California’s Culinary Greats: Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina

With a promise of gold and a better life amid sunny beaches and temperate weather, more than 300,000 men, women and children made their way across land and sea to California in the mid-19th century. The dream that the Golden State stood with open arms to welcome, indiscriminately, people from all ethnic backgrounds was too tempting to resist. In the early 20th century, the onset of the film industry offered yet another alluring promise-that of fame and fortune under the glittering lights and on a larger-than-life Silver Screen. In this bastion of perpetual hope, three chefs from three corners of the world with three unique stories were able to take their own place in California history. It is at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel-in its own right a part of California history-that we are privileged to host these three culinary icons.

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, known to the world simply as Nobu, comes from Saitama, a city near Tokyo, Japan, where he apprenticed in a host of local sushi bars. It was his tenure in Lima, Peru, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, that contributed to the formation of his unique fusion cuisine. Soon after arriving in L.A. in the late 1980s, Nobu opened his first restaurant, Matsuhisa. Critics and Hollywood glitterati took fondly to his unique marriage of Western and Eastern flavors. In 1993, Matsuhisa was named one of the top 10 restaurants in the country by The New York Times. A successful partnership with Robert de Niro and Richie Notar followed, with the debut of Nobu, now a New York City dining icon that has expanded as far and wide as Dubai, London, Milan, and, soon, Cape Town. “Once we open in Cape Town this spring, we will be on five continents, ” says Nobu. “I am proud that my food is enjoyed and accepted all over the world.” Through his unmistakable fusion of flavors, Nobu single-handedly changed the way Americans think of once “exotic” Japanese foods, opening palates and minds to a host of flavors, and planting him firmly at the center of pop culture. “I didn’t open a restaurant to become successful, I just wanted customers to enjoy my food and leave satisfied,” he says with an unmistakable humility. “I wasn’t trying to become a part of pop culture. I think it just happened. I’ve never really thought that I’m a part of it; all I do is cook and run a restaurant.”

 “This industry has given me and my family so much, and it is so important to me to give back as much as possible.”

Another prominent member of modern pop culture, Wolfgang Puck was recently named one of the world’s richest chefs by Forbes magazine. He, too, denies that his aim was ever to be such an icon. “Being on the Forbes list is completely unimportant to me. If money was my motivation to go to work, I would open a bunch of fast food restaurants instead of fine dining restaurants,” he quips.

Puck’s beginnings trace back to Sankt Veit an der Glan, Austria, where his affinity towards cooking came from his mother, Maria Topfschnig. He began his apprenticeships in France, and quickly ascended up the ranks, first in Monaco and then at the iconic Maxim’s in Paris. Upon moving to Los Angeles, Puck was chef and part owner of Ma Maison before launching Spago on the Sunset Strip, which quickly became a celebrity mainstay. “Days before opening Spago, my biggest fear was that no one would show up,” he recalls. “I was so busy in the kitchen that by 8 o’clock I looked around and I saw the whole restaurant filled with people. I thought, ‘how are we going to serve them all?'” But he was able to feed them all and many more, with the opening of a string of subsequent restaurants as well as a catering business that landed the greatest gig of them all-the Oscars. Each year, Puck outdoes himself by preparing a feast of kings for more than 1,600 of the most famous names in entertainment. “The Academy Awards is the greatest party of the year in America, watched by millions of people worldwide. I always find it a challenge, but it is also very satisfying to do the Governor’s Ball,” he says.

Our third California culinary great hails from Cairo, Egypt, but grew up in Ellensburg, Washington, where he began working in restaurants from the age of 16. After a stint at the Seattle Space Needle, Mina went on to study at the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After his first job at the Hotel Bel-Air, Mina moved to San Francisco to help create the concept for Aqua. He then went on to open his namesake restaurant in San Francisco as well as a multitude of other concept restaurants around the country, in partnership with long-time friend Andre Agassi. This year will see Mina open two new restaurants: RN74 in San Francisco and AMERICAN FISH at City Center in Las Vegas. “Both are new concepts that I’ve been working on for some time, and I’m really excited about both,” Mina explains. “After those openings, I’m going to spend some time really focusing on all of the restaurants we’ve opened.” Although he has gained meteoric success in a short span of time, Mina admits that, to him, it is still about the pleasure of the craft. “I still love to cook,” he says. “Creating a dish in your head, working it out on the plate…sometimes it takes many rounds of tweaking to be happy with it, other times the first try is the best. Watching that dish play out every night with the guests is the real reward.”

As the chefs greet one another on a sunny afternoon in Beverly Hills, stories of how they know each other emerge. Nobu begins: “I’ve known Wolfgang Puck for many years. When I met him for the first time at Spago in Hollywood, he seemed very outgoing and walked around the dining room with a certain aura about him.” Mina adds, “I was working at the Hotel Bel-Air when I first met Wolfgang Puck. He was at the hotel for an event, and I’ll never forget how he commanded a room with an aura about him. He can instantaneously change the dynamic of a room just by the way he walks into it. It is a true force to see and experience.” Clearly flattered by their comments, Puck fondly points out the most admirable qualities in his counterparts. “Both Michael and Nobu are very talented and hard-working, and not only are they great chefs, but good businesspeople as well, and fun to be around. They don’t take themselves too seriously. Instead, I feel that what is on the plate is the serious part.”

The conversation progresses with waves of laughter. The topic of discussion is amusing restaurant anecdotes. Mina begins with, “I was expediting at one of my restaurants one night when table 17’s food came back to the kitchen. When I asked what was wrong the server informed me that the couple at that table had gotten into a fight and left the restaurant. Ten minutes later, table 16’s food came back to the kitchen. When I asked the server what was wrong, I was informed that the couple at the table had gotten into a fight and left the restaurant. I argued with the server and said, ‘No, no, that was table 17, not 16.’ I was wrong. Table 16 had also left, getting into a fight about the fight at the table next to them! Another 10 minutes goes by and more food back to the kitchen. Yes, it’s what you’re thinking-table 15 also had left the restaurant, getting into a fight about the other two fights they had just witnessed. I can laugh about it now. Not so funny that night!” Puck is immediately reminded of opening night at his Chinois. “The electricity couldn’t be hooked up. We had to go into the neighbor’s back yard to get power to the restaurant. So we called the neighbor, but he didn’t answer the phone. We had to break in through his fence and hook up the electricity ourselves. At that time, our opening party was already underway with candles, and the customers thought it was funny that all of a sudden the lights came on.”

As with any public figure, the need to support and speak out for a cause is very important to each of the culinary greats of California. Puck has a few causes that are particularly close to his heart. He is a strong advocate for the humane treatment of animals. He is also heavily involved in Meals-on-Wheels, cancer research, and juvenile diabetes. “I believe giving brings you more happiness than taking, so I think I was lucky to be fairly successful and able to give back,” Puck says. Mina agrees. “This industry has given me and my family so much, and it is so important to me to give back as much as possible. I am very focused on children’s charities, fighting childhood hunger, mentoring programs, and work with the Agassi Charitable Foundation, which is dedicated to transforming U.S. public education for underserved youth. I am also very involved in cancer research. My family has firsthand experience with cancer, and it’s very difficult to stand by and watch, feeling helpless. Giving back to these charities is one way to help,” he says.

Through their unique gifts, Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina, and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa have proudly shown the world that no matter what background or what corner of the world one may come from, a unique vision and steadfast determination will always be rewarded. While each chef may have had his own recipe and ingredients, the result has always been success that knows no boundaries-geographical or cultural.