Nobu Matsuhisa's Culinary Triumphs Followed Years Steeped In Failure

Nobu Matsuhisa's Culinary Triumphs Followed Years Steeped In Failure

Gourmands know the name Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Also known as Nobu, he’s the founder of the internationally renowned Matsuhisa and Nobu restaurant chains as well as Nobu Hotels.

But fame didn’t come easily. In fact, there was a time early on when if he didn’t have bad luck, he had no luck at all.

Matsuhisa’s father died when Nobu was just a schoolboy in Japan. As a young teen without a driver’s license, he “borrowed” his older brother’s car and got into an accident that resulted in his expulsion from school.

He apprenticed at a sushi restaurant where he spent three years washing dishes and making deliveries. Eventually, however, he learned about fish and sushi preparation, and became a favorite among the restaurant’s clientele. When one regular, a Japanese-Peruvian, offered to help him open a restaurant in Peru, Nobu jumped at the chance.

You’d think finding his calling and someone to finance it might mean his luck had changed. But you’d be wrong.

The restaurant’s success only fueled discord between the chef and his investor who, Matsuhisa writes in his newly published memoir, ” Nobu ,” put “profit over quality.”

There followed other stops, including a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, that burned to the ground 50 days after it opened. At the time, Matsuhisa was so upset that he contemplated suicide, a notion he rejected only because of thoughts about his family.

“(Without) my wife and two daughters, I would have taken my life,” he told IBD. “My wife and two daughters gave me the energy to keep going. They saved my life.”

Through a friend, Matsuhisa arranged a job in Los Angeles, where he worked for a decade at two sushi restaurants before, in 1987, opening his own, the eponymous Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills.

It was almost an immediate success, for a number of reasons. Perhaps foremost was Matsuhisa’s desire to please. In part this is due to “omotenashi,” the Japanese spirit of hospitality and service. He treats his customers “like a family.” He’d greet them, ask what they liked and didn’t like, and would explain the food to them as he made the rounds. He wasn’t constrained by what was on the menu.

His thought process: What would I want if I was a customer? How would I like to be treated?

But his prime selling point, of course, was his food. His experiences in Peru (and Argentina, as well) led him to create distinctive dishes that combine Japanese style with South American ingredients such as  jalapeno-accented yellowtail and Chilean sea bass with miso.

Some might call it fusion, but Matsuhisa disagrees. “My cooking is Japanese. Every dish has a Japanese taste.”

Unique Combination

Whatever it’s called, the unique combination soon attracted excellent reviews and overflow crowds. Tom Cruise was once turned away and New Yorker Robert De Niro became a regular when in Los Angeles. In fact, De Niro liked the food so much that the actor offered to help Matsuhisa open a New York location.

Meir Teper, a film producer who became an investor, recalled that “Mr. De Niro asked Nobu if he ever wanted to do something with him – he would love to do it with him.

“In the beginning Nobu wasn’t very excited. He was at Matsuhisa every night and he thought it would be too difficult to open another restaurant.”

Four years later, De Niro tried again, this time getting a positive response. In 1994, Matsuhisa, Teper, De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent opened the first Nobu restaurant, which are typically larger than Matsuhisa and less expensive, but based on the same concept of Japanese food with a helping of Latin American ingredients.

Teper was confident of its success. He understood that “the restaurant business is risky, but most business is risky. But the food (at Matsuhisa) was really special, and I thought there was really nothing like it in New York.”

He was right. “It was such a big success people started calling (about opening another),” Teper said. “The first gentleman was from London.”

Interestingly, the Londoner wanted to sign a deal that excluded De Niro, but for Matsuhisa loyalty is a must. “De Niro was a partner in the first Nobu. He’s the one who invited me to New York. I can’t go on without him.”

The investor acquiesced, and once the deal was signed Matsuhisa spent a month in London sampling the food available at the city’s sushi restaurants. What he found was uninspiring, he said, and fueled his confidence “and my passion to share the delights of good sushi with people in England.”

Personal Oversight

Once Nobu opened, Matsuhisa spent a month in the restaurant kitchen training his chefs on how to meet his high standards. Personal oversight is a hallmark of his operation. He said that his style of management dictates that in “every country, every continent, food is prepared the same way” so that the restaurants are “familiar and like family to our customers.”

To assure that, Matsuhisa spends virtually all his life on the road. At first, it was two weeks in Los Angeles, and a week each in New York and London. As the locations expanded, however, so did his travel schedule.

“I travel 10 months a year,” he said. “I get to see all my kids (employees) around the world. I want the chefs to understand my style of cooking, my recipes.

“I remember how thrilled I was to see the dishes that I had invented at Matsuhisa being produced identically in New York and again in London.”

When he visits one of his restaurants, it’s not a one-way conversation, though. “I learn from them also. I travel to find something new, which is very important to the business.”

Cross-pollination is also important to him. Chefs from London were sent to both Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills and Nobu in New York, while Nobu New York chefs were sent to London. The goal: to learn from each other.

Chef exchanges continues to this day.

Taking His Own Path

While Matsuhisa obviously likes uniformity of product, he doesn’t necessarily believe that you have to go along with the herd. During his first December in London, his manager planned to close the restaurant during the holidays, apparently a common practice in the city. But Matsuhisa demurred. The restaurant was located in a hotel that he knew would be filled with tourists and, as it turned out, so was the restaurant.

“The experience confirmed my belief that while it’s important to adapt to local ways, stepping outside convention is often just as good for business as it is for inspiring new recipes,” he said.

One of the areas where Matsuhisa excels is in employee relations. He believes in second chances, in part because he remembers his own early failures. He prefers praise to scorn. In Japan, he says, there is a strong tendency to point out faults. In fact, there’s a saying: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Matsuhisa prefers the way it’s done here. “Americans are good at praising people,” he observed. And he likes to see that up and down the ranks. In fact, when he visits a restaurant, he makes a point of stopping to greet the dishwasher.

“That’s how I started. For three years I was a dishwasher and busboy. I understand how tough the work is. All day your hands are in hot soapy water, brushing dishes. If the plates are dirty, the chefs can’t present the food.”

His philosophy appears to be working. At last count, there were 47 Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants and six Nobu Hotels around the world.

Nobu’s Keys

Built two international sushi restaurant chains and then added hotels to his empire.

Overcame: Need by some investors to increase profits.

Lesson: Stick to your principles, even if it means speaking truth to power.

Quote: “Drew (Nieporent) wanted more sales, more money. He wanted us to put in more tables. I spoke to him and said people aren’t machines. We’re not robots. If I hadn’t confronted him, the spirit of Matsuhisa may never have been carried over to Nobu.”

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