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?

By Susan Emerling

Published June 28, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

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

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.

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