This month marks 25 years since Europe first tasted Nobu. The Japanese restaurant group was already a favorite in New York, having opened in 1994 as part of a partnership between Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert De Niro. London’s first outpost opened on Old Park Lane in 1997, followed by a second branch on Berkeley Street in 2005 – this one is a party hotspot, which has seen just about every A -lister since over the years, from Kate Moss to Brad Pitt and Elton John. The hype has faded over time, but Nobu certainly hasn’t lost its shine. In fact, the food is better than ever, the result of many years of development. Outside the capital, Nobu has grown into a global empire, with restaurants and hotels dotted around the world. Here we chat with the man behind it all, Nobu Matsuhisa.
Nobu Matsuhisa talks about his Restaurant Empire
What are your earliest cooking memories?
The first memories I have of cooking are with my mother. She has always made food for me and I consider her the best chef in the world. My mother and grandmother always cooked simple, traditional Japanese dishes – steamed rice, miso soup and grilled fish. Sometimes my mother would buy a whole fish, cut it herself, and make homemade sashimi and sushi. It wasn’t fancy, not like sushi in the restaurant, but for me it was still the best. She is where I got my inspiration to cook and she taught me a lot about cooking. I tell my chefs: for professionals, cooking is a lot of technique – but my dishes must always be made with heart.
What prompted you to become a chef?
Watching my mother and grandmother inspired me to cook, but my brother helped me discover sushi. He took me to a sushi restaurant in Saitama, where I’m from. We sat at the counter and watched the chefs prepare it – it was an amazing experience. I didn’t know what the names meant, but after one bite I knew I wanted to be a sushi chef.
My first job as a chef was a kitchen assistant, then I became an apprentice. The first years I was only able to do the dishes and deliver sushi, then I gradually started to help the sushi chefs prepare rice and fish.
How did you come to join Robert De Niro?
When I opened Matsuhisa in LA, Bob walked in. He looked familiar to me but I had no idea who he was. He loved black cod miso and after his dinner he asked me to join them for a drink. It was our first conversation. He drove to Matsuhisa whenever he was in LA – sometimes he brought friends or his agent. After a while, he suggested that I open a restaurant together in New York. Matsuhisa had only been open for a few years and I wasn’t ready to open a restaurant anywhere else. I wanted to focus on Matsuhisa’s success first.
Bob kept visiting me in Matsuhisa and four years later he called me at my house and said ‘Nobu, what do you say?’ I decided it was the right time, so we signed a partnership contract and opened our first restaurant in New York in 1994.
London’s first Nobu opened in 1997. How has the London restaurant industry changed since then?
When we first opened Nobu London it was very different from today, especially for Japanese restaurants. We were one of the first to bring our style of Japanese cuisine to London. When I mentioned to a client in Los Angeles that I was opening a restaurant in London, he was shocked because the London food scene was not very fashionable at that time. Now, 25 years later, London is very diverse and there are many types of cuisine and plenty of good food to enjoy.
When you started, did you ever predict that Nobu would become so big?
I never predicted that Nobu would become so big in the world. I had many setbacks before finally opening my first Matsuhisa restaurant and was thrilled that people loved my food and kept coming back. I was very lucky; I made many mistakes and learned from hard experiences. I kept going and never gave up.
In your opinion, what are the fundamental aspects of Japanese cuisine?
Traditional Japanese cuisine focuses on very simple ingredients, such as meat, fish, and vegetables. Everything must be fresh and of very good quality. We think very carefully about what we eat and why we eat it. Tokyo is now a very multicultural city, with many Michelin-starred restaurants and an international influence, so Japanese cuisine is constantly evolving.
How do you decide where to open a restaurant or hotel?
There are many things we consider when opening a new location, including physical space and what the local food scene is like. Often we have partners we already work with who have found a good opportunity in a new city or country. We always try to understand the local culture wherever we go.
You said you spend 10 months of the year traveling. What is your favorite place?
My favorite place is at home in Los Angeles with my family. I spend so much time traveling, so it’s nice to come home and spend time with my grandkids. I turn off completely when I’m home. I also have a house in Hakone in Japan where I like to go and relax.
What do you do on your days off?
I don’t have many days off. But when I do, I enjoy relaxing at home, cooking, and spending time with my family.
Can the appearance of food affect how we feel about it?
The appearance of a dish is very important. Even if a dish tastes good, if it doesn’t look appetizing, it will change the whole experience for the customer. At Nobu, we always say the most important thing is that our customers are happy — when we know they’re having fun, the team is happy and I’m happy. The visual aspect of a dish is a very important part of the Nobu experience.
Do you still spend time cooking?
I still enjoy cooking, both at home and in restaurants. When I travel to all restaurants and hotels, I like to meet the chefs and teach them the right techniques. I don’t think I will ever be ready to retire.
Your three favorite ingredients for cooking?
Fish, rice and soy sauce. These are still my three favorite ingredients for cooking and are staples in my kitchen at home.
Are there any exciting openings in the pipeline?
We have many exciting openings coming up all over the world, hotels and restaurants. I feel so lucky to have been able to visit so many countries, so I never worry about places I haven’t been to yet. I just can’t wait to see what’s to come.
Interview with Heston Blumenthal / Review: Nobu Hotel Ibiza Bay