Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa runs 25 celebrated Japanese restaurants that employ more than 3,000 people on five continents.
His rise began, after some serious false starts, in 1987 with one restaurant, Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills, Calif. One of the regular patrons was the actor Robert DeNiro. DeNiro suggested they go into business in New York City. The sushi restaurant they opened in Tribeca in 1994, called Nobu, was so successful that 16 years later there are now 21 Nobus around the world. (DeNiro is a partner in all the Nobu locations; famed restaurateur Drew Nieporent is a partner in the Manhattan and London restaurants.)
Rewind to 1977. A 28-year-old Nobu, as the chef is universally known, and his wife, Yoko, roll into Anchorage, Alaska, two tiny children in tow, to open a Japanese restaurant. Construction on the restaurant isn't finished so the chef picks up a hammer. Fall comes and there's a grand opening. Nobu works 50 days without a break. Then Thanksgiving comes and he takes a holiday.
In a recent interview at Nobu Next Door in New York City, the chef, speaking in English, his third or fourth language, touched on his food philosophy, his young ambition and his life's many twists. He also told the end of the Alaska story.
"After 50 days of the grand opening, it was America's Thanksgiving Day, Thursday in November," Nobu said. "I remember exactly 50 days after opening. I celebrate at a friend's house. First my day off, and drinking … beer, eating … turkey and wine, conversations happening, we're happy. Then … there is one phone [call] from my partner.
"'Nobu, you must come to restaurant right now.' 'What's going on?' 'There's a fire!' 'No no this is not a good joke.'
"So before I arrive ... I can see the smoke and big fire because Alaska is not high building you know and it's already midnight. 'Oh my gosh,' and from that I don't remember much. I remember just fires and big fires and barricade for the police and fire department.
"So then [my] next memory ... back home I sit down at the table, my wife is next to me, my children around my leg. ... Whole week I'm thinking how can I kill myself, suicide. Because I lost money, even loan money, so it's minus big money.
"But that time my wife …. doesn't say too much but touch my shoulders touch my body, and [says] 'OK. It's OK.' Doesn't say 'wake up,' nothing, just 'OK.' Then my children... a year-and-a-half and 8-months- old. And they happy because father is ... home. They don't know. So we [are] not explaining to them why their father is here.
"But I saw the children laughing and smiling, and my wife just stay there, so I say 'OK I have to wake up.' I have to... I was thinking about suicides but I say 'OK I try one more time.'
"So then I start work after this, no rush, never quick, always step by step, one by one. No rush. So then I'm here today."
At the end of the story, the chef laughed.
As much as by wild success, Nobu's life is also marked by adversity. He was born in post-war Saitama, Japan, just outside Tokyo, on March 10, 1949 (Nobu turns 61 next week). When he was 8 years old his father, a lumber merchant, was killed in a traffic accident. Nobu was raised by his mother, who, he said, "was always cooking."