How Nobu Got Help With the Wake-Up

Raw fish magician tells incredible tale of journey from debt to world dominance.

March 5, 2010 — -- 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.

The Invention of Two Dreams

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."

"So my mother is my mentor," Nobu said. "She makes the miso soup, the Japanese pickles, and grilled fish, the tempura for tempura oil, shrimp, vegetable oil, fish ... this kind of thing. I'm very happy to stay with mother. Like, 'Wow, tempura's great, fish is great!' You know, the soup is great. Always I [am] tasting, I was tasting when I stay with my mother.

"The kid doesn't know taste, but always I still have mother's taste, mother's flavors, you know I miss that. So it's nothing that complicated, that cooking is very simple. Hot food, eat hot, cold food, eat cold. You know, this is very simple, cooking basic. So my cooking, it's most of the basic, simple and fresh ingredients."

The young Nobuyuki soon hatched two life's ambitions. Looking at photo albums, Nobu said, he was captivated by a picture of his dad on a trip to Palau.

"Always I'm missing my father, looking [in] the photo album," Nobu said. "So one picture ... on Palau. So you know, one of my dreams was ... I want to go to another country."

The second dream was waiting behind the sliding screen of a sushi restaurant his older brother took him to.

"I was so shock[ed] for this energy," Nobu said. "Then [I thought] 'Wow, I [am] going to be a sushi chef,' immediately. ... That's right, as a kid I had two dreams: one a sushi chef, one is I like to go to another country, like my father."

From Tokyo to Peru

At 17, Nobu took a live-in job at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo called Matsuei. He started as a dishwasher. Then he connected with his first sushi master.

"He teach me how to buy the fish, how to prep fish, how to make the sushi rice, how to do the business, you know, it's like my teacher, my mentor," said Nobu. "So I stay almost seven years with him ... I was a dishwasher for everybody, nothing important in the restaurant. But after five years none of the senior chefs was left, so it means I start [as] the senior."

One of the regulars at Matsuei was a man who lived between Japan and Peru. He spoke with Nobu about opening a restaurant in Lima. Then he made an offer. Nobu wanted desperately to accept, but feared displeasing his mentor, the man who had taught him everything.

"You know I was so much thinking, thinking, thinking. But you know I have a dream, and I like to catch my dream too," said Nobu. "[So] I explain to my mentor, 'Somebody offered to me to come to Peru ... and I want to go.'

But finally ... he said, 'OK, so you take chance, so you take the opportunity,' and thank you very much. So then I get married with my wife now. So, then I went to the Peru."

In Peru, Nobu discovered an entirely new cuisine. He began weaving Peruvian influences into his Japanese dishes, forming a culinary aesthetic that would later make its mark on the world. The restaurant attracted more and more customers.

"Of course the Japanese and Peruvian fish are different, but it's the same Pacific Ocean," Nobu said. "They are different, but I know fish."

A Partnership Ends

In some cases Nobu filled holes in Peruvian cuisine with favorites from Japan. It struck him that Peruvians never ate eel, a staple of the Japanese diet.

"One day I went to the fish market and find one eel. Then I ask the fishermen, 'Oh, you can get the eel?' So his face looks funny, he says, 'You want to eat this one?' So … I lie, 'I come from Japan, I bring the dog, but my dog used to in Japan eating the eel every day. But Peru doesn't have any eel, so my dog is a little bit homesick.'

"So he say: 'OK, got it, I going to take care of it.' So the next day he brings the bunch eel in a big net, like dozens of eel, then [I said] 'Oh thank you so much. So how much is it?' 'It's OK, give it to your dog.' So then I pay him a little money, say 'Thank you.' Then back to restaurant, just picked up the nice one -- it's a prep in making a sushi or tempura or other eel dishes.

"But still, he trusts me. But one day another sushi chef or another restaurant guy went to this guy because they find out Nobu is using the eel. So he ask the fisherman, 'Can I have some eel, too? '"

The punch line is delivered with relish.

"'Oh,'" the fisherman said. "'You have another Japanese dog?'"

Nobu's Peru run came to a close after three years, after he resisted his partner's demands that the restaurant cut its supply costs.

"He start yelling to me, 'Nobu, the food costs [are] too high ... so you don't necessarily buy the best fish, because Peruvian people [don't] know good quality,'" Nobu said. "I was shocked. Then we... [had] an argument. ... Maybe I going to go. Maybe I going to stop. Then, I was young, that's why, I stop the partnership."

The Mighty Wife

Next was a stint in Argentina. After a year, Nobu's wife became pregnant with their second child. Worried about their future and still strapped for cash, the young couple reluctantly returned to Japan, after four years in South America.

"So you know almost like I give up," said Nobu. "OK, my dream was a [foreign] country, not back home. But this time, you know, I lost all the money. I use all the money, so I have no money, then friends even the friends, I call, 'Let's go to dinner together, let's drink together,' they say, 'I'm busy, next time.' Because... I'm poor now, so the friends are gone."

Before long, however, another partner approached the chef about the opportunity in Anchorage -- and it was off again.

Through it all, Nobu said, his wife has been at his side.

"Maybe I am very lucky, because since I open [a restaurant], always I...[think] about just cooking, just you know what fish, what new dishes, so how customers make happy, smiling, laughing, so always I concentrate to about cooking. But the mighty wife, you know, is support 100 percent for me. I'm not the greediest, but you know, always my wife support to anything you want.

"Now we have restaurant in ... five continents. So you know, every other three or four days I'm traveling in different city. So right now it's a little bit tough, because you know five continents means different language, different weather, it's a long flight, different cultures. But still they have the Nobu restaurant, you know, I have a Nobu family there and talk to everyday.

"I'm not perfect. I am not Iron Man. ... But every city I have the Nobu family. So it's hard to traveling but it's not too sad, never homesick, because these cities I have the family. Especially back to my home, Los Angeles, my wife is there.

"You know, we marry 37 years. So last 10 years I am travelling like this. Last year, or two years ago, I stay only two months a year at my house. You know, that's why we still married!"

This came with a hearty laugh.

"Just kidding, you know, we love each other."

'Hit to the Wall Is Most Important'

When his Alaskan restaurant burned, Nobu found himself in a remote corner of a foreign country under a pile of debt with a wife and two young children to provide for and no way to make money.

"I was almost suicide but I had to try to wake up," Nobu said. "It means kids, my wife, my family. Then now I have to try my best. ... Now back to Japan from Alaska ... it was a very, very uncomfortable now in Japan. So after a week, my wife and two children left to the mother's, my wife's home."

A chef friend called from Los Angeles and told Nobu to come. He left with "one small bag" and "maybe cash $24 or $27 only."

Does he ever think about how help comes his way when he needs it most?

"I'm not looking for help, but it's because I try my best," said Nobu. "... but somebody helped me. Especially at least my family the wife and children, they help me with the wake-up."

We asked the chef whether he had advice for young people in the field.

"OK, take visions, take dreams, try your best, and never give up, then one day this dream come true," he said. "You know, life is not easy. It's also especially this kind of job it's not easy. So many options and so many choice you know, but [you] have to be make one dream or one vision. So then try it. Even try it maybe one day.

"So then he hits the wall. The hit to the wall is most important. Some people, it's 'Oh hit to the wall, let's go back.' But some people say, 'OK, let's clear this wall, over the wall.' So this is the way. So even if you hit the big wall, still keep going, keep trying to go to the front. Because then one day he has a lot of experience, and he has a high wall, and so many problems the wall comes along. Now it's easy to clear the wall. This is life, this is experience. That's why, never give up. ...One day the dream will come true."