Interview: Nobu-san

Longer stuff
November 8, 2016

According to Madonna, you can tell if a city is going to be fun by whether there’s a Nobu in it. The brainchild of Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Robert De Niro – or just plain “Bob” – the brand has an uncanny knack of courting the beau monde.

Even after 22 years, in which time more than 30 venues have opened across five continents, its allure is as potent as ever; last month Ivanka Trump and comedian Rosie O’Donnell buried the hatchet in the New York restaurant following their public spat, and in Malibu Mariah Carey whipped the paparazzi into a frenzy by dining there with one of her dancers. In 1999 Boris Becker even conceived his daughter Anna on the steps of the Mayfair restaurant.

Sushi is a sound business to be in, one of the world’s most popular cuisines, a staple in every city from Moscow to Miami; it was even added to Unesco’s “intangible cultural heritage” list in 2013. But when the first Nobu opened in New York in 1994, it was still on the ascendency – trendy, sure, but relatively niche.

“For Japanese people it’s normal to eat very high-end, high-quality sushi,” says Nobu when I meet him at his restaurant in Park Lane’s Metropolitan hotel. “A lot of people there are looking for the best sushi restaurants. Now in London it’s also very popular, and people are starting to look for the highest quality here too.”

Nobu – as he prefers to be called, rather than by his full name – has perfected his art over a lifetime, having worked his way up from a lowly dishwasher in Tokyo to his current position as a world-renowned chef.

“Cooking is my whole life,” he says, “not the restaurant business. I never tire of cooking. I do it with my heart. Customers smiling is my life.”

But while cooking may fill his heart, today his brain is occupied with other thoughts, most pertinent being his new venture in Shoreditch: the company’s first stand-alone hotel. The project, slated to open next spring following lengthy delays, comes after “hotel-within-a-hotel” concepts at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, which launched in 2013, and “City of Dreams” in Manila that opened a year later.

“We noticed that when people were asking us to open Nobu restaurants in new cities, it was mostly inside hotels,” says Nobu. The pattern was always the same – the restaurants would be a success, and the hotels would thrive. “So one day Bob said, ‘Why don’t you open a hotel?’ That’s how it started.”

Nobu left Japan in 1973, to open a sushi-bar in Lima, where he developed a style of cooking that would inform the rest of his career, combining traditional Japanese techniques with local ingredients.

A quarrel with his business partner saw him move to Buenos Aires, then back to Japan, and eventually to the newly oil-rich Anchorage, Alaska. There he opened another sushi restaurant – to some acclaim – but after two months it went up in flames, along with the last of his money, sending Nobu into despair.

Los Angeles was his last throw of the dice. He moved there in the late 70s, working his way up the restaurant chain once again. It was a decade before he had enough capital to start his own restaurant, Matsuhisa in Beverley Hills. Robert De Niro became a regular customer, falling for Nobu’s distinctive, healthy cooking.

One day, out of the blue, De Niro asked Nobu to open a restaurant with him in New York. “I flew over to look at the site but eventually said ‘Bob, thanks for the offer but it’s too early’ – my LA restaurant wasn’t organised perfectly.” He kept coming to Matsuhisa, and eventually took Nobu aside again. “He said ‘I’ve been waiting four years, now can you come to New York?’ I was surprised he had waited for me, because he’s a big star. I thought, ‘This guy I can trust’, and we opened a restaurant.”

Nobu says De Niro is “like family”, adding with a smile: “But I have starred in films – Austin Powers, Memoirs of a Geisha, Casino – and Bob still can’t cook.”

Cut forward 22 years and Nobu Hospitality is valued at $500m. His signature black cod with miso is famous around the world, although the rest of the menu is subtly changed from city to city, using local and seasonal ingredients (the UK restaurants feature Scottish scallops, langoustines and Dover sole, for instance). With a slew of new projects in the pipeline, the Shoreditch hotel, a sleek, 150-room building centred around a triple-height Nobu restaurant, will be the jewel in the crown.

Is he nervous?

“Half excited, half nervous. I don’t want to play games – I’m serious, and hotels are big operations.”

He says there are similarities between Shoreditch and Tribeca, where De Niro has owned the Greenwich Hotel since 2008, both being in formerly run-down neighbourhoods that have been gentrified beyond recognition. “Now Shoreditch is hip and trendy, just like Tribeca.”

Anyway, running a hotel isn’t all that different to running a restaurant, he says: it’s mostly a matter of scale.

“Some investors and partners talk about how many people have come, how many sales, how much profit. Sure, we have to make money, but make your guests happy and money and success will follow.”

I wonder if he’s losing sleep over Brexit but he just smiles and says, “England is a very good country, I sleep so well.”

He may sleep well, but that sleep is as often than not on a transcontinental flight; Nobu says he spends 10 months a year visiting the various outposts of his empire, spending time with his chefs, reminding them of the “Nobu way”. At 67, with a wife of 44 years and two granddaughters, isn’t he tempted to cash in his chips, put his feet up, maybe open a little 10-cover restaurant in Los Angeles?

“My wife is happy when I’m away,” he jokes, “she doesn’t have to make the breakfast. But I’m philosophical: when do you know when to retire? How much more do you need? I like to try my best in this moment. A lot of people ask if we’re opening a restaurant in Spain, or different countries…”

It looks like there will be plenty of new places where Madonna can have some fun.

First published in City A.M.