Rapidly expanding Nobu Hospitality is on track to have 20 Nobu Hotels globally by 2020, we catch up with founder Nobu Matsuhisa on his life as a chef, traveller – and now hotelier – including how he met business partner and movie icon Robert de Niro
Where is home for you these days?
Los Angeles is my home - I raised my family in LA and became successful here, but Japan will always be a special place to me. It is where I am from and where it all started.
What’s the one main thing you miss when you’re travelling?
I travel for around 10 months of the year and, of course, I miss my family the most.
What’s your favourite vacation destination?
When I take a holiday, I just want to relax and unwind. I have a house in Hakone, Japan. It’s very relaxing with its natural springs and is surrounded by nature.
What’s your favourite culinary city or location?
I travel to Tokyo often, where they have the biggest, best fish market in the world, Tsukiji - which is of course about to move to a large new site farther from central Tokyo. I also enjoy Chinese, Spanish and Italian food. It was actually because of Italy that I started using olive oil in my sushi.
What items couldn’t you live without?
My gym shoes. I keep a pair in every Nobu kitchen. Because I travel so often, after a flight, the body, the muscles, are tight and tired, so I do a lot of exercise - treadmill, stretching and swimming if there is a pool. Whenever I travel, I always carry my Bose noise reduction headphones.
When did you first meet your business partner Robert De Niro?
In 1988, when he came to Matsuhisa with director, Roland Joffe. Although his name was familiar to me, I had no idea who he was, and I just prepared food for him and his guest as usual. His favourite dish was black cod with miso, and the Japanese sake Hokusetsu. I think it was in 1989 that De Niro first suggested we start a restaurant together in New York.
What do you enjoy most about being an hotelier?
I enjoy making our guest happy with our exceptional service and well thought out structure. Through thorough research and our personal experiences, we have built our hotels to be as comfortable and stress-free for our guests. From having deeper sinks to wash small items, to having Toto toilets, to the best bed sets for sleeping.
Is it different running restaurants in hotels?
Opening a hotels and restaurants within them created new challenges to my mind. Hotels are 24 hours, people stay for longer periods of time and service must be superb at all times. Staff needed to work through a new shift pattern, a breakfast menu had to be created and we had to make sure everyone understood the Nobu philosophy of making guests happy. After some trial and error, we finally pushed through and have been successful.
Where would you really like to open a new hotel?
There are many destinations we would like to open a new Nobu Hotel - New York is one, and we are also looking at Rio de Janeiro.
Which other chefs do you most admire in the world?
I am lucky to be friends with a lot of the chefs I admire. Among them Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jose Andres and Jean-Georges.
What has been the most difficult moment in your career and what did you learn from it?
When I opened my first restaurant in Alaska, it burned down 15 days after its grand opening. It was my lowest point - I was in complete despair and even contemplated suicide because of the situation I was in. I didn’t because I thought of my family. They supported me throughout my hardships and that’s why I’m here today. I learned to have patience and never give up. I always try to be at the front, even by one millimetre, because if I stop trying, then why keep the business?
What’s been the biggest highlight in your career so far?
My mother passed away a few years ago. In 1989, I invited her to visit my first restaurant in Los Angeles and I was able to cook for her. I’ve cooked for a lot of celebrities and famous people, but this was the most special guest for me. I was also able to cook for Princess Diana in London back in 1997. I was so excited to meet her, but when I introduced myself, she knew me already - she had eaten at my restaurant.
If you hadn’t been a chef/hotelier, what other job would you have liked to do?
I always wanted to be a sushi chef and travel the world, but I like the arts - artistry inspires me. When I have time, I would like to paint.
How many Nobu hotels / restaurants are there now?
We have nearly 40 Nobu Restaurants, and also eight Nobu Hotels; there are eight more hotels scheduled to open soon, and we are on track to operate 20 hotels globally by 2020.
You also have restaurants with Crystal Cruises – have you enjoyed many cruises?
I usually do a family vacation/work cruise every year with Crystal. They have beautiful ships and go to the most amazing locations.
What one piece of advice would you give to budding hotel/restaurant entrepreneurs?
No matter what challenges come your way, never give up on your dreams.
What would be people be really surprised to know about you?
I have a big sweet tooth - one of my guilty pleasures is eclairs.