I interviewed Chef Nobu Matsuhisa when he came to town recently and he had a lot to say. So much so that I couldn’t get it all into Chef’s Corner in the magazine, so I thought I’d post the entire interview here. I tried to be true to what he said, and at time he spoke in broken English as he got his thoughts out, so forgive me (and him) any grammatical issues. Enjoy!
When did you decide to be come a chef?
I was a kid when my brother took me to a sushi restaurant. I was 8 maybe 10 years old. I was kind of in shock. I was shocked, there was so much energy. I was excited to see sushi chefs making sushi and all the different food. At that time, my generation, sushi was very expensive. [It was] not the normal food, [it was] very special food. Now it’s [everywhere] so people can get sushi all over. But at that time, [people] only eat sushi at the sushi restaurant or when a special guest comes into the home. But at that time, my first experience going to the sushi bar, it’s …Wow! [Right] then …my dream was to be sushi chef.
Where did you develop your cooking style?
I start working for [a] sushi restaurant when I was 18. I started basically the very traditional style of Japanese cooking. One day some [businessman] offered me to come open a restaurant in Peru. I was 24 years old and I wanted to go. So I moved to Peru to open restaurant. I saw some different cultures’ cooking style. Peru is very near the Pacific Ocean. They have very fresh fish, like Japan but [they are] cooking and eating [it] in a different way. For example, sashimi uses soy sauce and wasabi, all over the world almost, but Peru takes fresh fish, slices it, then marinates it with lemon, salt, garlic, chili, cilantro, onions. Same fish but [eaten] different way.
Do you have a mentor?
My first mentor is my mother. [My] interest in cooking is because of [her]. My father died when I was 8 years old and I stayed with mother [as she] cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. So I mean, I started getting interested in cooking from my mother, My second one is when I graduated high school I started working at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo called Matsuei Sushi. This is my first professional mentor, Mr. Nakane, but he pass away 5 or 6 years ago.
Are you always traveling?
Now we have restaurants on five continents. We just opened Beijing and [that’s] my 23rd Nobu plus we have four Matsuhisa. 27 restaurants all together on the five continents. So for the last three years I travel more than 10 months a year. My home is LA, but I stay there less than two months a year.
How many miles do you travel a year?
Oh I have more than a million miles. (He laughs) That’s why I’m still married.
When you are at home what’s do you like to cook?
Oh, I don’t cook at home much because I have a private chef at home. She’s my wife. (Everyone laughs)
Does she know you call her that?
(Nobu laughs again) We’ve been married 38 years. Six months ago we have the grandchild. And the 2nd one is going to marry this year. It’s very happy.
What’s your favorite thing to eat?
Whatever my wife makes. After 38 years she knows what I like, what I don’t like.
Where is the most unusual or farthest place you’ve traveled on a gastronomical quest?
I don’t like snake. This is very strange for me. Except the strange ones, I am chef.I know how to cook. I know how to eat. But my first experience from Japan to Peru to taste Peruvian cuisine inspired me. I expect sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi. But they have ceviche. They never use soy sauce. So from this country, Peru, I learned. Japan is very protective of its’ Japanese food “you have to do eat this way,” but my travels changed my point of view on food.
What’s your favorite part about being a chef?
Well I’m cooking, then its looking for the tables to see the customer eating smiling, loving, enjoying the food, this is my most best moment when people come to the restaurant.
You’ve opened restaurants all around the world. What have you found to be the biggest challenging dealing with different cultures?
Each country has different culture, different habits. Some countries [don’t use] alcohol for cooking or drinking. People have to meet the challenge. Some others don’t understand. Always learning. This is maybe my deal. My benefit. Because I’m traveling, I learn from my experience so I can teach the younger generations… Hawaiians like this, Bahamians like this – all the countries have different habits and different cultures.
I hear you’re opening a hotel. Why the jump into the hotel industry?
I’ve been doing the business for a long time and people start to work with me long time ago. For example, 10 years ago younger people take the experience and try to challenge themselves for the extra step. [Because of that] there are Nobu restaurants all over the world, [as well as the] people who work with me. I want to give people the opportunity to go the extra step. That’s why the [we have] the Nobu group, the Nobu restaurants and now the Nobu Hotel… everything come from inside the family, inside of the teams, it’s growing. It’s impossible I do myself. I’m not businessman. I’m a chef. But I like to see the staff growing… they get married, have babies, buy a house… you know? This is what I like the most. I enjoy this type of thing as it’s growing.
But you know… myself and Nobu restaurants are still going. Especially next year we open the Nobu hotel in Las Vegas. I don’t know how much is coming, but business is going like this. I have more than 2000 people that work under me. We have beautiful teams.. the management teams, the chef teams. We have a beautiful organization. We talk to people eye to eye. Kind of old fashioned. I want to maybe never retire. I don’t want to excuse my life and always I like to try my best but I’m 62 now, you know so I like this is my lifestyle.
What is New Style Sashimi?
Sashimi is raw fish. Uncooked. So I start my first restaurant in LA in 1987. First 6 months were slow, but after 6 months, we get busy. Well not busy, but mostly people come to my restaurants with 35 – 36 seats. One day this lady comes to me and says make me anything you want, so I made a beautiful sashimi plate, beautiful decorations, beautiful ponzu sauce on the side then sent to the table. She says this is raw fish. Sorry I cannot eat raw fish. So then I start to think. I move to the kitchen and there is a sauté pan with the olive oil. I take the hot olive oil from the pan and pour it over the sashimi and it’s hot and slightly cooked at the top, so no it’s not 100% raw fish, still 10-15% is, but like 80-85% is still raw fish. I send back to the table and say, all right ladies I know you don’t like raw fish so I cooked [this] with olive oil about 15%, I know it’s still 85% raw but 15% is cooked so please try this. So then of course she had one bite, two bites, then finished it all. You know why? She thought raw fish was fishy, and smelled bad, but I come from Japan so I know fresh fish doesn’t smell. Now I add Olive Oil and the sauce and onions and ginger so she got to taste the fresh flavor. So originally sashimi is the raw fish but I cook 15% with hot olive oil so that’s why I call it new style sashimi
What is something that people don’t know about a kitchen?
Well we buy the best product and the best quality. The customer doesn’t always understand. We have the beautiful sushi bar and also a beautiful menu. Customers see the menu, sit at the sushi bar and say, “can I please, can I please.” Before they come here we choose the best fish, we prep, we clean. It takes a lot of time. Making sushi takes 5 seconds but it’s a lot of process (gestures to the staff behind him doing their afternoon prep) getting ready before the customer comes in.
Did your children follow in your footsteps?
I have two daughters. My girls are not chefs, [although] one does work in the restaurant in Tokyo.
What’s next for you?
Well, I have no plans now for the next one because I like to try my best every day. Always I like to be challenged. Challenge is every day.
At the close of the interview, I asked if he had anything else to add. He did. Nobu was in town to do two fundraisers to help Japanese relief efforts and Japan was on his mind. He was extremely concerned that the media was inflaming the public’s fears about their nuclear disaster and wanted to reassure people to keep supporting Japan and buying their products. “Right now is a very serious time in Japan. Because of the nuclear plants and the radiation, a lot of nations have stopped import of Japanese products.” But he really wanted to share the fact that if the product was being sold than it was safe and he had confidence in the safeguards set up to ensure product safety through the Japenese version of the FDA as well as our own systems in place. If it’s available for sale, it has passed those safeguards put in for public safety and he urged people to continue to support Japanese industry.