IN 1957 Japan, when the country was busy reconstructing itself in the aftermath of war, a little boy entered the sliding doors of a traditional Japanese sushi restaurant. It changed his life forever.
The boy, Nobu Matsuhisa, was only 8 when his palate was tickled by the delicate flavors of sushi—toro, uni, shrimp. It was right there, while seated at the sushi bar with his brother, that he knew he wanted to become a sushi chef.
What he didn’t know, though, was that he would become that and so much more.
Today, chef Nobu, as he is widely known, co-owns a chain of hotels and restaurants around the world—some of them Michelin-starred—with one of Hollywood’s A-List actors, Robert de Niro.
Born and raised in Saitama, Japan, chef Nobu is a classically trained sushi chef. That means years of rigorous apprenticeship, from the bottom up, scrubbing floors or washing dishes before moving up in the work ladder to be allowed to touch food.
His cooking career started when he was 18. He moved to Peru in his 20s to open a sushi bar, and when supplies ran low, he learned to use local flavors in lieu of traditional Japanese ingredients.
To this day, the celebrity chef and restaurateur delights in creating fusion cuisine.
“I never think about (background) differences, whether one is Italian, French, British or Filipino. Cooking is my life… I always like to create, improvise and never stop learning, before coming out with a signature dish,” he said.
For 10 months each year, chef Nobu travels around the world, to visit all his 38 restaurants at least once. He learns new flavors, new food, new aromas and develops a new menu.
“I’m a chef. The Nobu experience means (eating) the best food. When people come to the restaurant, I like to see them smile. I don’t find pleasure in just making a profit out of it. I want my restaurants to be remembered for their unique flavors,” he said.
There were no professional chefs in his family. The only cooks were his mom and grandmother. But while they were not chefs, he said, they always cooked from their hearts.
“Cooking is not only technique. More important for me is how much heart was placed in a food, like a mother cooks for her children. My mother is my mentor. Mothers put the needs of their children first. At my age, I have learned to appreciate my mother even more. I cannot choose a favorite dish. The most inspiring are those cooking from my mother’s heart,” he said.
Mistakes are good
Chef Nobu now lives in Los Angeles, CA, although he feels like he lives in two countries (Japan).
“The US gave me the chance, but I’m still looking for a place [for my final resting place]. You’re still young, you still don’t have these thoughts. I still haven’t decided which place though so it means I’m probably still young, too,” the 67-year-old said, laughing.
“Don’t fret about the mistakes,” he adds. “You have to make mistakes. Just small problems, please, not drugs or those that kill people. Mistakes are good for you. Learn from them, and approach them with passion. Don’t choose to do things the easy way. Give it your best each time. Move forward. Even a millimeter a day of moving forward will make a difference.”