When I first meet Nobu Matsuhisa, I can immediately tell that he’s a people person. He smiles widely and often (his teeth are amazingly white, in case you’re wondering), asks me how I am and where I’m from and immediately agrees to take a picture with me, insisting that I stay put in my seat as he gets up to sit down next to me.
Let’s not forget that this is the same man who has built a Japanese restaurant empire – 38 Nobu restaurants and nine Matsuhisa restaurants – around the world, yet seems to have retained his humility through this global domination.
Which is interesting because while his restaurants have become hugely popular celebrity hangouts – Madonna, Cindy Crawford, Tom Cruise and the Kardashians are all known fans – Nobu himself has become so recognisable, that some might say he himself is something of a celebrity.
“I never think that I’m famous. I can say that Nobu is still Nobu and I never change myself. I don’t think of myself as famous,” he reiterates.
But the fact is, he is very, very famous. So famous that people kept asking him how he became such a successful chef. So famous that he then decided to write a book about his rise to success.
“We have restaurants on five continents and a lot of people working with us, but many do not know how I grew to become a chef. Even customers want to know how I became a chef.
“So now that I am getting old, I wanted to write my memoir and explain my philosophy and my history, so people working with me can read it. This book doesn’t have any lies, it’s all about my life,” he says, laughing.
The self-titled memoir was released nearly four years ago in Japan, with the English version published late last year and launched recently in KL. Nobu worked with a ghostwriter to document the nitty-gritty details of his life, flying into Japan once a month to do one- or two-hour interviews with the ghostwriter.
The book charts Nobu’s early days as a child in Saitama Prefecture, beginning with the tragedy of his father’s untimely death in an accident when he was just seven. After his father’s passing, Nobu found photographs of his dad on business in Palau, which gave him the early inspiration to go overseas himself.
“I wanted to be like my father, my dream was to go to another country besides Japan. If my father had lived longer, maybe I would never have had this dream, but my father was gone, and I missed him and wanted to be like him,” says Nobu, 69.
There are also instances which shaped his life – like the time his older brother took him to a sushi restaurant; the visit left an indelible impression on him, one which would have a lifelong influence. “I was spellbound by the microcosm of the sushi bar into which I had stepped for the first time in my life,” he says in the book.
In the book, Nobu says he is now able to appreciate everyone in the restaurant business (especially the dishwashers), because after dreaming of becoming a sushi chef, he set out trying to become one, and started out at the bottom in his first job at sushi bar Matsuei-sushi in Shinjuku, where he was tasked with making deliveries, washing dishes and gutting fish.
“A restaurant is not just about the chef, it is about the waiters, reservations crew, all are part of the team. When I was young, I took on this experience, it was good for me, because I understood how difficult it was to be a dishwasher and I also learnt what customers liked. This is very important,” he says.
The book also recounts Nobu’s adventures in Peru (he left after a dispute with the restaurant owner), Argentina (people didn’t eat fish there and he became bored) and Alaska, which proved so tragic (his restaurant burnt down after less than two months!) that he contemplated suicide. But with each failed venture, he just kept pushing forward.
“Each experience in my life is in the past. But I’m here because I never gave up. Even today, I’m not thinking about the future, I’m thinking about right now,” he says.
When Nobu opened Matsuhisa, his restaurant in Los Angeles, he was 38 and ecstatic to finally have his own space. He admits that his focus was on getting the best produce for his customers; not on the bottom line.
“I bought the best products, but I never made money. The food cost took up more than 50%, but I was happy, because customers came to my restaurant, they were happy and came back again with guests. In those first three years, I invested in making sure customers could trust Nobu’s quality. I asked customers – ‘What would you like to eat today?’ I like to communicate with guests and I try to make what customers’ want. But business-wise, I never made money,” he says.
Although he wasn’t making much money off the venture, his repute grew and so did his fans – Robert De Niro was such a huge fan that he waited four years for Nobu to agree to open a chain of Nobu restaurants in partnership with him!
And many of the dishes he created during that period, like his famed black cod with miso and squid pasta, have become so revered that they have inspired copycat versions across the globe. Nobu says he takes the imitation as a sincere form of flattery.
“When people copy my dish, I’m very honoured because people first start to copy from somebody, and then they create their own style. Even with me, my mentor taught me how to make sushi, but I always copied what he did. It was through experience – I did everything many times and one day, I found my own way. But even now, I’m still learning,” he says.
The book also focuses on Nobu’s philosophies for his restaurants – how simplicity is best in cooking, how he always has both a Japanese chef and a local chef in each of his restaurants so they can teach other, and how he himself likes to mentor young chefs, something which is especially important to him, now that he has built a global empire.
“Well, for myself, I don’t have big dreams because already we have restaurants on five continents and now we have Nobu hotels (there are currently seven hotels). But I like to upgrade each restaurant, improve service and educate the next generation. It’s easy to open restaurants – you find a location, put money into and you get a beautiful restaurant.
But after the beautiful restaurant, who makes the customers happy? People are very important to my job. I travel 10 months of the year and communicate with the chefs. Not only do I teach them, sometimes I learn from them too. That’s why I’d like to do more education and training for the Nobu people – that’s my dream,” he says.