HERALDED AS THE KING OF SUSHI, THE SAITAMA-BORN CHEF BUILT A MEGA-EMPIRE ON TENACITY AND BLACK COD MISO
BY ERIK SCHONING
Hollywood is full of famous professional partnerships: Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, to name but a few. Sometimes the most successful duos are the most unexpected, and perhaps no partnership seemed more out of the blue than Robert De Niro and celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa. Today Nobu runs a global empire of hotels and restaurants across five continents, the result of a partnership with De Niro that launched back in 1994. The lifestyle brand is still growing and evolving, with several new concepts on the way.
For Nobu, the road to global dominance was long, and it took the Japan-born chef to unexpected places. As a kid in Saitama, Nobu fell in love with sushi, deciding once and for all that he would make a career as a sushi chef. Despite a tough childhood (he was only eight years old when his father died in a car crash), Nobu moved to Tokyo and cut his teeth as an apprentice sushi chef. One day, a regular at the restaurant offered him the opportunity to open a restaurant in Lima, Peru. For a boy growing up in Japan, Peru was an exotic, faraway land, but the move turned out to be a significant milestone in Nobu’s culinary journey: while there, he learned to fuse Peruvian ingredients with Japanese techniques.
After brief stints back in his homeland and in Anchorage, Alaska, Nobu landed in Los Angeles, California, in 1977. At that time, Los Angeles was the heart of the American sushi scene, due to a combination of Japanese immigration and a greater cultural interest in healthy eating. (In fact, the same year Nobu moved to L.A., the Senate released a report on American eating trends that recommended a shift from meat to fish.) With his Peruvian cooking background, Nobu was able to bring a fresh perspective to the sushi scene.
Ten years later, Nobu opened his first U.S. locale, Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills.
The restaurant was famously a celebrity haunt. The link between sushi and Hollywood had long been established. The first sushi restaurant in L.A. located outside of Little Tokyo, Osho, opened in 1970 right next door to the 20th Century Fox Studio. So by the time, Robert De Niro found his way into Matsuhisa, all sorts of stars had dined here before, spending their weekends with chopsticks in hand, sampling beautifully plated, minimalist presentations of eel, cod, and tuna. Sushi, in other words, was hip.
In his memoir, published in 2017, Nobu admitted that at first, he had no idea who De Niro was. The actor often came into the restaurant with director Roland Joffé, who was a regular. Nobu recounts that De Niro was particularly fond of the black cod with miso, the dish that would eventually make Nobu a household name. De Niro first approached Nobu with a plan to open a sushi restaurant in Tribeca, which at the time was still primarily a rundown warehouse district. But following a string of bad experiences in Peru and Alaska, Nobu was wary of partnerships. He declined De Niro’s offer.
De Niro was patient, coming back to Nobu four years later with a renewed offer to open a restaurant in New York City. This time, the chef accepted, and Nobu New York launched in 1994 with help from restaurateur Drew Nieporent and investor Meir Teper. Nobu’s namesake restaurant was triple the size of Matsuhisa and fostered a huge step forward for the chef, bringing his cuisine to the heart of American cooking: downtown New York. As sushi appetites swelled in the city, Nobu stood out for its clean décor, upscale aesthetic, and unique menu. Here, in a crowded field, Nobu’s unique culinary background helped him make a name for himself.
Today, the Nobu brand means so much more than food on a plate. It represents more than 50 restaurants and hotels, located everywhere from the Philippines to Monaco, Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney, plus several stateside locales, from Miami and Atlantic City to Malibu. Together with De Niro and his other partners, Nobu has become synonymous with a kind of laid-back elegance that has come to define the brand. With luxury lifestyle brands, consistency is key: you have to offer the same experience to a guest in Dallas as in Dubai. That consistency, from the menu down to guest experiences at a hotel, is the result of deliberate planning and careful expansion. When Nobu first launched his New York restaurant, he had to develop a kitchen system that would allow him to serve three times as many guests as at Matsuhisa. That attention to scale has paid off as Nobu has built his empire, allowing for the same quality experience across the board.
Take the black cod with miso, for example. This dish, an early favorite of De Niro, was Nobu’s calling card from the beginning, a filet of fish marinated for days in mirin, sugar, white miso, and sake, and then broiled to order. The glazed fish is beloved for its depth of flavor, blending sweetness and caramelized richness for a one-of-a-kind bite. You’ll find black cod with miso on every one of Nobu’s menus, along with the chef’s fusion staples, like a lobster ceviche and a short rib jalapeño salsa. (The cod, unlike his Peruvian Japanese creations, is in fact a deeply Japanese dish, drawing on an ancient tradition of curing fish in dregs left over from making sake.)
Today, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is on top of the world, the result of years upon years of toiling in kitchens all over the world, from Japan to Peru and Anchorage to Los Angeles. Over the decades, he’s perfected his craft, parlaying his kitchen experience into a lifestyle brand that spans the globe. For a kid growing up in Saitama, rubbing elbows with movie stars and entrepreneurs might have seemed an unreachable pipe dream. But here he is, and if mogul wasn’t enough for Nobu, he’s got three acting credits, too.