Nobu Matsuhisa on Commanding a Culinary Empire

As proven by Oprah, you’re not truly a global phenomenon until the world knows you by just your first name. Such is the case with Nobu Matsuhisa, sushi chef and co-owner (with Robert De Niro) of an eponymous chain of high-end sushi restaurants. With 39 locations now under his belt, chef Nobu might be the most successful person ever to wield a santoku.

The first Canadian Nobu outpost is currently under construction in Toronto’s Entertainment District, and will sit beneath a pair of towers housing 700 units of Nobu-branded hotel rooms and condominiums. Yet despite his growing empire — not to mention the $200,000 Cartier tourbillon on his wrist — the 69-year-old chef is humble as ever, and just as dedicated to the simple concepts that got him here: good food, good service, and good hospitality.

That’s a nice watch.

Thank you! I like watches. Cartier, Patek, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Hublot, too.

You’ve achieved great success in a notoriously difficult business. What’s your secret?

A customer comes to a restaurant to have a good time — that’s the key point. I love to cook, but I also like to see customers smiling, laughing, and enjoying my food. My mom really showed me that cooking is not only technical — it’s about putting your heart into what you’re doing. People understand that when they’re eating, even if they can’t necessarily explain it. Good service and a beautiful setting help, too.

What role does food play in your family?

Growing up, I slept near the kitchen, so I would wake up to the sound of my mother cooking. She would make fermented rice bran every day with whatever we had, which demonstrated that the best food is made with fresh in- gredients. And now, one of my favourite meals is a red snapper that my wife cooks. It’s very simple — with just salt and a bit of lemon — but she makes it for special occasions, so it reminds me of birthdays and family gatherings.

What other advice guides you in life?

I learned the basics from my first mentor — how to buy fish, clean it, slice it, and cook it. But more importantly, he taught me to always be focused — no matter how small a task may seem. I was once careless and cut myself while slicing fish, and he hit me! From then on, I learned to concentrate on every step. I now pass that same lesson onto my team. That’s why I like to open restaurants one by one. I’m focused — not looking ahead to the next one.

How do you maintain your standard of quality across so many restaurants?

Communication is the most important part, because the restaurants depend on so many more people than just myself. I have a great team that I’m always discussing with. And I spend a lot of time still cooking in the various locations around the world. That helps me to adapt my flavours. Every country has their own version of umami, and I draw on that to develop new recipes. Nobu dishes are really Japanese food made with non-traditional spices and flavour.

Can you remember the first dish you created that you were really happy with?

My first signature dish was miso black cod. Bob [De Niro] loved it, and so many people would ask “What does Robert De Niro like?” that now, black cod is all over the world! All of my dishes have their own story — some were created for customers who gave me ideas, while others came from going to the fish market looking to cook something different.

Where do you like to eat when you travel?

Some of my favourite restaurants, other than Nobu of course, are Paper Moon in Milan, which has the best parmesan and white truffle risotto, and Daniel Boulud’s in New York. I also really enjoy going to restaurants that aren’t well known and eating quietly by myself. I don’t like to receive too much special attention.