Nobu Matsuhisa on kitchen etiquette and being a celebrity chef
We sat down with chef Nobu Matsuhisa at the Fairmont Monte Carlo to find out what it takes to run one of the world’s most prestigious and profitable restaurant empires
As the famous bard Future once said: "Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu." Nobu Matsuhisa is a chef whose reputation very much precedes him. World-famous for his iconic dishes of black cod and yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño, his introduction of Nikkei cuisine to the upper echelons of high society – and cameo appearances in everything from Casino to Austin Powers: Goldmember – have made Nobu a household name since he opened his first restaurant, Matsuhisa, in 1987.
The NOBU restaurant group has, in many ways, become more well-known than Nobu himself. NOBU restaurants have become a status symbol for anyone looking to organise a romantic date or a business meeting. And, over the last few years especially, it seems that NOBU the brand has overtaken from Nobu the man. That being said, though, the chef is still working to ensure that his personal ethos remains watertight through all his restaurants.
"Growing up with my grandmother, nothing would ever be left to waste," says Nobu as he teaches me the correct way to eat sushi (turn the nigiri on to its left side like its rolling over in bed, kiss the fish side into a thin layer of soy sauce and eat the whole thing in one). Drowning the rice in soy sauce is pretty much the most cardinal sin you can commit at a sushi restaurant. "After we'd make sushi, we'd always make rice balls," he continues, "every grain was used. My grandmother always told me that 'one grain of rice takes one year to grow' so nothing would be left to waste. That's the Nobu philosophy"
That Nobu philosophy also entails a lot of hard work. Nobu spends roughly ten months of his year travelling the globe to ensure each of his restaurants lives up to his exacting standards. Endless rap songs and movie credits considered, Nobu remains humble about his success and grateful for the privileged position he's in. Even if he did fall into that position thanks to a fair bit of happenstance and the persistent cajoling of one Robert De Niro. Nobu's iconic yellow tail with jalapeño started existence as an impromptu staff meal he whipped up in Hawaii – "I had to feed my staff after a long day of service so I just threw bits of cilantro, jalapeño, and whatever fish I had lying around together," he says with all the casualness of a man whose name is emblazoned on an almost comically large sign above my head.
Last night he was in London, but today he's in Monaco showing me a video on his phone of the moment he threw the first pitch at a Mets game with a very, very expensive watch on his wrist. I was lucky enough to speak to Nobu at his restaurant in the luxurious Fairmont Monte Carlo to find out how he's managed to navigate a career that's seen him go from kitchen busboy to become the owner of more than 40 restaurants in five different continents.
You spent last night at Nobu in Shoreditch. What do you think about the London food scene?
Well, my first London restaurant opened in 1997, so it's been open for around 22 years now. The food scene in London before we opened Nobu was quite flat. With people progressing and chefs coming through over the last few years it's really pushed the food forward and elevates the whole food scene. London is a cosmopolitan city where people are always moving so the customers we get there have also been to NOBU in LA and then they've been to NOBU in New York and Tokyo.
How do you decide on a new location for a NOBU?
The first thing we do when opening a new restaurant is meet the investors and the partner. Finding the right partner and the right location is the most important step before we start talking. Then it's about sourcing the produce – the fish, meat, vegetables – and also the people involved. Here [Nobu at the Fairmont Monte Carlo] was a little bit difficult about getting the right ingredients. But after ten years now we've made connections to find more produce.
Hotel restaurants can be difficult to run. How have you found that the Fairmont here avoids some of those problems?
Hotels are, for me, kind of the same as restaurants and operate in a very similar way. They're obviously bigger operation, which means more people through the door, but you still have to provide hospitality to all the customers coming in. I like to make people happy. Hotels and restaurants share that.
Over the last few years, NOBU has become more famous as a brand than as your own name. Do you think that fame has affected your personal cooking in any way at all?
No. My cooking style is something I cannot change. I started training in Tokyo, Japan and learnt the best cooking techniques. Then the move to Peru allowed me to combine that Japanese cooking style with a Peruvian influence and from that I created the NOBU style. Food styles come and go like fashion trends but I'm not looking to change too much. I like to keep things simple. Japanese cooking is very simple, and the most important thing is the produce and the qualities, not too much complication. That's the Nobu style and no matter how famous I get I cannot change or complicate it too much.
There's a lot of rightful arguments in the food world at the moment about cultural appropriation and people cooking food that's not from their own culture. Do you have any thoughts on that?
At NOBU we have chefs all over the world and each chef has a different sense, a different presentation and has grown up with different experiences. I'm always watching the chefs and I advise them a little bit, saying "This way's better," or "That way's better," because I think communication is very, very important with my chefs. But I don't want to tell him that "you must do it this way". I never do that. It's about building a relationship, watching the chef to see how they're doing it their way and then offering a little advice or maybe saying "oh, why don't you try it this way?".
Kitchen trends might mean new equipment and new technology, but I prefer the knife and the fire
Do you think kitchen culture has changed a lot over the last few years?
Cooking is a lot like fashion with its trends. Trends might mean new equipment, new technology – things like that. But I don't want to use too much technology. I prefer the knife and the fire; steaming and frying. That's my cooking. In that sense, the NOBU kitchen culture has never changed. What does change depends on the chef. Young generations of chefs are trying to add more decoration or add things like flowers or some new technique. I'm constantly watching to learn how they're doing it but, little by little, I also try to navigate them to my way.
You've obviously trained a lot of chefs over the last few years. Is it important for you to be a mentor to others pass on the knowledge and allow them to open up their own restaurants?
Yes. Because even I used to work in another restaurant before I left and started my own business. Every young chef is looking to study and get training so that one day they're ready for that next step, too. That's very good and I like to support what they're doing. This next generation of chefs is going to become the next great chefs. But I'm still alive, I'm still doing it my way! [laughs] The young generation are going to go on to that next step and open their own restaurants but I never think of it as a competition. I think fondly of them and it's good for us too. Guests come to restaurants looking for good food and good service. If somebody opens a restaurant with a reputation for good food and good service it means we have to step up our own game. It helps us keep the motivation to always try and be the best.
How much cooking do you actually get to do nowadays?
Well, it's very difficult to stay in the kitchen for a whole day. I'm travelling about 10 months a year, so each restaurant I stay at only around two or three days. Most of these days I spend time with the chefs – so I regiment the team and speak to them about what's going on. Then I go to the kitchen and the chefs update me with some of the new dishes to discuss. Then, trying to work out which way (not always my way) is the best way forward. That's my job now.
There are many iconic NOBU dishes like the black cod. Do you ever want to try something completely new and just take the black cod off the menu?
No, and you know why? Because I'm Nobu. I created black cod. I created the yellowtail with jalapeño. I created the shishito peppers... and that means only I know how it's meant to taste. Take the black cod, for example: yesterday I was in Shoreditch and we did a special dinner and I was watching how they were doing the black cod. I noticed it was slightly different – so I told them "Less salt, less sauce, cook it a little bit more." I still have to advise and go back to the basics with my signature dishes. But that's why my job – as much as possible – involves staying with the chefs and teaching them. I explain to them the origins of the dish and how it came to be, how to create them.
Do you still enjoy cooking?
Cooking is all my life.
We've heard you don't like the word fusion. What upsets you when people refer to your food as fusion?
Fusion is confusion. The Nobu style is very simple. Black cod was something I found 35 years ago in Anchorage, Alaska. And in the beginning nobody used it except the Japanese. I found out in the fish market that they had black cod and frozen fish going for 25 cents per pound. Now it's something like 12-13 dollars because a lot of people are eating it. I made a simple marinade with miso for three days, then just baked the dish. It's very simple. Some chefs try to make the black cod but they'll do something "new" like combine two different flavours – it's too confused. People say that fusion means something very unique but I don't like saying fusion, or that my food is fusion, because it's Nobu style. Because I like to keep things simple. Fusion food, for me, involves too much mixing, too much processing of the food. It's confusion.
When did you first realise you could cook?
I started working in kitchens at 17 but my passion came much earlier. When I was a kid— maybe 10 or 11 years old—the first time I went to a sushi restaurant and sat on the counter. The sushi chef made each piece by hand and gave it to me in one bite and I just said "wow". At this time I didn't cook yet but I knew then that I wanted to be a chef. Chefs to me were like superheroes. They had knives like an action hero chopping sushi like this [gesticulates wildly]. That was when I knew I wanted to be like them: I wanted to be a chef. Just as kids are always looking for a movie star or a soccer player or a musician, I was looking up to chefs.
Fairmont Monte Carlo
The Fairmont Monte Carlo hotel is a unique four-star luxury convention resort located in the heart of the Principality of Monaco in between the Mediterranean Sea and the legendary Monte-Carlo Casino.
Did you leave school immediately and decide you were going to be a chef? You never had any other career paths floating in the air?
No. But even when I started training for the first three years I never cooked. I was just going deliveries, washing dishes like a bus boy and doing prep.
Do you think that's an important step before being put in charge of a big kitchen?
Yes. I think this time – the training time – is very important. That's why whenever I go and see the dishwashers at any restaurant, I always make sure to say hello to them. Because dishwashers – and I know because I did that job for three years — have one of the toughest jobs there is. Chefs have to make their dishes on a clean plate, so without the dishwasher who is going to do that? The kitchen is a team. The dish washers, the porters, the chefs in the kitchen – everyone is on the same team. That's why I respect everyone. I did three years working as a dishwasher and also bussing, so that's why I understand how to work a restaurant from the top. I've been there. I've done that.
I guess it makes you grow as a person…
Yes, and that's very important. That's the whole philosophy of the company and the business we have. Everyone starts and learns from the back so they can understand right the way through how it works.
That ethos matters to you more than the awards and the Michelin stars... is keeping that Nobu style alive in all your restaurants the most important thing?
I don't care about Michelin stars. Why do people come to restaurants? It's to enjoy the food, enjoy their time with good company, drinking, eating, and being happy. That's what a restaurant is. So, my equivalent of a Michelin star is seeing people laughing and smiling. That's my star.