Chef Nobu Matsuhisa On How He’s Preparing For The Next Generation Of Greatness

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NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

Photography: Mark Squires 

Grooming: Juanita Lopez

Shot on location at Nobu Los Angeles 

Timepiece: Hublot Big Bang Unico All-Black Sapphire 

The sun is beating down on the quiet streets of Los Angeles where chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s namesake Nobu Los Angeles restaurant sits on La Cienega Boulevard. Inside, just past the wrought-iron doors of the trendy restaurant sits the poised chef, amidst the golden trees popping out in the al fresco dining area of the eatery. He looks up from his phone as we enter with a giant grin on his face. “Welcome!” he exclaims with open arms. “I feel like our hostess,” he laughs as he greets each person coming in to set up for the shoot. It’s no surprise that Nobu-San is the first one to arrive at the shoot, happily ready to start the day with a contagious spirit. “I’m always on time,” he boasts.

Nobu-San’s punctuality is just one example of how he exhibits the utmost professionalism and respect in every aspect of his career. Having been through more obstacles than one should experience throughout his life—losing his father, working his way up the restaurant ladder, undergoing failure, having his first restaurant burn down to the ground only 50 days after its opening and even contemplating suicide—Nobu Matsuhisa takes nothing for granted in his well-deserved, luxurious life. And he does so without ego and with an appreciation for every person around him—particularly his team—or as he likes to call them―his “Nobu Family.”

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

The day is especially pleasant for Nobu-San, as our shoot is taking place in Los Angeles, which he—without hesitation—calls his favorite city in the world (along with Tokyo). His fondness for the City of Angels stems from where all of his fame and success started. Back in 1987, following the tragic destruction of his first solo restaurant in Alaska after it burned to the ground, Nobu-San decided to give things one last try when he moved to Los Angeles and opened Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. And here is where it all began—Nobu Matsuhisa finally got his big break. Immediately, Matsuhisa became a magnet for A-listers and celebrities coming to get a taste of the famed chef’s signature Japanese cuisine and Peruvian-inspired fusion dishes like the beloved Yellowtail Jalapeño Sashimi, Miso Black Cod and the crispy Rock Shrimp Tempura.

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

But what really separated the hot spot from other locales in the area was Nobu-San’s genuine obliviousness to star power—which made it even more coveted by the glitzy Hollywood elite. “When I first started out, I really didn’t know anybody,” the humble chef says with a shrug. “I guess I turned Tom Cruise away, and Madonna said, ‘Hey Nobu, how long do I have to wait to get a reservation?’” He looks back at the memory now, laughing. “I love everybody who comes into my restaurant. I feel like we have grown up together.” With the restaurant running successfully for over 31 years, it’s safe to say that he truly has grown with his loyal clientele.

“Matsuhisa is my home,” he shares. “It feels so comfortable for me to be here. It’s where it all began, and we have a lot of regular customers. What’s amazing to me is to see my customers coming back for so many years, and to get to see the second and third generations.”

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

The idea of new generations of customers coming into his famed establishment is very special to Nobu. It makes every ounce of energy that he’s put into creating his legacy so worth it. “I’m not just a restaurant owner,” he explains. “I’m like family! When I meet the new generations coming into the restaurant, I feel like I can tell them, ‘Study hard, work hard,’ because it’s like we’re family . . . I love my customers.”

To date, the sunny Los Angeles/Southern California region has four restaurants—the original Matsuhisa, Nobu Los Angeles, the highly Instagrammable Nobu Malibu and the newest Nobu Newport Beach. Additionally, there is the newly opened, ultra-luxurious Nobu Ryokan Malibu hotel, right next to the Malibu dining destination. With each property, the Nobu brand remains intact, bringing forth the same top-tier quality of impeccable cuisine and clean, modern luxury. However, each location also has its own identity.

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

“Each restaurant has a different décor, atmosphere and customers—but each has the same love and appreciation for the food,” he explains. “Matsuhisa has a lot of regular customers as I mentioned—generations upon generations. Nobu Los Angeles is very close to Matsuhisa, but attracts a younger, more fashionable crowd. Nobu Malibu is a beach setting and attracts both locals and tourists, because it’s now become one of the most popular restaurants in California. And our newest location, Nobu Newport Beach is also more relaxed and beachy, yet brings in more residents of the area than tourists. But Matsuhisa is like my shrine. It will always be so special to me, and people like to come to the original location.”

From the inception of Matsuhisa in 1987 until present-day, Nobu operates 40 restaurants spanning across five continents, as well as eight hotels and two upcoming residences in 2019, in Toronto and Los Cabos. And Nobu, along with partners Robert De Niro and Meir Teper, have no intention of stopping anytime soon. In fact, they’ve recently announced their ambitious plans to be in 20 new territories by 2020 and have been on a celebratory mission for the past few months commemorating each new spot along the way with a special sake ceremony.

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

When asked about how he and his team have accomplished this incredible feat and rapid expansion so seamlessly, Nobu-San endearingly and simply answers without hesitation. “For me, hotels and restaurants have the same philosophy. I like to make my customers happy. I like to see people staying in the hotel smiling, laughing and feeling comfortable like they’re in their own home. So, it’s the same concept of a restaurant, but with a bigger operation,” he explains. “And of course, I could not have this happen without my incredible team.”

The celebratory sake ceremony is an important signature touch that Nobu likes to incorporate into each hotel opening. Together, Nobu, De Niro and Teper mark the official opening of each property by breaking open a barrel of sake together and sharing it with a crowd of guests.

“The sake ceremony is a customary Japanese tradition. Hitting the top of the barrel open means an opening ceremony in Japanese culture,” the chef explains. “We use the same sake all over the world [his own sake, Hokusetsu]. Because I’m Japanese, I like to introduce this piece of my culture to the world. Now, a lot of people are familiar with the ceremony, and we can all share this special moment together.”

NobuPhoto Credit: Mark Squires

The revered chef has a lot to celebrate. On his ongoing mission to open even more properties throughout the world and continue his ever-expanding legacy with Nobu-lovers globally, he is also preparing his final cookbook titled World of Nobu. In this cookbook, he has compiled three-to-four recipes from each of his executive chefs around the world, along with some of his own, resulting in 430 pages and two years of work. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be distributed to various charities.

When asked if this is truly his final cookbook, Nobu answers firmly, “Yes. For me, this is my last one. After this, I want to introduce my next generation of chefs to form the Nobu restaurants. Nobu will continue to be passed down from generation to generation.”

And thus, the Nobu legacy will come full circle. After reaching more success than he could have ever imagined in just 31 years, he humbly takes little credit for the impressive accomplishment. “My success is not mine alone,” he explains. “I have great teams. Now, we have Nobu restaurants around the world, and everything started from Matsuhisa. I am a very lucky person, and I would be nowhere without my team, my family. Great teams make great reputations, food, happiness. So the team keeps growing along with the Nobu company.”•

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