He’s one of the richest chefs in the world, with 26 restaurants to his name, but success came only after he had faced flames and failure. Nobu Matsuhisa tells Pauline D Loh how he keeps his zeal, and how he passes it on.
Nobu knew what he wanted to be after visiting his first sushi restaurant as a child. By the time he was 24 and managing his first restaurant, he realized it would be a lifelong vocation. That is why at 64, he is still constantly on the road visiting every one of his 26 restaurants by turn, traveling the United States from coast to coast, to Greece, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, Italy, Russia, Africa and lately, to China – where he has Nobu Hong Kong and Nobu Beijing.
His life has been full of ups and downs, so filled with drama that it seems like a ready-made Hollywood script. And, it just so happens, two of his main partners in the Nobu chain are Robert de Niro and Meir Teper. Filmmakers are risk takers but when de Niro and Teper invested in Nobu, they took a gamble which more than paid off.
De Niro waited three years to convince Nobu to go into business with him, but the chef was hesitant because he had been burnt before, literally. The first restaurant he owned in Anchorage, Alaska went up in flames 50 days after it started operations and Nobu had to work almost eight years to pay off the debts.
Still, de Niro kept asking him, and Nobu figured out that if his friend had such faith, he should honor the compliment. They opened their first restaurant in New York in 1994. Now in 2013, Nobu is mulling the location of his next restaurant in Singapore, which may be his 27th.
The chef has collected his share of Michelin stars. In fact, he has three, but the Nobu name can already stand on its own without any augmentation.
Nobu-san has a kind of stage presence that is almost physical. At the elegant dining room of Nobu Beijing, we could sense his entrance before we were actually introduced. He walked up briskly, greeting every diner with a friendly but brief hello as he approached our table. You got the unmistakable sense that this man has no time to waste.
As he settles down and our film crew pins a microphone on him, we present him with a little birthday present, a packet of organic sour jujubes harvested from the Beijing hills. He seems pretty chuffed, and asked how we knew he'd just had a birthday. He smiles as we reply: "We do our homework".
Indeed we did, and we knew Nobu is very particular about using the best ingredients in his restaurants. It was this passion for the fresh which caused him to leave his first overseas job in Lima, Peru, because there was a quarrel over the cost of ingredients.
Similarly, it is this obsession with freshness that makes him incorporate local products into his cuisine, and it was in Lima again that he slowly fused Peruvian elements into his food, creating what would later become the Nobu signatures.
As a young chef in Japan, he had to clean fish and other ingredients, and while others complained about these inelegant chores, Nobu valued them as an intimate education on ingredients. The education is always ongoing.
That is why when we tried to explain about the sour jujubes, he tells us: "Don’t give me too much information. I want to experiment with it myself."
What are the secrets behind Nobu's success? A food philosophy that believes you must cook from the heart, and a commitment to pass on this philosophy to every chef in every Nobu restaurant.
It seemed an enormous task.
Related video: Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa with Pauline D.Loh