“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.”