Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa is known world-wide for his innovative food that fuses South American cooking with his traditional Japanese techniques. He has garnered a celebrity following, aided in some part by his partnering with Robert DeNiro. His most recent opening is at the stunning Belvedere Hotel on the Greek Island of Mykonos where we had the chance to catch up with him and sample his exquisite food.
Was yours a conscious decision to become a chef or did you find you fell into it?
"It was my dream to be a sushi chef. A lot of kids have pictures of baseball players, soccer players – all kids have a dream. But mine was to be a sushi chef. I was 12 or 13 years old. When I was 18 I started, I was a dishwasher, bus-boy for the first three years. In my generation there was no sushi school, no cooking school so people have to learn from working. My teachers taught me step by step."
It's been reported you were largely brought up by your mum. Did she influence your cooking?
"My mother always cooked for the kids and always worried about the kids. My father passed away when I was eight years old. I was always staying with my mother when she cooked. She always made us good food and she inspired me to cook good food. She sparked my interest in cooking."
Your cooking has been referred to as ‘new style’ Japanese. What are the trademarks of your cooking that have led to this?
"I don’t want to say ‘new style’ because I started as a sushi chef when I was 18, then 6 or 7 years after I went to Peru, still as a Japanese chef. But I changed in Peru as it has a different culture, a different food culture and I think it was a shock. They have the same fish, the same vegetables but it’s a completely different style of food. I was inspired by Peru – then my basic cooking style was influenced by South America. It’s not new style Japanese, it’s just cooking based on my experiences travelling all over the continent. It opened my mind. It’s Nobu style cooking!"
Do you find it a challenge to constantly innovate?
"I don’t have any pressures really, as we have a lot of signature dishes on the menu. A lot of big cities have a central market – I like to go and see the fish and products and try something new."
What’s it like to have Robert DeNiro, a ‘Goodfella’, as your business partner?
"We became friends first, then started the business together and he understands my philosophies. We have a good relationship – we still talk about future business and dine together. He’s a very serious guy people say, but he’s got a good sense of humour. He’s a good friend and a good business partner."
You had a role in Casino – have you ever been tempted to throw down the pots and pans and head for the silver screen?
"That was the first movie I did. I was in Austin Powers and Memoirs of a Geisha. Cooking and film are completely different – but I’d rather stay in the kitchen than be in movies."
What difficulties have you encountered having over 25 restaurants around the globe?
"Each country has a different culture – we have restaurants across all the continents including the Middle East. Japan, South America, United States and Europe are fairly liberal – but it depends on the country. In Dubai we have restaurants where we can’t serve alcohol. We have to write on the menu if we use it in a recipe. But it’s not difficult, it’s experience – I keep learning from different countries."
Of all the countries in which you have restaurants, which cuisine do you find the most exciting?
"Most of Asia, because they have a long history and a strong food history. I learnt lots of cooking techniques though in Peru – so maybe that’s the most inspiring for me."
Do you source as much local produce as possible for each restaurant and does this have a big impact on the menu?
"Basically we have our signature dishes on the menus at all our restaurants which are the same and have as far as possible the same recipes but even soy sauce, for example, tastes different depending where you get it. Fish and vegetables are sourced locally as much as possible. Menus do depend on countries but we use local product as much as we can."
You've lived in Toyko, LA, Alaska, Peru… Where do you feel most at home these days?
"Los Angeles is my home – I have my wife and two daughters growing up there. I have my original restaurant there. I am 61 years old now, but I feel I have two different countries. Japan and USA. I feel like I owe something to America as it is where I found success. I appreciate the country but still I was born in Japan and it’s a very difficult decision to work out where I want to spend the rest of my days."
What advice would you give home chefs who are inspired by your style of cookery?
"This is very simple – food is with the heart. Everything people do has to be done with passion. Cooking, music, architecture, politics – you can’t do anything without passion. The photographer takes the picture using his own sense and with passion comes energy. My mother cooked with heart – she always tried to keep us healthy and strong – this is a mother’s passion. You have to put your passion in to the food."
We stayed at the Belvedere Mykonos