos Aires there wasn’t much to be done, as Japanese food wasn’t so popular in those days,” he says.

It wasn’t long before the travel bug bit him again and that’s when Nobu teamed up with a businessman to set up the doomed restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska.
“It took ten months to build. But it ran only for 50 days. On the midnight of Thanksgiving 1977, an electrical accident sparked a ferocious fire that razed it. I lost everything. I had no insurance cover and was now saddled with a huge debt. I was on the verge of ending my life, but thoughts of my family – wife and two daughters Jumko and Yoshiko – kept me going.’’

Thankfully his friend Hero Nishimura helped Nobu by offering him a job in a sushi restaurant called Mitsuwa. Eventually he made enough money to pay off his debts and saved enough to follow his dream and start his own restaurant.

His dream became a reality in 1987 when Nobu and Yoko opened Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. “It was our own and we had seven employees. Finally, I was able to create my ideal cuisine,’’ says Nobu.

Matsuhisa soon gained fame and was frequented by Hollywood celebrities including Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg.

“It was over a plate of sushi that De Niro suggested we open a sushi restaurant in New York together.’’ At first Nobu was not keen. “I was not sure he was serious and I was wary.’’ But De Niro was not willing to give up. For four years he pursued Nobu and tried to convince him to start a restaurant with him. “Eventually I realised that a person who was willing to wait for so long had to mean business,’’ Nobu says.

The duo opened the first Nobu restaurant in New York in 1994 and soon went on to open others around the world. “But the Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills remains the one closest to my heart because that is where my fortunes turned,’’ he says.

Nobu’s family is very important to him. One daughter, Jumko, is a mother of a two-year-old girl and his other daughter, Yoshiko, is a fashion designer. He says he is most happy spending time with his family. “It is one of life’s most pristine moments’’ he says. But that’s not to say he doesn’t like drama and action.

“One evening Mike Myers and Steven Spielberg were discussing Goldmember and I just happened to joke, ‘If you need a Japanese character, let me know!’ The next day, they called me for audition! I find it’s always helpful to maintain a sense of humour,” he says.

Nobu has dabbled in movies, but food remains his passion. “What I relish most is when a member of my staff, who has worked with passion and patience towards achieving their dream of owning a restaurant, walks up to me and says, ‘Nobu! I have done it!’”