Can Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Stay Smiling?
He pioneered a new cuisine, earned a legion of celebrity disciples, and became the culinary world’s first successful chef hotelier. As he broadens his reach, will his brand continue to thrive, or will its reach exceed its grasp?
By Nate Storey
October 05, 2017
Nobu Matsuhisa on the beach outside his restaurant in Malibu.
Nobu Matsuhisa is a selfie-machine. On an average day he takes upwards of 25 of them. With fans, other chefs, celebrities—anyone who comes into his orbit. He’s taking selfies right now, behind the sushi counter of his Malibu restaurant, on a foggy Friday morning in July. His staff has formed a queue during pre-opening prep to get a coveted snapshot with the boss. Maybe it’s all the practice, but Matsuhisa has one of the most pleasing smiles you’ll ever see. It is perfectly symmetrical, with a lime-wedge shape that pushes his cherubic cheeks up right beneath his eyes and his bushy eyebrows into two comely arches. It isn’t necessarily large, but it is big. Even his chin smiles. Matsuhisa beams often, in his media appearances, in his miniseries Nobu’s Japan, on the cover of his recently published memoir. And why not? He has a lot to be happy about.
The global Nobu empire—captained by the quintuplet of Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro, producer Meir Teper, and restaurateur Drew Nieporent, with the assistance of serial collaborator architect David Rockwell—has expanded to 38 restaurants in 18 countries, including one unveiled this fall in Washington, D.C., and this summer’s relocation of the first-ever Nobu from Manhattan’s Tribeca to a gorgeous Neoclassical building in the Financial District. Hotel openings in London, Ibiza, Malibu, and Palo Alto this year expanded the collection to seven, with six more on the horizon, in destinations such as Barcelona, Los Cabos, Riyadh, and Chicago. Black-cod miso junkies can now get Nobu at sea, onboard two ships flying the Crystal Cruises flag, or at the 2018 Australian Open, where it will pop up as the event’s official restaurant.
It’s largely unprecedented for a restaurant group to reach its tentacles into new realms at this scale. Those who have tried ambitious brand extensions have often ended up in the frozen-food aisle. (See Puck, Wolfgang; Flay, Bobby). But as Matsuhisa and his team continue to push the boundaries of the Nobu brand, larger questions come into play: In the epoch of idiosyncratic tastes and one-off concepts, can Matsuhisa and his team build a ubiquitous, formulaic, and ultimately successful chain? Will Nobu’s tried-and-true blueprint translate to hotels, and beyond?
The bar at Nobu Downtown in New York City.
Says De Niro: “It’s special. I don’t even know what to call it. I think everybody realizes they’re involved in something special, and they don’t want to let it go—they don’t want to be sloppy with it. We want to stay on top of it.”
This we know for sure: It doesn’t hurt to have star power behind you—Matsuhisa and Hollywood have been intertwined since his original Beverly Hills sushi bar arrived on La Cienega Boulevard, in 1987. But let’s be clear, it was Hollywood that courted him, not the other way around. The accounts of A-list stars being treated like plebs are the stuff of lore. Tom Cruise was denied a reservation. Barbra Streisand was spotted waiting in a line that stretched around the corner. Matsuhisa’s coterie of famous superfans has only grown, led by Pharrell and any member of the Kardashians. Drake (“Eatin’ crab out in Malibu at Nobu”) and Kanye West (“He just walked into Nobu like it was Whole Foods!”) have shouted out the brand in verse. The constellation of his spots around the world twinkle with glitterati clientele, but none brighter than the one in Malibu, which has evolved into the fulcrum of TMZ culture.
Just off the Pacific Coast Highway, it is set precipitously on a bluff overlooking a thin strip of beach and the Pacific Ocean, with stilted houses fanning out down the coast. The formerly sleepy surf town, with its endearing mobile-home parks, mom-and-pop restaurants, and megamansions for wealthy and high-profile locals trying to evade Hollywood’s glare, has, in typical L.A. fashion, been “discovered.” Across the parking lot from Nobu, the super-exclusive Soho Beach House cropped up in 2016, joined by this year’s even more exclusive Nobu Ryokan—a joint venture with tech billionaire Larry Ellison—a 16-room Japanese-style inn and the latest celebrity bolt-hole. (Rates start at an eye-popping $2,000 per night.) On any given day you might see Kendall Jenner on a date with NBA superstar Blake Griffin; a braless Victoria Beckham dining with her husband, David, and their four kids; newlyweds Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux at a four-top with Courteney Cox and Jason Bateman; Jamie Foxx, Sofia Richie—and that was just during a two-week span this summer.
Matsuhisa, whose unassuming nature does not overpower you the way an outsize personality like Anthony Bourdain’s does, is unruffled by the celebrity that swirls around him, which may be one of the reasons he’s so successful. Or maybe it’s because he outshines them all. “Well, he’s become kind of a rock star,” Florence Fabricant, the veteran food and wine reporter for The New York Times, tells me. “He’s involved in that scene in a big measure.”
Matsuhisa was born in 1949 in Saitama, Japan, a city 30 minutes away by train from Tokyo, known for its dedication to bonsai, the ancient art of manicuring tiny trees. He was the youngest of four siblings and began to show an interest in cooking early on, often observing his mother in the kitchen. (His father died in a motorcycle accident when Matsuhisa was eight years old; his mother passed away in 2006, at 93.) He studied architecture in high school, but the youthful rabble-rouser was expelled before he could graduate. It was then that he turned his eye to the culinary world, landing an apprenticeship at a sushi counter in Tokyo. He discovered a synergy between the two mediums and other artistic forms: the conceptualizing, the creating. “Cooking, architecture, music, painting—I think basically everything is the same,” he says, noting they all require a similar manual dexterity. (He’s long compared food to fashion in that there are always new materials, or ingredients, spurring evolution, but, in both, the pillars of style remain eternal.)
Seven years in, a regular customer propositioned Matsuhisa on a partnership in Lima, Peru. He and his wife packed their bags for South America, where a whole new world of flavors opened up to him. Freed from the shackles of Japanese tradition, he married Peruvian ingredients with ones from the Far East and experimented with new flavor profiles. Thus, the “Nobu Style” was born. A falling out with his partner set him on a course to Alaska in 1977—after a brief stint in Argentina—where he opened his first solo restaurant. It burned down on Thanksgiving Day, weeks after opening. Matsuhisa found himself sequestered in a dark place and even contemplated taking his own life. Instead, the episode served as a building block for his nascent career. “I was young, but I learned a lot from the experience: patience, love, appreciation. As I age, I like to learn from mistakes—otherwise the younger [generation] will be afraid to try a challenge. Just do it—you will make a mistake, learn from the mistake. You always have to start with one step.”
Matsuhisa’s first step was to send his family back to Japan while he tried to resurrect his career in L.A. He found his way forward from behind a humble sushi counter, and a few years later, Matsuhisa decided he was ready to give his dream another shot. He took out a small loan and opened a place on La Cienega, Beverly Hills’s restaurant row at the time.
The resilience paid off—after all, you never know when Robert De Niro might walk through the door with an offer you can’t refuse. As the story goes, the director Roland Joffé brought the actor to the original sushi bar in the late 1980s to sample a newfangled cuisine. A year later, De Niro (who at the time had already dipped his toes in the restaurant business as the co-owner, with Drew Nieporent, of Tribeca Grill), famously pitched Matsuhisa a plan to bring the Los Angeles concept to New York. It would take him four years to convince Matsuhisa to expand to Manhattan, but in 1994, sister brand Nobu made its debut on a desolate block downtown in Tribeca.
Despite its reputation as a breeding ground for Tinseltown power players, the original restaurant was a modest space, with 38 seats and low-budget shoji screens. The New York spot had to be flashy—and convincing. “An out-of-town chef opening in New York, without a real commitment to be in this city, is treacherous,” says architect David Rockwell, who conceived the original location early in his career and has since gone on to become one of the most prolific hospitality designers in the industry. “The city sort of rejects the notion of a transplant, where the chef isn’t really there. I think Nobu was ready to commit the time, Drew’s career was so established in Tribeca, Meir Teper brought drive to it, and Bob gave them all confidence and an anchor.” The opening was a boon, celebrated by critics, loved by chefs, and perennially packed with Manhattan’s in-crowd. Matsuhisa’s nouveau Japanese cuisine; Rockwell’s forward-thinking design (river-rock walls, no tablecloths); and a noisy, loungelike atmosphere that shared more attributes with a downtown club than a typical fine-dining restaurant, signaled a paradigm shift. “The first Nobu was audacious, both food-wise—those taste combinations didn’t exist before him—and unlike any other design at the time. We wanted to create a place that didn’t trigger the usual Japanese cues that people associate with a traditional restaurant.”
(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) A vintage photograph of Nobu in front of his Los Angeles restaurant, Matsuhisa. Nobu with David Rockwell. Drew Nieporent, Robert De Niro, and Nobu.
It’s easy to take for granted in the era of grab-and-go sushi just how revolutionary Matsuhisa’s food was when it arrived on the scene. Combining yellowtail with jalapeño and black cod with miso, playing with the Japanese fruit yuzu. Fabricant, who would write about the opening, received her introduction to the new genre in L.A. “I was blown away. The menu ran from thirty-five pages with stuff you never heard of, like squid pasta and spicy, creamy rock shrimp tempura—all of these inventions he’s now so associated with.” At the time, upscale Midtown sushi bars hewed toward the conventional Japanese cut-out and were in vogue with the diplomat crowd. Nobu left them in the dust. “He was open to ingredients that a traditional Japanese chef would shun, like Kewpie mayonnaise. Tiradito was new because it was a Peruvian style of sashimi,” Fabricant says.
His contemporaries put Matsuhisa in a rarefied echelon. “He pulled the formality out of the Japanese restaurant but kept the discipline and the quality,” says French chef Daniel Boulud, who joined Matsuhisa on a culinary voyage for an episode of the miniseries Nobu’s Japan. “His impact in America is most obvious in all those copy restaurants, from Megu to Zuma, who very much embraced this sort of hip Japanese restaurant with high-quality food.”
Getting to know Nobu: watch the chef answer rapid-fire questions and find out what his friends say about the person behind the celebrity veneer.
Another guest star on the show, executive chef at the Michelin-three-starred Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert, was so enchanted by Matsuhisa’s first cookbook, published in 2013, that he dialed him up in the middle of the night. “I said, ‘Look, it’s gonna sound crazy, and I don’t know where you are, but I’m reading your book and I haven’t been inspired like this in years. I don’t know if you’re sleeping or I’m sleeping or not, I just want to share with you how excited I am,’” says Ripert, also recalling Matsuhisa’s uncontrollable laughter. “The combinations he has invented are astonishing. Nobody thought about [them] before Nobu.”
As if inventing a new culinary genre isn’t groundbreaking enough, Matsuhisa is now trying to go where no chef has successfully gone before: the hotel industry. “It’s a shift in what luxury is, just like when the restaurants opened,” says Rockwell, who also designed De Niro’s Greenwich Hotel in New York. “There are so many five-star luxury hotel options and [people] choose based on the fantasy they want to step into. It’s been a really interesting opportunity to take his notion of omakase [or service], and bring that into the hotel world.”
In fact, it was De Niro’s idea to expand to hotels. First came Las Vegas, inside Caesar’s Palace, designed by Rockwell in 2013. This summer saw the openings of properties in Shoreditch, London, a cantilevered glass-and-steel structure by architect Ron Arad, and one in Ibiza, a breezy Mediterranean-style outpost on a tamer stretch of the island, away from the all-night bacchanalia.
A guest room at Nobu Shoreditch in London.
The hotel's restaurant.
Nobu’s rise hasn’t been without speed bumps. The continued use of endangered bluefin tuna, a delicacy in Japan, was discovered by Greenpeace investigators who covertly tested the menu’s fish. That spurred a widespread backlash in 2009, including many of the brand’s fawning celebrity devotees. (Sienna Miller, Charlize Theron, and Sting were among the 31 famous signatories who drafted a letter protesting the use of bluefin, which is still on the menu today.) In 2014, both London restaurants were stripped of their Michelin stars. The debut of the brand’s first hotel in Asia in 2015, located in Manila’s City of Dreams entertainment complex, was panned by Luxury Travel Intelligence, a respected members-only rating company for affluent travelers, as the world’s worst luxury hotel. The company’s cofounder, Michael Crompton, commented at the time that the brand might be overextending itself. And, of course, there are the exorbitant prices. A London food critic’s visit to the restaurant at the Nobu Shoreditch hotel recently went viral after she spent nearly $400 there in less than two hours. The recipe has worked well thus far, but ubiquity has its risks. Has Matsuhisa undercut his ability to surprise and reinvent? Are people finally showing signs of Nobu fatigue?
Consider, for a moment, a 2005 review written by Frank Bruni, then the food critic for The New York Times, about the unveiling of Nobu 57. “Perhaps no other recently opened restaurant raises the question of how much originality matters, of innovation’s importance, as pointedly as Nobu 57 does,” he begins. But even he quickly changes his mind. “What mattered was how well it navigated terrain that’s become common precisely because it’s so appealing, and Nobu 57 … navigated it expertly enough to compensate for any lack of originality.”
Bruni’s review is just as apt today as it was in 2005. Because here’s the thing: Nobu is the same, and why change something people obviously crave? “That’s how I am with a place. I go there for many years—I expect it to be the same,” De Niro says. “Sometimes you go to these restaurants and they get a new chef and things change. The thing the restaurant was famous for isn’t there anymore. People rely on those kinds of consistencies, especially in different cities and countries.”
(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Inside the Nobu Malibu restaurant. A room at the neighboring Nobu Ryokan. The restaurant's terrace.
Yes, there are some updates, such as the split menu of new dishes and classics, and his restaurants incorporate the indigenous ingredients of their locales. The design deviates from project to project, but the overall identity remains recognizable, thanks to common references such as the river-rock wall and the birchwood tree sculptures at Nobu Downtown. The vibe still channels Sex in the City, which, honestly, is surprisingly comforting in a world of subway tiles and copper pineapple tumblers. The rock shrimp? It’s still a mouthwatering, knockout dish. “It shows they’re solid and likable, that’s why they endure,” Fabricant says of the crowd-pleasers.
Matsuhisa is the Mick Jagger of the food world—still playing his hits at the highest level and drawing adoring crowds, even as the landscape shifts around him. Matsuhisa’s staying power lies in his ability to inject the notion of omakase into everything the Nobu brand does. The same principles of sushi-making are the foundation of his success.
“Sushi is very, very delicate, not too tight, not too soft,” Matsuhisa says as he reaches out and grips my hand firmly. “But sushi cannot be too tight like this, it has to be just perfect—like, relax”—his squeeze softens. “Sushi is in just ten fingers. Each process has to be [with my] heart and ten fingers.”
“Kokoro,” he says, referencing the Japanese concept signifying heart, mind, and spirit. Then he smiles.
(CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT) Squid Pasta. Black cod miso. Creamy spicy rock shrimp tempura. Yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno.
Nobu and Friends
The chef’s inner circle pick their favorite dishes.
Robert De Niro rock shrimp tempura
“I’ve got to say, [my favorite place to eat it] is Nobu 57. But the one in Doha has a unique design, and the new Nobu Downtown in New York and Malibu restaurant are also great.”
Florence Fabricant crispy soft-shell crab roll
“My favorite is the crispy soft-shell crab roll—I think he might have been the first to do that. I’m also as much of a sucker for his legendary black cod with miso as anybody (even though every chef on the planet takes credit for this dish, it’s Nobu from the start.)”
Eric Ripert Octopus Tiradito, Nobu Style
“I love this dish. The raw octopus is so fresh and the spiciness makes it addictive. I could eat it over and over.”
David Rockwell grilled Octopus with Chocolo Salsa
“Although many diners, including myself, would be perfectly content ordering Nobu’s classic dishes, he is constantly experimenting and inventing, so I always ask what’s new. Recently, he introduced grilled octopus with chocolo salsa. It’s pretty amazing.”
Daniel Boulud sashimi of fluke, with a hot pepper
“It’s such a classic. You can’t go to Nobu without having that to start with. It’s not Japanese, it’s not sashimi, it’s Nobu.”