Sushi master Nobu Matsuhisa operates 31 restaurants on five continents — in Beijing, Budapest, Cape Town, London, Melbourne, Moscow and more. He has published five cookbooks and acted in movies such as 1995’s Casino, 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember and 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha.
Then there are the Nobu Hotels — in Las Vegas and later this year Riyadh, with London and Bahrain coming after. He lives between Beverly Hills and Tokyo, but at 64 and going strong, he has given no thought to where he might retire.
“In my company, everyone tries to retire between 60 and 65. They plan when they will stop and where they will go. I want to keep working,” he says during a recent trip to his South Beach restaurant, which opened at the Shore Club in 2001 and remains one of the toughest reservations in town.
“I don’t know where I will end up. To me that is a question that is more ‘Where are you going to die?’ One day everyone is going to die. I don’t know where it will be for me. Maybe Japan.”
His life almost ended, by his own hand, when he was in his late 20s. Some good fortune had turned into bad, and he thought his career was finished.
Nobu, who was born in Saitama, Japan, was 7 when his father died in a car accident. His mother was left to raise him, his sister and two brothers.
“One day, when I was 10 or 11, my older brothers took me to a sushi restaurant. I had never eaten in a sushi restaurant. For my generation, sushi was the most expensive food. I remember there was a sliding door. We sat down at the counter. We ate toro, shrimp. I don’t remember everything. But to me it was so good. And just the energy of the place, the concentration of the sushi chef slicing the fish. I thought, ‘Wow. I want to do this.’ ”
At 18, after graduating from high school, Nobu moved to Tokyo to take an apprenticeship at a small sushi restaurant.
“I lived in the house of my mentor, and every morning I would go to the fish market with him. I learned a lot. But my job was to clean the fish, wash dishes, do deliveries, be the busboy. Three years later I got to be a sushi chef. Learning to use the knife was difficult. It was very sharp and I had many cuts. I still had to learn concentration. And patience.”
One day, a customer who traveled to Japan regularly from Peru asked Nobu if he would consider being his partner in a sushi restaurant in Lima, where there was a large population of Japanese immigrants. Nobu accepted, and at 24, he and his new wife headed overseas. He started incorporating Peruvian influences into his very traditional sushi-making, and that is where his famed signature fusion was born.
“In Japan, we used only soy sauce and wasabi for raw fish. But in Peru they used lemon juice, chilies, cilantro, onion. Now ceviche is more modern, but in the 1970s it was always marinated for many hours so that the fish became white from getting cooked by the acid in the lemon. But I knew how to serve raw fish, so I started making my own style of ceviche that I marinated just before serving it so that it was more fresh like sashimi but with all of those Peruvian flavors.”
About three years later, the business relationship fell apart and Nobu moved to Buenos Aires to work at one of the few sushi restaurants then in the city. But there wasn’t much of a following for raw fish in Argentina yet. Which is when Nobu, who now had two young daughters, decided to leave Latin America and open his own sushi restaurant, in Alaska.
“Maybe I wasn’t thinking very clearly. It seemed like a good opportunity. The oil pipeline was opening up, and a lot of people were going to Anchorage. My dreams were broken. The restaurant in Peru went very well but I had problems with my partner. In Argentina I was frustrated because there were not enough customers. For some reason, Anchorage felt like my last chance. I think I was in shock about the last few years.”
He put all of his savings into the new place, which he started with a partner. They worked 50 days straight after the doors opened, and the future looked bright.
“And then on Thanksgiving we decided to take our first day off. I was home drinking beer and making turkey when my partner called to say the restaurant was on fire. I said ‘That’s not a good joke.’ But the restaurant burned completely.”
That’s when Nobu says he started thinking about suicide.
“My first dream broke. And now in Alaska I lost everything that I had left. I had not even energy left. I started thinking, ‘Maybe my life is over.’ ”
But then he considered his wife — and his two daughters.
“From very young I was always thinking about my father. I would talk to his pictures. I would say, ‘Why did you die before me?’ I wanted to talk to him about so many things. I thought about doing the same thing to my daughters and I realized I would have to find a way to continue. You can say they saved my life.”
Nobu returned to Japan with his wife (they have been together 41 years) and daughters and left them temporarily to take a job at a restaurant in Los Angeles.
“I would wake up in the morning and I would say, ‘Thank you for this morning. I will try my best today.’ Life teaches you patience. Family teaches you love.”
By 1987, nearly a decade after the Alaska fire, he was opening his first restaurant on his own, Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills. Celebs started flocking in. In 1989, Food & Wine magazine named him one of the 10 best new chefs in America. Soon, Robert DeNiro was walking in the door. In 1994, with DeNiro and another partner, he opened his first Nobu restaurant in New York. DeNiro is a close friend and partner in many of the ventures, including the hotels.
In February, Nobu was honored by the South Beach Wine & Food Festival with a $500-per-plate tribute dinner cooked by several star colleagues, including Daniel Boulud and Yoshihiro Murata. Martha Stewart emceed.
“I love coming back to Miami because every year it seems bigger,” Nobu says. “Now there are so many hotels, so many restaurants. It’s become an international city in 10 years. More arts, more people from all over the world, more everything.”
While he was in town for the festival, a colleague tried to score him a reservation at Miami’s hottest sushi restaurant (besides his own, that is.) But Naoe, an eight-seater on Brickell Key that is booked weeks in advance (in March it received a coveted five-star rating from Forbes Travel Guide), simply didn’t have a way to bump another customer.
But how can that be? He’s Nobu.
“We tried. But they only have eight seats. How can I squeeze in? I’m not spoiled. I don’t have that kind of ego. And I have patience now. I don’t rush about anything. Whatever you want, you have to remember to go slowly, one by one.”