A Family Model With the Chef as Father Figure

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa looks for teamwork.

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is a chef and co-founder of the restaurant chains Nobu and Matsuhisa.

Q. What is your family background?

A. I was born in 1949 in Saitama, a city near Tokyo where my parents had moved during the Second World War. I was the youngest of four children. My father died in a motorcycle accident when I was eight. My mother lived to be 93, and passed away 10 years ago.

Q. When did you first become interested in cuisine?

A. My mother and brothers worked outside the house, and I spent most of my time at home, watching my grandmother cook in the kitchen. Back then, men did not go much into the kitchen, but as a child, I was always in the kitchen. When I turned 12, my brother took me for the first time to a sushi restaurant. Sushi was a very high-end food then, unlike today where it is sold in every supermarket. I remember walking into the restaurant through the sliding doors, being greeted ceremoniously, and sitting nervously at the counter. I was both impressed and excited and decided then and there that I wanted to become a sushi chef.

At school, I was a “bad boy” and was always getting into trouble. I was expelled from school before I could obtain a high school diploma. So I took a job in a family-run sushi restaurant in Tokyo.

Q. What did you learn on that first job?

A. I went to the fish market every day, watched as the chef selected the fish, and carried his basket. I helped clean the fish, serve lunch and dinner and clean up at night. This went on for several years until a sous-chef quit and I was allowed to slice fish and make sushi.

The seven years I spent in that job were important ones. I learned to make sushi the traditional way. Today, I teach sushi classes, and I tell my students that making sushi is like giving a hearty handshake; you must use all ten fingers.

I also understood the importance of teamwork, especially that of the dishwashers, without whom a chef cannot function. Today, when I visit any one of my own restaurants around the world, I always stop by the kitchen and say hello to everyone, including the busboys, because I know how difficult their job is.

Q. How did you transition from a traditional sushi chef to fusion cuisine, for which your restaurants are known?

A. A client of the sushi restaurant offered me a partnership in Lima, Peru. I had just gotten married and was interested in pursuing other opportunities, so my wife and I agreed to move to Peru. There, we found a very different sushi culture. It was my chance to show them how sushi was made in Japan. But the local fish supply was completely different and the food culture was centered around ingredients like lemon juice, ceviche, chili peppers, cilantro, olive oil, and tomatoes rather than just soy sauce and wasabi.

I learned in Peru that I could free myself of the ceremonial ways of Japanese cuisine and experiment with new flavors. I had no choice but to embrace the local culture. It opened my eyes to the fact that there was more than one way to make sushi.

We stayed in Lima for three years, business was good and my first daughter was born. Then, a disagreement with my partner led to the breakup of our business relationship. We left Peru and I tried working in Argentina for a year but business was slow, and with my wife pregnant with our second daughter, we decided to return to Japan. It was the end of my South American dream.

Credit...Roméo Balancourt

Q. But you were itching to leave your native Japan?

A. I had spent years outside the country, and I felt I had nothing more to learn from Japan. When a friend suggested Anchorage, Alaska, I discussed the idea with my wife. She has always supported me, though not always happily, but she agreed and allowed me to follow my dream again.

In Alaska, the oil pipeline brought a lot of people, and there was little restaurant competition. I opened a sushi place with a loan from a new partner. The fish was not varied there but within the first few weeks and much hard work, we were a success.

On Thanksgiving Day, after many weeks, I finally took a day off. That same night, I received a call from my partner informing me that an electrical short had caused a fire and the restaurant had burned down to the ground. We had no insurance and I had no means of repaying my loan. I was devastated.

That was the lowest point of my life. I thought only about ending my life. But every day, when I returned home, my children were happy to see their father. At age 3 and 1.5, all they wanted to do was play. I can say today that my family and the laughter of my children saved me.

After Alaska, I decided that I would never rush in my business again and that I would rebuild step by step.

Q. Why did you go back into a partnership structure with your restaurants?

A. After Anchorage, I wanted to keep my business small and manage it alone. It was 1979, and I had to send my family back to Japan and I settled in Los Angeles alone and took a job as a sushi chef in a small restaurant. After a few years, I obtained a green card and brought my family over. In 1987, with a loan of $60,000, I opened Matsuhisa on La Cienega, without any partners.

The first two years were very difficult. We barely broke even. There was mostly frozen fish being served then in sushi restaurants, and I started importing fresh fish from Japan. That was not “innovative” per se, it was more a desire to serve quality food, and my clients took notice.

One day, Robert De Niro came into Matsuhisa. I did not know him then because I don’t go to the movies. He invited me to New York, showed me around a building in Tribeca and explained his dream to open a restaurant. I was not ready to take that step. But Bob continued to come to Matsuhisa.

Four years later, he asked me again about New York, and this time, I felt I could trust him. Together, we started Nobu in New York in 1994. He was a big reason for the success of the restaurant. We now have 32 Nobu restaurants and Bob is my partner in all of them. I have also opened eight Matsuhisa restaurants with other partners. Next January, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Matsuhisa in Los Angeles.

Q. How do you manage your businesses globally?

A. I am very much involved in managing my restaurants. In hiring, I look for technical skills, leadership qualities, and people with a good sense of teamwork. I work with managers who understand my way of working and my philosophy, so they can become part of the family. The chef in a restaurant must be a father figure.

Q. What makes a great leader?

A. A great leader must have vision, respect people, and see things from the other person’s point of view.

Q. What is the best advice you have received?

A. The best lesson I have learned is to take one step at a time in business. You cannot skip steps because that means missing out on experience.

Q. What would you tell a young person starting out?

A. Try to do your best, live your life with passion, and don’t forget to appreciate what you have.

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