As a dishwasher and deliveryman in Tokyo decades ago, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa stuck with the restaurant business, hoping to work in a foreign country one day. He gained inspiration from photos of his father which were taken on business abroad.
Matsuhisa did manage to work overseas. But it ended in failure. In fact, he spent years suffering failures, setbacks and outright disasters.
However, he never gave up.
Now, Matsuhisa receives inspiration from a new photo at the restaurant bearing his name in Beverly Hills, next door to the motion picture capital of Hollywood.
The picture next to the register shows a smiling Matsuhisa standing between former U.S. President Bill Clinton and award-winning actor Robert De Niro, who is the Japanese chef’s business partner.
The walls of one corridor are lined with film posters featuring handwritten messages from Hollywood stars, saying things such as "Today was wonderful."
As Matsuhisa, 63, makes the rounds of the tables, a murmur ripples throughout the establishment.
"I've been coming here every day for lunch for the last 17 years," says a female customer. "It always fills me with energy."
Matsuhisa has branched out to open another restaurant, called Nobu, in New York, which has been credited for fueling the boom in Japanese cuisine across the United States.
Restaurants in Dubai, London and Melbourne followed, giving Nobu establishments on five continents. In fact, he now has 29 in total, employing 3,000 and with combined annual earnings of tens of billions of yen.
A refusal to accept defeat
In 1967, the year of the miniskirt, Matsuhisa graduated from high school and set out to become a chef at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku. It was a live-in position, and his days were spent making deliveries and washing dishes. He felt a powerful urge to try his luck overseas.
His father died when Matsuhisa was in elementary school, but he kept picture of his father taken on a business trip to Palau as motivation for his dreams.
At the age of 24, a customer offered to set up a Japanese restaurant for Matsuhisa in Peru. He accepted without hesitation.
"Pleasing customers is about providing quality food," he says.
Matsuhisa was particular about the ingredients he used, but his Japanese-Peruvian business partner thought differently.
"People here don't know what Japanese food is supposed to taste like, so you don't have to be so particular," he was told. They clashed over costs, and he quit the restaurant after two and a half years.
Further setbacks awaited in Matsuhisa's next restaurant venture in Argentina, which led him to return to Japan at the age of 27, feeling defeated.
“I don't want to stay a loser. I want to give it another try overseas," he says he thought at the time.
One year after he had returned to Japan, he left again to start a restaurant in Alaska. However, only 50 days after the Alaska restaurant opened, it was destroyed by a fire that left Matsuhisa several tens of millions of yen in debt. He took a job as a chef at a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, and concentrated on working to save money to pay off his debts.
"Even so, during that time, I was able to test out all sorts of culinary techniques, including ones I'd learned in Peru," he says.
In 1987, he was fortunate enough to find a sponsor through an acquaintance, which enabled him to open a restaurant in Los Angeles called Matsuhisa. Ten years had elapsed since the Alaska fire.
One day, he served thin slices of raw flounder to a female customer, who told him, "I can't eat raw fish."
Unsure of how to deal with the situation, he returned to the kitchen and noticed smoke rising from olive oil heating in a frying pan. "That's it!"
He poured the hot olive oil to sear the surface of the raw flounder he had taken back from the customer's table. The woman eagerly ate it all. It was the birth of Matsuhisa's trademark New Style Sashimi.
Matsuhisa continued to add original items to the menu, such as his own concoction for a seafood marinade he had picked up in Peru, and the restaurant began to take off.
Eventually, Hollywood celebrities started to drop by.
De Niro was a frequent visitor, but Matsuhisa admits with a laugh: "I had no time to watch films. So at first, I had no idea who he was."
The actor took a liking to Matsuhisa’s black cod with miso dish, and asked if he would be interested in establishing a restaurant together. Nobu opened its doors in New York in 1994.
The New York restaurant scene is extremely competitive, and reviews in newspapers and magazines greatly influence customer numbers. The New York Times is known for not pulling any punches, but it lavished Nobu with praise, stating: "Something wonderful is always on the horizon." The review came only two months after the restaurant's opening, which was unprecedentedly early.
"It was thanks to the help of my friends in L.A.," Matsuhisa recalls.
Celebrities headed to New York and proudly declared that they had long known about the high quality of food at Nobu. Word soon spread, and it became a permanent fixture at the top of restaurant guide Zagat's rankings.
"I know that there are some Japanese who say Nobu isn't Japanese cuisine," Matsuhisa says. It is a fact that many of Nobu's customers are not Japanese.
However, according to a Japanese chef with over 15 years of experience making sushi in New York: "Matsuhisa has had a major influence on New Yorkers' concept of Japanese food. Thanks to him, they don't have an aversion to sushi and sashimi anymore."
A schedule like that of a multinational corporate CEO
At his Los Angeles restaurant, Matsuhisa shows a consignment of sea urchin “karasumi (botargo)” that had just arrived.
Matsuhisa's right hand man, a Norwegian chef, suggests, "Instead of using mullet roe, why don't you use sea urchin leftovers to make botargo?"
The sea urchin botargo is sliced thinly and complemented with sea bream sashimi, then drizzled with olive oil. Nobu is constantly experimenting with new dishes such as this.
However, Matsuhisa lately has had little time to spend in the kitchen. He visits his restaurants around the world, teaching staff how to make sushi and offering advice on new menu items. But his main responsibility is quality control.
In March alone, he traveled to Tokyo, London, Los Angeles, Dubai, Perth and Tokyo once more. His schedule resembles that of a CEO of a multinational corporation. Only a few blank spaces remain in his thick passport with extra pages, even though it is still valid for four more years. He can only spend about two months out of the year at his home in Los Angeles.
For Matsuhisa, business is not so much about opening new restaurants as it is having a clientele who want him to do so. "With cuisine, there's no single way of doing things. It's about finding what customers are looking for, so it's fun to discover lots of different cuisine all over the world," he says.
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Born in 1949 in Saitama Prefecture. Graduated from high school in 1967, and trained to become a sushi chef in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Traveled to Peru and set up his first restaurant in 1973 on the invitation of a customer. Subsequently opened restaurants in Argentina and Alaska before establishing Matsuhisa in Los Angeles in 1987. Introduced his uniquely creative approach to Japanese cuisine, and hit it big with the restaurant Nobu in New York, a joint venture with actor Robert De Niro. Currently operates 29 restaurants in Tokyo, Beijing, London, Milan, Moscow, Dubai, Capetown, Melbourne, and elsewhere. Plans to move into the hotel business in Las Vegas this autumn.
Films: Matsuhisa has played a gambler in "Casino" starring De Niro, and a kimono artist in the Steven Spielberg-produced "Memoirs of a Geisha." Movie directors and producers who visit his restaurants as customers have asked him to appear in cameos in four films so far.
"It was a worthwhile experience, but cooking is easier for me."
Days off: His summer holiday consists of three weeks off in August, which he spends holed up in Hakone. He heads out to play golf if invited, but says, "I want to set aside days when I don't have to look at another person's face."
Family: He met his wife, Yoko, while he was serving his apprenticeship at the sushi restaurant in Shinjuku, and they have now been married for 39 years. They have two daughters, and their eldest, 37, works at Nobu in Tokyo. When the subject of his grandchild arises, he beams proudly. "She loves sushi, you know."
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