Nobu Matsuhisa: A True Top Chef

Categories: Chef Interviews
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These dishes didn't come easy.
This interview with Nobu Matsuhisa, as told to Maggie Overfelt for Fortune Small Business, just came to my attention. It was first published back in 2009, but is so interesting as to be worth repeating for the many who missed it first time around. We've become accustomed to seeing freakish "chef"/performers rise to infamy so quickly on The Food Network that it's easy to forget that once upon a time it took chefs such as Nobu "30 years of experimentation, failure and incompatible business partners to reach his goal, as he worked his way from dishwasher in Tokyo to co-owner of a small sushi establishment in Lima, Peru." What a story. A few highlights follow, but the entire interview is well worth reading.

Nobu on getting started: "After graduating high school in Saitama, Japan I moved to Tokyo and took a full-time job at a sushi restaurant called Matsuei, where I worked for nearly seven years. I didn't start cooking right away: For three years I washed and cleared dishes and cleaned the entire restaurant. I also went to the fish market every morning with my mentor, the master of the restaurant. I carried the basket, and he bought the fish. Back at the restaurant I would clean the fish. For three years every day was like this until one of the sushi chefs left and the master promoted me to fill his spot."

On the first time he bought eel at the fish market: "'Well,' I said, 'it's for my dog that I brought here from Japan. He's accustomed to eating eel every day, and now, because he hasn't had any, he's very homesick.' The fisherman laughed and ended up giving me the 20 or 30 kilos of eel for just a few dollars. The next day at the restaurant, I made the eel into tempura and sushi, which sold really well.

"I bought eel this way for a couple of weeks. Then one day the fisherman winked and asked me, 'How's your dog?' It turned out that a chef from another restaurant had shown up looking for eel. The fisherman asked that chef if he had also brought his dog over from Japan. I wasn't surprised to see that the eel had been marked up to an astonishing price."

On why he left Peru, where he was co-owner of a restaurant: "I wanted to make people happy with my food. This meant buying high-quality ingredients and using only the freshest fish. But my partner was more concerned with profit - he told me to rein in food costs by buying cheaper fish. This was an ongoing fight for about three years, after which I decided to leave the restaurant entirely. Chefs are artists, and I couldn't be happy with my art if I was forced to use cheap ingredients."

On teaming with De Niro: "Because of our Beverly Hills location, Hollywood stars starting visiting us soon after we opened. Robert De Niro was one of them. A year later he asked me to open up a restaurant with him in New York City. I flew out to see the building he had bought - a big, warehouse-like place...But after all my bad experiences, I wasn't quite ready to take on another business partner. I agonized for a few days before thanking him and turning him down; he said he understood. And each time he visited L.A., he would stop by Matsuhisa and ask how I was doing. Four years later De Niro called me at home. 'How about it, Nobu?' he asked. I said no, not yet, maybe someday. But he came into the restaurant the next day, and I realized that he was waiting for me. I started to think, If he believes in me this much to wait for me all these years, then maybe he would be a good business partner."
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