The sushi mogul

He invented a singular cuisine that blends Japanese, Peruvian and European ingredients. He owns successful restaurants worldwide. What's left for Nobu to do?

Topics: Latin America,

The sushi mogul

There are so many celebrities floating around the universe of master chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and his nine Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants, that it’s probably best to get a handful of them out of the way immediately so we can move onto other subjects. Here you go: Bobby, Nicole, Kenny G, Celine, Robin, Liv, Cindy, Gwyneth, Martha and Giorgio.

In fact, the restaurants are so successful that when the doors to the 6-year-old Nobu Restaurant in New York open at 5:45 p.m., there is already a line of 30 people, with and without reservations, who have been waiting on the sidewalk for 45 minutes. Even then, anyone who is seated is “signed” to a verbal contract guaranteeing they will relinquish the table in time for the almighty 8 and 8:30 p.m. reservations.

It is what Richie Notar, former |ber-busboy of Studio 54 cum director of operations of five international Nobu restaurants and partner in Nobu Malibu, calls “a powerful reservation.” Nobu London, Nobu Tokyo and the original Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills are also powerful reservations. The soon-to-open Nobus in Miami’s South Beach; Milan, Italy; and Sydney, Australia; are expected to share in the success.

But for all the frenzy and despair surrounding getting a table, once you’re seated what lies ahead is an exquisite meal. Matsuhisa has invented a variation on traditional Japanese cuisine, blending the finest quality fish with nontraditional Peruvian and European ingredients like chilies, truffles, fois gras, garlic, olive oil and caviar, to come up with exquisite signature dishes such as yellow tail sashimi with jalapeqos, squid pasta in light garlic sauce and new-style sashimi.

Born and raised in Japan, Matsuhisa has earned his right to innovate honestly by undergoing a rigorous classical Japanese sushi chef training, which began at the age of 18 and included sleeping on the floor of his mentor’s restaurant. His duties included carrying the bucket on 6 a.m. trips to Tokyo’s vast Tsukiji fish market and working until 1 a.m., 28 days a month for a tiny salary. Three years passed before he was allowed to touch the rice to make his first piece of sushi.



Despite the rigors of his training, this was something he had dreamed of since he was 12 years old when his older brother took him to a sushi restaurant for the first time. “Sushi is something very exclusive. It is not like a McDonald’s, not like a hot dog, not like a French fry. It’s very high-class cooking in Japan. It was different world, very powerful, with all the different types of fish and the old men working at the counter.”

As soon as he graduated from high school where he was preparing to study architecture, he asked his family’s permission to train to be a sushi chef.

Seven years later, in 1972, when Matsuhisa was 24 years old, a Japanese-Peruvian businessman who came into the restaurant twice a year invited him to Lima to open a traditional Japanese restaurant to cater to the executives at the big Japanese companies who had offices in Peru. Matsuhisa was instantly captivated by the local cuisine.

“Peru was the Incas, it has 3,000 to 4,000 years of history. Lima is close to the Pacific Ocean, so there is a lot of seafood. I’m very interested in different types of food — ceviches, arroz con pollo, cilantro, garlic, chili, soups like chupe de mariscos. A different spice is the most interesting thing to me.”

But after three years, when the Peruvian economy was suffering the effects of a failed agrarian reform, Matsuhisa had an argument with his partners who wanted him to economize. Frustrated by their demands, he decided to dissolve the partnership. “OK, I was young. I’m a chef, chef means like an artist; artist means doesn’t care about food cost. They tell me you must buy low-cost fish, labor’s too high, cut people. It’s not my way. I like to have the best quality fish, the best service. This is still my philosophy. That’s why Matsuhisa, New York, all the restaurants are a success.”

After Peru, Matsuhisa tried Argentina, but despite the fact that there was a lot of fresh fish and three or four Japanese restaurants in Buenos Aires, in 1975 not a lot of Argentines were eating sushi. So he packed up his wife and two children and returned to Japan. But the country was then undergoing its own economic woes in the wake of the collapse of the “high growth age.” Matsuhisa, however, had been spoiled by a lifestyle in South America that included a large house, a maid and gardeners. Life in a small Japanese apartment seemed less appealing. When he was offered a partnership in a new restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, he asked his wife if he could try one more time to make a go of it outside of Japan.

Funds were limited so he spent six months doing the construction himself before finally opening Ki Oi (meaning Private Members Club) in 1977. Working 50 days straight after the opening, Matsuhisa took his first day off to celebrate Thanksgiving. “I was at a friend’s house drinking wine, eating turkey. My partners call me: ‘Nobu, hurry to the restaurant. There’s a fire.’” He thought it was a joke, except that he heard the sirens over the phone and saw flames as he drove to the restaurant.

“Anchorage is a very small town and I can see the fire from far away. I was suicidal. I lost everything. It was loan money, no insurance. All I cared about was, ‘How can I die? Was I going to jump in the ocean? Jump in front of the train?’”

Asked how he recovered, he says, “My babies were happy because usually I’m not home.” Matsuhisa then packed up his family and returned to Japan. He stayed a week, just long enough to settle his wife and children with her family and then returned to Los Angeles like a runaway, with one small suitcase and $24 in cash. Once back in L.A., he found work as a sushi chef. When the restaurant was sold he moved to another restaurant. When that restaurant was put up for sale, he went to a friend for advice. “I don’t want to go back and be like Anchorage and I still owe a lot of money, I have responsibilities to my wife and my family. This guy takes $70,000 and says ‘Nobu, use this money. Anytime you get money you send it back.’ He gave it to me like free money.”

That’s when he opened Matsuhisa Restaurant in 1987, marking the beginning of what he refers to as “the Nobu Matsuhisa style.” Although the 18-seat sushi restaurant was not initially a success, slowly the Hollywood crowd discovered it.

In a now famous, Schwab’s Soda Fountain style-story, Robert De Niro came into the restaurant with Roland Joffe (who directed him in “The Mission”) and became entranced by Matsuhisa’s food. Matsuhisa had no idea who his famous client was.

De Niro invited him to New York, where the actor had just bought a coffee warehouse in lower Manhattan. They walked around the empty space talking about De Niro’s plans and his hope that Matsuhisa would open the future TriBeCa Grill. But he wasn’t ready.

Even though Matsuhisa turned down De Niro’s offer, De Niro kept eating at Matsuhisa Restaurant whenever he was shooting a movie in Los Angeles. “Bob doesn’t say anything after I say no. Then finally after four years he calls me at my house. Is Nobu ready to come to New York? Do you know what it means? It means he is waiting, waiting, waiting, four years for me. He was watching me. The first time he called me nobody knew Matsuhisa, because I was not a success yet. Then after four years a lot of people knew my name, the restaurant was a success. That’s why I came. I so appreciate him. He says ‘Don’t worry … I am here.’”

Nobu, as the restaurant was named, opened in midsummer, when Manhattan’s who’s who has fled to the Hamptons. Other Japanese chefs in New York told Matsuhisa he’d be out of business within six months, but the restaurant was an instant success, drawing everyone from former Secretary of State George Shultz to members of the glitterati. Once Nobu New York had opened, Matsuhisa and his partners, De Niro, restaurateur Drew Neiporent and movie producer Meir Teper (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”), opened Nobu restaurants in London and then Tokyo.

If New York was risky, Tokyo was a downright intimidating return for this prodigal son who was very familiar with the restrictive environment of traditional Japanese cooking. “I was worried about it before opening because I’m afraid they didn’t respect my food in Japan, because the Japanese are always very traditional about Japanese food. This is different from the United States, Japanese food has a long history.”

Despite his concerns, Matsuhisa was confident about his food and his understanding of what people would enjoy eating. He also understood the fashion component of the restaurant business and the fact that the Japanese, like the denizens of his other cities, were looking for a new flavor, not to mention that his reputation and his celebrity clientele would make the restaurant a success.

Then came the backlash. When the Los Angeles Times did a story about the Japanese delicacy of “ikezukuri,” live-fish sashimi, where the fish is carved live and reassembled on the plate, head and all. A local news crew picked up the story and showed up with cameras asking Matsuhisa to demonstrate ikezukuri. He pulled a live fish out of the tank, sliced it and served it. After the piece was broadcast, Matsuhisa had 50 calls in 10 minutes accusing him of cruelty, including calls from Greenpeace and animal-rights activists. He was incredulous. “People eat the chicken, people eat the beef, they still say, ‘Don’t kill the fish.’ This is a 2,000-year-old, very traditional Japanese way to prepare fish. It has a history.”

He called the station asking them not to air the piece again, but they told him that all the calls they’d gotten were from people looking for reservations. “The TV station lied to me. The next Sunday they showed it again twice. Again a lot of phone calls, a lot of complaints. You know what they say? ‘You going to kill the fish, I’m going to put a bomb in front of the restaurant.’ I think, are you crazy? Fish! I just show the ikezukuri! I was so scared of a bomb that I never do ikezukuri anymore. But,” he adds, “we still do the live lobster.”

Flying on the Concorde, Matsuhisa visits as many as three different restaurants in three different cities in a single day. At this point he only cooks about three to four days a month, spending the rest of the time supervising the kitchens, communicating new recipes to his various chefs and combing Tsukiji for new ingredients.

Strolling around this year’s James Beard Awards (the culinary equivalent of the Oscars, where Matsuhisa was nominated for his third consecutive “Outstanding Chef of the Year” award), dressed in an elegant Armani tux, he is friendly with many of the other top chefs. But one, Wolfgang Puck, who is also based in Los Angeles, has a special place in Matsuhisa’s heart.

“They are all my friends, but Wolfgang Puck is my hero. He has a good business, plus he is Austrian. He came here and is a success.” Matsuhisa has even opened the first of his simpler noodle and tempura restaurants, Ubon, in the Beverly Center mall, which is clearly inspired by Puck’s chain of cafes.

Like Puck, Matsuhisa is becoming a celebrity in his own right. Herb Ritts photographed him for a Gap ad a couple of years ago. This made his face so recognizable that on a trip to Japan with De Niro to promote “Casino” (in which Matsuhisa made his acting debut in the role of a Japanese gambler), people in a department store recognized him, but not the dark-haired white guy he was with.

With fame has come fortune: Last year Forbes magazine put Matsuhisa on its list of top five money earners in his profession, (Puck made number one on the list). He’s even up for another movie role in the big-budget feature “Pearl Harbor.”

But Matsuhisa’s got other things on his mind. He is spending three days a month in Japan working on his first cookbook. “I’m 51 years old. What I do takes time, but in meantime it’s on the table, people use chopsticks, my art is gone. Every dish is being photographed. It’s like all my souvenirs, a chef’s life. Fifty-one is the best age, I know the food, I know the fish, everything is a lifetime. I’m not doing this for the money, it’s my life.”

Susan Emerling is a feature film and documentary writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. Her most recent film, "Robert Zemeckis on Drinking, Drugging and Smoking in America: The Pursuit of Happiness" premiered on Showtime in September.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>