Master of fusion
Japanese celebrity chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa is expanding into hotels. He tells Tracey Furniss about his life, and how Peruvian dishes influenced his famous cuisine
At 64, Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa is thriving. Having gone into partnership with actor Robert De Niro, the Japanese celebrity chef now has 26 Nobu and five Matsuhisa restaurants across the globe. In April, he opened his first Nobu Hotel in Las Vegas and plans several more similar projects, "including in [Saudi] Arabia, Philippines, Chicago and Miami", he says.
"We started Nobu Hotel because my business partner, Robert De Niro, has his own hotel, Greenwich Hotel in New York, and we also have 31 restaurants, [many of which are] inside hotels," Matsuhisa says. "We sent hotel project teams all over the world [to find] somebody interested to invest in Nobu Hotels - then, in Las Vegas, we found it with Caesars Palace."
Casino moguls Lawrence Ho and James Packer are investing in Nobu Manila Hotel, which will be part of The Belle Grande Manila Bay Casino and Resort in Entertainment City Manila - and, of course, the Nobu restaurant will be a main feature.
Despite the expansion of his restaurant chain, Matsuhisa is still a chef. It was always his dream to be one, he says. "Nowadays, kids want to be baseball players, actors and singers, but me, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a sushi chef. I never changed my dream. I wanted to be cooking all my life."
His first memory of cooking was when he was about 10. "My father passed away when I was eight, so then I stayed with my mother," Matsuhisa recalls. "My mother always stayed in the kitchen, so she showed me how to make miso soup - so this was my first experience."
When he was 18, Matsuhisa became a sushi chef at a family-run restaurant in Tokyo. He lived and worked there while learning his skills. "I stayed with the family; [the father] was my mentor, he taught me how to choose fish, clean the fish, slice the fish, and how to make sushi."
After mastering traditional sushi making, he moved to Peru at age 23 and picked up new ideas. "My first impression of Peru was that there was [a lot of] fresh fish," Matsuhisa says. "There were many Japanese people [living there], so people ate sashimi - sashimi needs soya sauce and wasabi. [But the] first time I ate in Peru, we never used soya sauce, just fresh fish, sliced onion, chilli and garlic, and cilantro. It was cooked with lemon juice, so I was surprised … I was impressed with this type of food, I was inspired by Peruvian food."
This time in South America inspired Matsuhisa to mix traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients, resulting in signature concepts such as his miso black cod. He has extended this successful formula to his restaurants across the world, where he offers Japanese dishes inspired by local tastes. In Hong Kong, for example, the menu includes dishes such as wagyu beef and foie gras presented as dim sum dumplings, pork belly with spicy miso, and salt-and-pepper quail. The chef opened his first restaurant, Matsuhisa, in 1987 in Beverly Hills, and it is where his soul still lies. "It's nothing fancy like this [Nobu InterContinental Hong Kong], but it still warms my heart, my soul there … food is created there and then sent to Hong Kong, London, New York, Australia," he says.
Both restaurant brands have similar food concepts, but Matsuhisa says the ambience makes the food taste somewhat different. "When people come to Hong Kong and they want to see the beautiful view, even the same dishes taste a bit different," he says.
Matsuhisa says his taste varies when he dines. "I like Chinese food," he says. "Yesterday, I went to the Yan Toh Heen. I always come at least one time there. It's very clean and it's not greasy, it tastes very light. Chinese food in the last 10 to 20 years has [undergone a] huge change, it's more modern now. I like Italian, I like a lot of seafood restaurants."
Of his own creations, he does not have a favourite. "[The dishes are] like my kids. I have a bunch of 'kids' - it depends on the day, how I feel," he says. "Some days I like sashimi, some days I like cooked dishes, some days I like fried dishes with rice, it depends. That's why with Nobu we have so many different types of food, so people come and choose - it's very flexible."
With all the acclaim Matsuhisa has received for his innovative cuisine, he has only recently considered himself as having "made it".
"[When] I was 40, 50, even late 50s, people said, 'Nobu, congratulations on your successful business', but still … I cannot say this is a success, but now I am 64. Maybe now I can say, 'My life, my job - I did it'."