Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is the culinary world’s Madonna — he’s most widely known by his first name only. After emigrating to the U.S. from Japan in the late ’70s, Nobu built a high-end sushi empire that’s unparalleled; it now encompasses more than three dozen restaurants across the globe, from Malibu to Manila, Beijing to Budapest.
Nobu began his career as a restaurateur in Peru, where he first established the Japanese fusion cuisine that he’s become known for worldwide. But it wasn’t until he moved to L.A. and opened up his eponymous restaurant, Matsuhisa, in 1987 that he struck culinary gold: It quickly became a celebrity hot spot and attracted the attention of silver-screen legend Robert De Niro, who would go on to become one of Nobu’s business partners.
Here now, in an excerpt from his autobiography (newly translated from Japanese into English), Nobu: A Memoir, the sushi master himself looks back on his relationship with the Hollywood star and how De Niro convinced him to open a restaurant in Manhattan.
The first time Robert De Niro came to Matsuhisa was in 1988. Roland Joffé, director of The Killing Fields, brought him. Although the name Robert De Niro seemed familiar, I had no idea who he was. As Joffé was a regular, I simply prepared food for him and his guest as usual.
De Niro particularly liked the Black Cod with Miso and the Japanese sake Hokusetsu. After the meal, he invited me to join them for a drink. That was our first conversation. Although he lived in New York, he continued to drop by Matsuhisa whenever he was in Los Angeles. Sometimes he came with friends or his agent, and other times with his family. He has a special aura, and the restaurant buzzed with excitement when he was there, yet he always dropped in casually without a bodyguard.
I think it was in 1989 that De Niro first suggested we start a restaurant together in New York. Matushisa had only opened two years earlier, and I was really busy. I couldn’t imagine setting up another restaurant somewhere else. But De Niro insisted that I should at least come to New York and see, and his enthusiasm convinced me to go. I stayed at the hotel in the World Trade Center and spent three or four days with him. He invited me to his home, showed me around his office, and took me to see the property he had just bought in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. At the time, Tribeca was a run-down warehouse district. De Niro’s building was old. Water dripped from broken pipes, and rats scurried inside. Against this backdrop, he shared with me his vision. “I want to start up a business here. This will be the restaurant space. I’ll have a screening room there and my office over here…”
My English, however, was too poor for us to carry on any kind of discussion. Although I could follow much of what he said, I couldn’t really converse. I listened to his ideas and then, in broken English, tried to explain that I couldn’t start another restaurant now because the one in Los Angeles was not quite on its feet. Matsuhisa’s popularity was growing, and I could feel the potential for our clientele to keep expanding. But I knew that my staff didn’t have enough training yet. Although De Niro’s proposal was very attractive, I felt that I should build a solid foundation for Matsuhisa first.
De Niro continued to drop into Matsuhisa, and I continued to treat him like a regular guest, serving him Black Cod with Miso and suggesting newly invented dishes that I thought he might enjoy. When he came, he never mentioned his proposal for a joint venture in New York. In fact, he teamed up with restaurateur Drew Nieporent and turned the property he had shown me into the Tribeca Grill, a restaurant serving American fare, which opened in 1990.
HE WAITED FOUR WHOLE YEARS
Four years after I had turned down his offer, De Niro called me at home. “So, Nobu, how about it?” he said. “Why don’t you come to New York again?”
At first, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I had assumed that the idea of starting up a restaurant together was no longer on the table. Then it suddenly hit me. He had been waiting four whole years! My experiences in Peru and Alaska had made me extremely wary of entering into partnerships with anyone, but his willingness to wait showed me that I could trust him.
In the end, four of us signed a partnership contract: restaurateur Drew Nieporent, investor Meir Teper, De Niro, and myself. Drew Nieporent had not only opened the Tribeca Grill with De Niro but had also founded the highly successful Montrachet, a restaurant considered to be cutting-edge even for New York. His knowledge of the restaurant business and his breadth of experience was amazing, and I recognized in him a true professional even at our first meeting. The chef at his restaurant was selected by Food & Wine magazine as one of America’s ten best new chefs in 1989, the same year that I was chosen. Later, it occurred to me that Drew must have known about me before we met and might even have encouraged De Niro to convince me to work with them.
Drew and De Niro found a building, and Nobu New York was established in the Tribeca district. Although that area still seemed rather bleak to me, it was just a stone’s throw from De Niro’s home. I suspect that, in the beginning, De Niro didn’t intend to make Nobu this big. Perhaps he just wanted to enjoy the taste of Matsuhisa in his own neighborhood.
WHEN THE TIME IS RIPE, THERE IS NO ANXIETY
People fly to New York from all over the world in pursuit of their goals, and the city is charged with an energy and excitement that is quite a contrast to the more laid-back Los Angeles. I was surprised to see how distinctive the cultures of these two cities were, despite being located in the same country. When I hopped into a taxi at the airport in New York and told the driver where to go, I got no answer. His silence seemed to say, I know where I’m going. If I didn’t I’d ask. When I dropped into a Japanese restaurant near where we planned to open ours and introduced myself, the owner said, “See you in six months,” which appeared to mean, New York’s no pushover. Let’s see if you survive even half a year.
In the early 1990s, the city was notorious for its cutthroat competition. As the Japanese saying goes, New York businessmen wouldn’t think twice about plucking out the eyes of a live horse. Restaurants designed by architect David Rockwell were becoming all the rage, and restaurateurs produced not just the menu but the entire space and dining experience. Those restaurants that survived were best described by the word “professional” — every element from service to the interior decor was faultless. I sensed immediately that New York wouldn’t be an easy place in which to succeed. But I also felt that if our restaurant did make it here, it could make it anywhere.
Matsuhisa had only recently expanded from 38 seats to 65, but Nobu New York seated over 150. Although this meant venturing into the unknown, the timing felt right, and I had no qualms about starting something new. The scars from my experiences in Peru, Argentina, and Alaska seemed to have vanished. Working with professionals to create a new restaurant in New York was stimulating and fueled my desire to work harder than ever. A positive tension seemed to course through my veins.
A PRO SYSTEMATIZES THE KITCHEN
Drew handled restaurant management. The PR and personnel departments were both part of his company, and as he was top in the field, I could leave all that in his hands and just focus on the sushi bar, the kitchen, and the dining room.
When the restaurant first opened, I stayed in New York to train the kitchen and sushi bar chefs. After about three months, things settled down, and, for the next half year, I spent two weeks in Los Angeles and two weeks in New York. In America, people who work on both the East and West Coasts and travel back and forth are called “bicoastal,” and it made me happy to realize that I was now bicoastal, too. The best chefs from Matsuhisa also became bicoastal, spending three-month stints in New York training the chefs while working alongside them in the kitchen and sushi bar.
Nobu New York was triple the size of Matsuhisa. This meant changing our approach to every procedure, even from the very first step of prep work. In New York, everything was systematized for maximum efficiency. The kitchen was divided into different areas, such as the salad section, the grill section, and the fry section, and all of the areas worked together to produce a single dish. For example, when making New Style Sashimi, the chefs at the sushi bar would thinly slice the fish. This would then be passed through to the kitchen where the fry section would sprinkle it with yuzu, ginger, chopped scallions, and soy sauce, and then drizzle it with hot olive and sesame oil. In the case of Soft Shell Crab Rolls, the fry section deep-fried the crab first, and then passed it through to the chefs at the sushi bar to make the rolls.
To get ready for the opening, I hired two new sushi chefs and spent six months thoroughly training them at Matsuhisa. Although they were already well versed in the basics of sushi making and Japanese cuisine, my recipes are original, and therefore I taught them by cooking with them. We also advertised for chefs in New York, and many experienced people applied. One of these was Masaharu Morimoto, who went on to star in both the Japanese and American versions of the Iron Chef TV series.