Black cod and Hollywood gold | Nobu’s recipe for world domination


Madonna once said: “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a restaurant in it.” Nobu Matsuhisa has 26 restaurants on five continents, a new hotel in Las Vegas and another, designed by Ron Arad, opening in London. Jennifer Sharp met him for lunch to talk about fish and chips, failing in France and eyeing up India


Nobu in London, by Mark C.O’Flaherty

Ask any one to define a Nobu restaurant and you’ll get a daunting snapshot of glamour, celebrity and the international jet set.  But the man himself, Nobu Matsuhisa, is so cheerful and unassuming that it’s hard to believe the scale of his empire.

Born in Japan but based in America for most of his life, Nobu arrives in London at the end of a trip that has taken in Dubai and Moscow. In a simple dark blue crew neck sweater and jeans, he seems a lot younger than his 64 years. We sit in a light-filled corner of Nobu London, his chic minimalist Park Lane restaurant that opened in 1997 and became an immediate hit with fashionable diners.

Nobu: When I was planning to open my first restaurant here London (in the early Nineties) there was no reputation here for food, especially compared to France. Fish and chips – that was about it.  People thought I was crazy and they’d say “Nobu, why go to London, the food there is terrible?” Now it’s a very different culture and London is the centre of the world – for Europe anyway.  There’s no comparison with the enthusiasm for food I find here.

Jennifer Sharp: The mid Nineties was when I started writing about London restaurants and you’re right, we were a joke. It’s all changed since but you were a pioneer. In 2009, the influential food symposium Madrid Fusion named you as one of the most influential chefs of the decade.

Nobu: Yes, it made me very happy to be included with top name chefs such as Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller. It meant my food was an inspiration to the world.

JS: What are the key aspects of your style of cooking?

N: The food at Nobu is always evolving but certain standards never change. First of all, everything must be fresh and seasonal. And because we have restaurants all over the world, fresh ingredients are drawn from the locale. My chefs investigate the best local markets and suppliers – there’s no central buying policy, and menus in different restaurants reflect the best ingredients available. For instance, Dover sole is an authentically British fish and one of our most popular dishes here in London is steamed Dover Sole with black bean sauce.

JS: Nowadays “fresh, seasonal and local” is a given but 20 years ago it was quite avant-garde, especially in the UK. Looking at your menus now compared to when you first opened, I see a great deal of consistency in the dishes. You’ve had the confidence to retain the “greatest hits” while at the same time expanding and evolving. What are the items that for you capture the Nobu spirit?

N: My food is always changing but sometimes we’re drawing on a tradition that’s a century old. Take for instance the West’s new obsession with umami, the so-called fifth taste. It’s been part of Japanese culture for generations, giving savoury depth to food. And immediacy is part of what we do best. I like freshness, not dishes that take hours to prepare. 90% of the excitement of a dish is in the first mouthful.

JS: How much time do you spend travelling?


Nobu in London, by Mark C.O’Flaherty

N:  I spend much of the year travelling but about two months of the year in L.A. with my wife, Yoko.

JS: Is your wife involved with the business?

N: Oh yes, right from the beginning she’s been involved and today she runs our original restaurant in Los Angeles, Nobu Matsuhisa that opened in Beverly Hills in 1987. It’s a very traditional Japanese restaurant, not the modern, evolved fusion cooking of Nobu.

JS: Are you very involved with the Nobu restaurants?

N: I work with our chefs on an almost continuous basis to develop and refine our dishes. That’s why I travel so much. For instance we’ve developed a slider [mini-hamburger] without using bread for the bun. It’s a ground beef patty with fried onions, mushrooms and tofu. Japanese people never eat bread with a meal and lots of people are avoiding bread or have an allergy. The new slider was developed for them.

JS: Is good quality tofu hard to find? Do you make your own?

N: No we don’t need to make our own. In the last 15 years it’s become easier to get Japanese products all over the world and anyway, it’s not necessary to have 100% Japanese – I like to support the local market and find what’s good here and incorporate it into our cooking.

JS: The chef of Umu, the upmarket Japanese restaurant in London, was ridiculed for bringing water from Japan, which he claimed was essential for his authentic traditional cooking. Were you ever tempted to do that?


Nobu in London, by Mark C.O’Flaherty

N: Well a chef wants the purest water to make dashi (the savoury umami stock essential to Japanese cooking) but we find the best we can here. I like to do things my way.

JS: What are you doing when you leave London?

N: I’m going to Las Vegas for the opening ceremony of Nobu Hotel. My business partner is Robert de Niro and this is the first one we’ve done. The Nobu Hotel has 181 rooms and is within the Caesars Palace resort, but occupying a separate tower within the complex. Our guests have access to all the Caesars Palace facilities but they also have private check in and dedicated staff. The hotel has the largest Nobu restaurant in the world, more than 300 covers, but guests also have Nobu room service and breakfast, the first time we’ve ever done it. All the rooms are contemporary Asian and very calm and refined – quite different from the usual Vegas frenzy.

JS: Any plans for more Nobu hotels?

N: We’re talking about something in East London but I can’t talk about that right now. And we’re opening a Nobu Hotel in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia.

JS: You travel more than almost anyone I know. Do you manage to see much of these countries or are you on a magic carpet, just passing through?

N: I sometimes go to other restaurants but not very often. I’m usually too busy with my own people. When I was in Dubai last week I went to one Italian restaurant, Ronda Locatelli in Atlantis at The Palm, but Giorgio Locatelli is a friend.

JS: So you may go to other restaurants but you’ve never been a tourist?

N: Actually no. [Giggles] I still haven’t seen Big Ben.

JS: When was the last time you acted like a tourist and went to look at the sights?

N: In London?

Me: Well in other places too.

N: I have an arrangement with a cruise company, Crystal Cruises, and two of their boats have Nobu restaurants. I like to combine business with seeing my family. A few years ago I went with my wife, my two daughters and their husbands on a 12-day cruise from Greece to Rome. This summer we’ll have another two-week trip from Rome via Sicily and Istanbul to the Black Sea.  It’s part work and part family holiday. I’m really excited about us all being together especially as we’ll be with my granddaughter who’s nearly three years old.

Junko who works at Nobu Tokyo, was born in Peru when we were living in Lima. When my wife was pregnant with our younger girl, Yoshiko, we were living in Buenos Aires but I didn’t want her to be born in Argentina

JS: Your daughters live in Japan now. Are they both Japanese by birth?

N: My older daughter, Junko who works at Nobu Tokyo, was born in Peru when we were living in Lima. When my wife was pregnant with our younger girl, Yoshiko, we were living in Buenos Aires but I didn’t want her to be born in Argentina. I’d need to stay there a few years and I worried about it – especially as the economy wasn’t too good at the time. So we decided to go back to Japan and Yoshiko was born there.  We were in the States when the girls were growing up but they now both live in Japan and married Japanese men.

JS: What do the Japanese think about your cooking, I mean especially the Nobu style with Peruvian influences?

N: Restaurants in Japan have evolved too and the Japanese are very enthusiastic about foreign food. All the world’s chefs have very highly regarded restaurants in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.

JS: In 2008 when the Michelin Guide launched in Tokyo, it caused a stir by giving far more two and three stars to Tokyo than there were – or still are – in London. We were very peeved.

N: Personally, I’m not looking for Michelin stars. We have a star here in London but for me the customer is the most important part of our business, the customer enjoying the food and service.

JS: There’s been a huge increase in foodie tourism – you see it all over the world, people making a gastronomic pilgrimage to famous restaurants with the top Michelin rating.

N: Lots of our restaurants don’t have Michelin stars. The customers don’t care. They like our food and they want to have a good time.

JS: Well London certainly likes Nobu. You have two restaurants here, both highly successful. There is the original Nobu on Park Lane, which opened in 1997 and then you opened Nobu Berkeley Street in 2005. Were you ever anxious you could be diluting your business, especially as they’re both in Mayfair?

N: To be honest, at first I worried that we’d split the customers but it hasn’t happened. Nobu Berkeley Street has its own personality, it’s much bigger and there’s a huge glamorous bar. There’s a different style, a different clientele.

JS: It’s more rock ‘n’ roll.

N: It’s a more spirited version of Nobu. Lots of our regulars say they like one or the other but there’s a lot of cross over – it depends what mood they’re in: maybe Nobu Park Lane for a more formal lunch; Nobu Berkeley Street for a party night. We had David Beckham for lunch and dinner one day recently – lots of people do that. But it’s still all about the food, whichever they choose.

JS: What changes have you noticed in London in the years you’ve been here?


Nobu in London, by Mark C.O’Flaherty

N: One of the most striking is the way there are no quiet times any more. It’s busy all year round. The weeks after Christmas used to be dead and everyone said we’d have to close the restaurant but I said “let’s wait and see”. So we opened and we did 150 people a day. It’s the same at weekends. Sunday used to be totally dead in Mayfair but now it’s a big family day and there’s been no looking back since we opened our restaurants on Sundays. I like to see parents bring their children to my restaurants. [Giggles] They’re introducing the next generation of customers to Nobu.

JS: Do kids like Japanese food?

N: They love it, teenagers and even very young children. The little ones find chopsticks very easy. I like talking to teenagers – they never listen to their parents but they’ll talk to me. I always tell them “study hard”.

JS: In which part of the world are your customers the most adventurous?

N: Each country has its own culture and sometimes we’re the ones who have to be adventurous. In the Middle East for instance, alcohol is forbidden not just to drink but also in cooking. We have to work hard to get round it and find correct substitutes for flavor.

JS: Is there anywhere in the world where Nobu hasn’t worked?

N: We opened in Paris in 2001 but it wasn’t well received by the French and it closed two years later. They have difficult labour laws there, a very strict 35-hour week and high staff costs. I just had a feeling we just weren’t welcome.

JS: I’m surprised you don’t have any restaurants in India. It’s such a huge, prosperous country. Have you ever been invited to open there?

N: Yes, I’ve been approached many times to open in India but it’s never worked out. And yet Nobu is very popular with Indians here in London. It’s a big market for us – they love our food. We can use all the chillis and spices they like and we do very good vegetarian food.

JS: But India itself has such a dynamic and wealthy middle class now. Why aren’t you there?

N: I went to India to do some research before a possible opening. It’s not just about the money, it’s important to care about the standards, the service. It just wasn’t right.

JS: Was it perhaps a question of respect, for you as a chief and a businessman?

N: I’m a very flexible man but there was a problem.

JS: Which are those two things describes you best – a chef or a businessman? Or both?

N: I’m a chef! 100%! I’m over sixty years old and I’ve been in business a long time but my mentality is still as a chef. And I’m very sensitive to atmosphere, which is essential for a restaurateur. You have to care about the customer as well as the food and I choose my managers because those things are important to them. The money boys usually don’t appreciate subtleties but I have partners for the business side of things.

JS: What about Peru? Ever been tempted to go back there?

N: I’ve been approached several times to open in Lima but it’s not top of the agenda.

JS: It’s fascinating that you were using ceviche, tiraditos and South American flavours 40 years ago. Here in London, we’ve just caught up.  Peruvian influences have been all the rage for the past two years. What are the ingredients and techniques from Peru that you’ve found so appealing?

N: Well take ceviche, it’s raw fish, very like sashimi but in Japan we use wasabi and soy sauce. The first time I tried it in Peru with chilli, onions, coriander and lemon, I thought “wow!”. It was a revelation. It felt much more healthy. The fish was already in its sauce and ready to eat. There was no waste – in Japan we throw away lots of unused wasabi and soy – and no chance of the customer using too much. Here in England, people always use too much soy and it can deaden the taste of the fish.

JS: What else have you borrowed from other countries?

N: The Chinese tradition of family-style sharing dishes and bringing food to the table all at once is very different from Japanese style eating, but I love it. It feels more modern.

JS: Don’t you find here in London that a lot of customers, especially men, feel slightly uncomfortable with sharing?

N: Yes, perhaps for business dinners they’ll specify individual plates but for families and friends, sharing is better.

We’re very discreet and don’t tip off paparazzi or release information to the press. And we certainly don’t let other customers take photographs of them on their phones

JS: Can I ask you about celebrity and how important that is to maintaining the buzz your restaurants have worldwide? You have high-profile partners like Robert de Niro and Giorgio Armani, and customers who are celebrities in North America and Europe, but how does it work when you open Doha or Riyadh? How do you maintain the Nobu buzz in countries where there’s the culture of monarchy?

N: I think celebrity is global these days and Nobu has a global name. We never court celebrities but if a well-known person is going to a foreign country, they will often choose one of my restaurants because we’re very discreet and don’t tip off paparazzi or release information to the press. And we certainly don’t let other customers take photographs of them on their phones. Consequently celebrities trust us, they feel safe here, and they like the food.

JS: Do you ever cook at home?

N: Not any more.  When the girls were small I’d cook for their birthdays and when I’m at home in Beverly Hills, my wife cooks Japanese style breakfast for me every morning. Maybe once a year, on New Year’s Day, I’ll invite all the staff and their families to my house for Japanese food and a Californian barbeque with lots of wine and sake.

Nobu Hotel Las Vegas

Nobu with Robert de Niro, at the opening of Nobu Hotel Caesars Palace, Las Vegas

JS: Have your customers in London taken to sake?

N: We sometimes hold sake-tasting dinners with food pairing but it’s not as easy to understand as wine.

JS: The Japanese appear to love wine. Do they make any themselves? Do they grow grapes?

N: There’s a Japanese white wine called Koshu from the central area of Yamanashi overlooked by Mount Fuji. They’ve made it for a hundred years but only recently has it been exported and promoted. We have tasting samples and the sommeliers are very excited about it. We’ll be holding Koshu wine dinners, probably in September or October.

JS: You never stop exploring. What’s the secret of keeping a successful name like Nobu going year after year?

N: You have to be passionate about quality and communicate that passion to the people working in the kitchen. And you have to have the right team, especially when you open in other countries. Every Nobu restaurant has first-hand Nobu experience, so when London opened in 1997, we brought in a chef from LA to train them. And we took people from London to train the team in Cape Town. You have to take one step at a time.

JS: It’s the only way you can sleep at night.

N: I think so. [Gales of laughter] I’ve been cooking all my life and my philosophy is that restaurants are like a family. You have to lead the way and give direction and training because it takes time to build a team. But they get stronger and grow within the company and then one day they’ll have their own restaurant, their own house and their own family. I’m very proud when I see that. It makes me very happy.

JS: That’s very generous of you.

N: I started working at 18 and I can now say “I’ve made it”. I want to see my staff have their own success, to turn to me one day and say “Thank you Nobu san, I’ve made it”. C