Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

The reverence held for Nobu Matsuhisa — in culinary circles, at least — is of a level usually reserved for religious figureheads, or stadium-filling pop stars. This is because, while Alice Waters may be the West Coast cook who revolutionized seasonal cuisine, and Wolfgang Puck, from his glittering Los Angeles restaurant Spago, the chef who pretty much invented casual fine dining, Matsuhisa is the man who helped create the blueprint for true hybrid cuisine. How? By gracefully, flawlessly combining the serious intent of the Japanese kitchen, the casual rhythms of friendly izakaya bars, and the vibrant, colourful flavours of South America.

Decades before “fusion” became a byword for cultural insensitivity, Matsuhisa was applying spicy tuna, sashimi salad, and ceviche to his sushi dinners — spicing up slices of yellowtail with small, vivid green wheels of jalapeño, and popularizing rock shrimp tempura, broiled black cod in miso, and other smash-hit platings that, since, have become so endlessly mimicked in restaurants around the globe that they are inching toward cliché. He also introduced new techniques to Los Angeles, methods that changed the game for the city’s many chefs, including “new style sashimi,” the renowned quick-sear method developed in Matsuhisa’s early career to calm his more nervous customers.

“It was an example of moving boundaries,” the chef explains. “A customer sent back sashimi because she wouldn’t eat raw fish. I wanted to find some way to salvage the dish, so I grabbed hot oil that was sitting on the stove and poured it over the fish, searing it on contact. The customer was hesitant when I asked her to try it — but she ate every bite.”

Today, Matsuhisa helms a cross-continental brand. In Istanbul, guests can order his beef toban yaki while overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. In Qatar’s capital, Doha, his lobster wasabi tacos are served inside a building designed to resemble a vast closed oyster shell. And the values the chef has drilled deep into each of these global destinations — a commitment to great produce, deference to local tastes, and guaranteed availability of his universally adored dishes — have ensured that the Nobu name remains synonymous not only with dining, but dining done well. But Matsuhisa the man still tries to be humble.

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Talks New Nobu Hotel Toronto

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“Nobu is not just me,” the chef says. “It’s also my team. I have strong teams who I have spent years working with and educating personally. They go out and teach everyone my philosophy for good food and good service, so we are all working towards the same goal. I also spend most of the year travelling to visit my teams and am constantly reinforcing my philosophy. We are very hands-on.”

Matsuhisa was born in 1949, in Saitama, Japan, a quiet commuter town bordering Tokyo. His interest in the kitchen was kindled, as is the case with so many great chefs, when he observed his grandmother cooking at home. This curiosity turned to fixation when, at age 12, he visited his first sushi-ya — grand establishments with sliding doors and spectacular dishes of fish.

“What makes Nobu Hotel Toronto very unique is being surrounded by so many multicultural neighbourhoods which respect one another.”

Nobu Matsuhisa

Though he was expelled from school, Matsuhisa began working his way up the ranks of a family-operated sushi spot in Tokyo. Here, he learned respect for fish — from the moment it dropped at the market to the second it flashed under the blade of a yanagiba. But, after an offer came from a regular customer to open his own place in Peru, Matsuhisa suddenly found himself uprooted to Lima. It was to become a crucial point in his career, a moment when the straitjacketed schooling he’d experienced within the confines of Japanese cooking would loosen, and the larder with which he was accustomed to working — stocked with wasabi and soy sauce — would be replaced with chili peppers, tomatoes, ceviche, and cilantro.

Peru was followed by a brief term in Argentina, a return to Japan, and then an even briefer stint in Alaska — where Matsuhisa built a restaurant that burned down just 15 days after its grand opening (the chef calls this the lowest period of his life). But, when these moves finally led him to Los Angeles, everything changed, and the eponymous restaurant Matsuhisa — opened in Beverly Hills in 1987 — soon became the archetypal Hollywood power spot.

Nobu Matsuhisa portrait

The chef’s first few years in L.A. were relatively modest, but Matsuhisa eventually made his voice heard by doing new things in a town that craves experimentation. He brought in fresh fish from Japan while competitors called in the frozen stuff. He imitated pasta with squid, and paired raw snapper with chili sauce. “My aim is always to make the guest happy,” Matsuhisa says. “And, sometimes, in order to do so, I would have to create new dishes, or change them.” These twists attracted the attention of well-travelled, deep-pocketed regulars including director Roland Joffé, who once brought along Robert De Niro as his dinner guest. “Although his name was familiar to me, I had no idea who he was, and I just prepared food for him,” says Matsuhisa on his first encounter with the actor. De Niro eventually became a regular, too, and would go on to spend roughly four years trying to convince the chef to open a restaurant with him in New York.

Eventually, Matsuhisa conceded. “I was hesitant because I still had a lot of work to do in my current restaurant, Matsuhisa,” he explains. “But [De Niro] was very patient and waited for me for four years before I finally said yes. I knew I could trust him and admired his patience and perseverance. We have a mutually respectful and trustworthy relationship and have built a strong partnership and friendship on that foundation. He is not just my partner; he is my family.”

In 1994, Nobu arrived. A joint venture between Matsuhisa, De Niro, restaurateur Drew Nieporent, and film producer Meir Teper, the restaurant opened in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood — the first in what would become a global portfolio. Finally, the East Coast could have a taste of Matsuhisa’s monkfish liver pâté dolloped with caviar, a plate of refined tempura, or a bouquet of king crab legs. Titans of fashion, impresarios, and record label executives piled into the banquettes, ensuring that every dish came with a side of star-gazing. Hollywood had besieged New York and, from there, things just grew and grew.

By 2013, the business had decided to plant its first foot in the hotel sector with Nobu Hotel, Las Vegas. The idea was De Niro’s, who had witnessed the Nobu brand launch restaurant after restaurant inside luxury hotels and asked: why don’t we do this ourselves? Much like the restaurants, Nobu Hotels are noted for their dependability. The beds are large, shower heads deliver solid pressure, bottles of good sake fill the minibars, and the architecture is always handled by a bankable name. And, by utilizing clean, pared-down Japanese design — much like the wide appeal of a soft-shell crab roll — they cater to an international crowd.

“Walking into a restaurant and seeing all the guests smiling, and hearing the sound of laughter and good times, is the best feeling. When I see happy faces, I know we have done well.”

Nobu Matsuhisa

One of the most recent additions to the collection — which includes locations in Miami, London, and the Spanish culinary hot spot San Sebastián — is Nobu Hotel, Restaurant and Residences in Toronto. It’s the hospitality brand’s Canadian debut, and the first integration of its three pillars in one development. “Toronto is a vibrant and exciting city, with sophisticated residents and visitors who truly value the Nobu brand,” Matsuhisa says on the decision to stamp his mark on the city. “We announced the project in 2017, and the timing aligns well with Toronto’s ongoing growth as a premier international destination.”

The project sits on Mercer Street in the city’s Entertainment District, and has seen the partial reconstruction and restoration of the old Pilkington Glass Factory. Twin 45-storey towers have been built atop the historic warehouse, which their architect, Stephen Teeple, likens to a tuning fork. There are 660 condos inside the development, as well as 36 hotel suites boasting city and lake views. The stripped-back, Japanese interiors make use of polished black granite, natural wood, and stone, and the bi-level restaurant features an outdoor terrace. Signature dishes will underpin the restaurant’s menu, but Toronto-centric offerings will also make use of local produce and vendors, in a bid to reflect the city’s diverse character and, according to Matsuhisa, “make the Toronto experience unique.”

“What makes Nobu Hotel Toronto very unique is being surrounded by so many multicultural neighbourhoods which respect one another,” he adds. “Each Nobu property is inspired by the location and the culture of its people — and you will not find one influence, but a celebration of diversity.” The Toronto opening is just the beginning of another global expansion for Matsuhisa and his worldwide brand. This year also sees ribbons cut on Nobu Hotels in Atlantic City, New Orleans, Madrid, and Lisbon. And, although the chef, who turned 75 in March, is no longer synced into the tasking demands of the kitchen — those long nights at the pass, the high-heat of the flames, the constant wrangle against Saturday night service — he still travels internationally for roughly 10 months of the year, at an age when many others would have already embraced retirement.

“My biggest motivation has always been the sight of guests’ smiling faces,” he says, explaining why he has no plans on stopping any time soon. “For me, I always say that walking into a restaurant and seeing all the guests smiling, and hearing the sound of laughter and good times, is the best feeling. When I see happy faces, I know we have done well.”

Photos by Mark Schafer.