How Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa Turned Nobu into a Culinary Institution
Chief Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa never set out to build an empire, but he did just that.
His eponymous restaurant chain, Nobu, now has 47 establishments on five continents. Restaurants are celebrity hotspots everywhere from Dallas to Dubai, and Matsuhisa has become a celebrity in her own right, with movie cameos, shoutouts in rap songs and an inner circle that includes Robert De Niro.
Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa’s Journey
Before Nobu, Matsuhisa was a child in Saitama, Japan, going through a difficult childhood. He lost his father at the age of 8 and was expelled from high school at 17. At 18, Matsuhisa moved to Tokyo to work as an apprentice chef at Matsuei-sushi, a family-run sushi bar. He had wanted to be a sushi chef ever since his older brother took him to a sushi restaurant when he was a kid; this work was the first step in realizing this dream. After seven years, Matsuhisa said yes to another dream – to travel the world – when a sushi bar regular offered to open a restaurant in Lima, Peru. It was there that Matsuhisa first developed what would become his signature: the fusion of Japanese techniques with Peruvian ingredients. Three years later, the partnership ends on bad terms. Matsuhisa moved briefly to Argentina, but returned to Japan once his wife became pregnant with their second child. In 1977, a friend asked him if he wanted to open a Japanese restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, and Matsuhisa couldn’t say no, he still longed to share his cooking with the world. And then came another setback: after just 50 days, an electrical fire caused the Alaska restaurant to burn down.
Matsuhisa fell into such a deep depression that he contemplated suicide, but he knew he had to keep going. Soon after, he took a job at a six-seat sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. He got a green card, moved his family to Los Angeles, and focused on perfecting his craft. In 1987, Matsuhisa was finally ready to try again. With the help of a $70,000 loan from a friend, he opened Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, introducing his fusion style to the Hollywood elite. Robert De Niro first ate at Matsuhisa in 1988. He liked it so much he suggested opening an outpost in New York. Matsuhisa was hesitant to enter into another partnership, but in 1994, after extensive media coverage (including being named one of Food & Wines Best New Chefs in 1989), years of persuasion from De Niro and the backing of film producer Meir Teper, Matsuhisa opened the first Nobu in New York’s Financial District. Like Matsuhisa, Nobu was an instant hit (Next Door Nobu opened in 1998 to help the restaurant overflow; it closed in 2017). While the food was largely the same at both restaurants, Nobu could seat many more diners and was designed with a more glitzy aesthetic, helping to challenge the world’s perception of what a sushi bar might be.
Decades later, Matsuhisa compares himself to the conductor. Although dozens of restaurants bear his name, Matsuhisa has strived to ensure that each establishment can operate smoothly, as individual representations of the Nobu brand. More than a brand or even a company, Matsuhisa considers its restaurants as a family. “That’s what I’m most proud of,” he said. “My children are growing up in the world.”
stay a while
The first Nobu hotel opened in Las Vegas in 2013; today there are 13 Nobu hotels worldwide. The hotels were a natural progression for the brand, built with the same attention to detail and clean design aesthetic. Although hotels involve bigger operations than restaurants, Matsuhisa said the philosophy is the same: “We like to make our customers happy.”
By the numbers
12: Matsuhisa sites exist worldwide
3: days when black cod fillets are marinated in miso for Matsuhisa’s signature dish, black cod marinated in miso
40,000: pieces of miso-marinated black cod were sold in 2021 at Nobu 57 and Nobu Malibu, the two busiest places
3: films Matsuhisa has cameos in: Casino (1995), Austin Powers Goldmember (2002) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)
6: number of times the name “Nobu” appears in Jumpman, the 2016 song by rappers Drake and Future
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(Main and feature image credit: therealnobu/Instagram)
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This story first appeared on Augustman Singapore