Greatness. You don’t have to see it to believe it. Sometimes, it can be served to you on a plate. Sometimes, its most compellingly potent and universal veneer is taste. Then, everything else, all the attendant swirling elements, fall into place. The magic of it all is the length-and-breadth, dream-to-reality, heart-to-kitchen-to-plate greatness that Chef Nobu Matsuhisa has staked his name on for more than three decades.
NOBU is a banner that represents a number of principles, some culinary and some philosophical. Including the recent opening of its Singaporean outpost at the Four Seasons, it has 51 stations throughout the world, from which it exhibits what standard-setting Nikkei cuisine tastes and feels like – Peruvian ingredients marshalled together by Japanese traditions. Celebrities and mortals alike toast to it with a fervour reserved for that which is flawless, infallible and immaculate. A bona fide empire founded on its founder’s unquenchable aim to ensure his food is smile-inducing in the best possible ways, NOBU is set to open in Atlantic City, Atlanta and Rome in 2022, followed by San Sebastian and Madrid in 2023.
Here, Chef Nobu issues a reminder that, as successful as his enterprise is, the road he has taken to get there is paved with heart, soul and service.
Hello, Chef! You are very often referred to as a ‘celebrity chef’. At this point in your career, what does that mean to you?
Well, I certainly don't think of myself as one. In the media, I'm presented in a particular way. But my heart hasn't changed since I started cooking at 18. I like to do my best and I'm not worried about what people think of me. I am Nobu Matsuhisa.
That’s humbling. How do you feel about the universal success of NOBU?
Well, I'm very happy to know that in every country where NOBU has opened, people really enjoy the experience and they keep coming back for it. Even when we opened for lunch, the outlets are packed. It means a lot to me that the customers are happy to be here. NOBU's philosophy is to always make the customers happy. The best moments, for me, are when people are smiling and laughing as they eat.
What made you want to open a Singaporean outpost of NOBU and how do you see Singapore contributing to the brand?
My partner, Mr Ong Beng Seng, suggested that we open in Singapore. I have been coming here for the Grand Prix but it never occurred to me to open here till then. I love Singapore and we have a very strong partnership with Mr Ong; we trust each other deeply. We don't play games – it was easy to open because of our mutual trust.
You have had a long partnership with the Four Seasons group. How has it grown over the years?
Yes. We're very comfortable. The Four Seasons is a high-end group, NOBU is high-end in the sense that we strive to give our guests the best quality of food. The relationship is strong, because of the trust on both sides. We listen to each other and support each other mutually.
Japan and Peru are two vastly different countries with distinct palettes. How would you say you’ve managed to unite the two in your food?
After my training in a sushi restaurant, I went to Peru. I experienced a wholly different culture and I was surprised to learn that Japanese and Peruvians ate the same fish but prepared a different way. In Japan, we eat sashimi; we eat it with soy sauce and wasabi. In Peru, they have it as ceviche, subbing out soy sauce for lemon juice. So, I began to make ceviche my way. It's still ceviche but the taste is completely different.
Cooking is like fashion. It's about detail. It's about experimenting and discovering new flavours and new tastes.
Your Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeño has become universally popular. What inspired your creation of the dish and what do you think draws people to it in the way that it has?
Please don't laugh. I was a chef at a charity dinner years ago. There were between three to four chefs cooking for about 200 people. The party was a big success. At the end of the night, each chef cooked up something. I didn't want to just use soy sauce so I looked in the fridge for some other ingredients and I found some jalapenos, cilantro and yuzu. Those were the roots of the dish.
It was such as easy dish to make that I'm so surprised that people like it. My grandchildren finish the whole plate every time I make it. In some NOBU outlets, that dish alone accounts for annual sales of $1 million.
Not many people can claim Robert De Niro as a business partner. What is some wisdom he has shared with you that people will be surprised by?
He doesn't say much, but he has great ideas. The NOBU hotels were his idea. He saw that every hotel we opened NOBU at experienced success and recommended that I open my own hotel. He has vision and foresight. He's my best partner.
You’ve built an empire that spans the globe. What advice do you have for people looking to make their way in the world with food?
You know, I'm 73. When I was young, a lot of people supported and pushed me. In the beginning, I was scared to try new things. But I eventually did and made mistakes. That's life. I learnt from them and picked myself up. A mistake is a good chance to learn something new. So, just do it. Don't think too much. Just do it.
Also, once you've decided you want to work with food – or anything – just keep doing it. If you do it every day, you'll learn more about your chosen path and you'll become better at it. Success doesn't come after short-term investment. You must keep at it.
Thirdly, whatever it is you're doing, do it with passion. Without passion, there can be no success.