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The Caterer Interview – Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

04 April 2014 by
The Caterer Interview – Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

When Nobu launched it was a trendsetter. How do you stay at the forefront now that's more part of the establishment?

My career is the food business and the food is always different, with interesting flavours and energies. We are innovative, but also flexible, and we always work with the guest. We have raw and cooked fish, meat and vegetables, so there's something for everybody.

We always listen to customers and never say no. The team and I are always looking for what's new, so you need passion or you'll never find out what's next. Passion is the key: it makes
everything feel good and the guest happy.

How do you keep your menus fresh and innovative? I travel around the world all the time to get inspiration to create my new dishes, but it's not a success from the beginning. I get the inspiration or the idea in a second, and then I go into the kitchen, cook it and play with it. It takes time; we study the dish and work out if this or that is better, and then one day, it's perfect.

I have a lot of young chefs from lots of 
different nationalities and cultures using different spices and I get inspiration from them, but also from crazy things - like my watercress salad. I was playing golf one day and my ball landed in a creek and when I was looking for it, I found fresh watercress. I tasted it, took 
a whole bunch home, washed it, steamed it, blended it and added olive oil and lemon juice, and made a watercress salad and dressing. I'd never thought about it, but it just came to me.

With my 'new-style' sashimi, many ladies didn't want to eat raw fish, and one day I was holding the plates in the kitchen, watching chefs with oil in a pan, and I thought, why not spoon the oil onto the fish to slightly cook it?
I spooned olive oil onto the fish, just to cook it a touch, added soy and some scallions, and
it was a hit. I'd never have thought of it if 
it hadn't come from the guest.

You still serve bluefin tuna despite it being 
on the endangered list. With international overfishing causing increasing numbers of 
fish to be labelled 'endangered', how do you see fish remaining a sustainable menu item? The governments of the world need to decide. It is interesting that the Japanese government is now proposing to stop fishing for bluefin tuna under three years old. But there is also the fish-farming technique, which is making shrimp, salmon and halibut a much more globally accessible and sustainable product.
I think this is the way for tuna, too.

And how do higher food costs generally 
affect your operations and offer? Food prices are high, but when more people have the food, then scale eases the strain. As long as the restaurants are busy, then the food cost stays OK. At my first restaurant the food cost was 50%. I selected all the fish myself daily, and although I didn't make any money, it meant that I got a reputation for the best quality food.

People still trust the quality of my food 
and so even though it is more expensive, the guests trust me and my partners trust me. We made low profits to start, but my partners had patience and knew that passion and the best quality is 'Nobu's credit'. We never say 'don't buy this' - it's all the best products and the food cost is around 27%-30%.

We now grow our own rice in California. We had to put prices up a bit, but we were right to do so because it's so much more delicious. Once people have eaten quality they can't 
go back to the inferior products as they know the difference.

Early in your career, your restaurant in Alaska burned down shortly after opening, leaving you with significant debts. What was the most valuable lesson you learned? I learned patience: to start again and never give up. I always try to be at the front, even by one millimetre, because if I stop trying, then why keep the business? There's no point unless you try to always do your absolute best.

What drives you to do this? To be a sushi chef was my dream. It's why I'm still doing it - it completes my life. I never looked only for profits. 
I like to see the customer eating my food, 
smiling and laughing, because cooking is 
my life.

People all over the world appreciate good food and good service, and if they leave saying 'thank you for a great dinner', that's great as they're the ones who make the reservations and pay the money.

How has your empire evolved from your first restaurant in Peru? From starting in 1987 with a 38-seat restaurant to 25 restaurants around the world and a hotel, it's strange, but it wasn't my dream to have an empire. It was a natural and organic process. When you have success, then investors want to open more.

The first restaurant was like the baby - 
I worked so hard from morning to night - and now it's a family. I just focus on what I can achieve today. I've never sought the opportunities that have come to me, I just took them up when they were handed to me.

How do you support the growth of the business and ensure financial stability? We have two types of restaurant: those that are 100% our own and others that involve local investors as a management company, but we still send the chef and put experienced people there to train a team. When you partner with Nobu, you take the Nobu staff and team so the whole ethos can continue. I travel 10 months a year to check.

How do you choose your partners and new locations? I'm very lucky, as it's a question of sifting through requests to find a partner who'll be the most supportive. I have my sixth sense and if I get a feeling, then we start to negotiate. It's like ping pong. There are the original three partners and then a local partner. I explain what I want, and if they say they can't do this or that, then I don't do it.

I have to understand what they want too, but it's a communication and investors also have to try their best and have the same goal. It needs to be a strong relationship with give and take and then one day, it's bingo and we open.

How does the Nobu concept differ throughout the world? The basic menu is the same, but each restaurant is designed differently. In the Gulf there's no alcohol, so we had to look at different soy sauce and drinks.
We always try to use as much local produce as possible, and sometimes we find things that we can use in the other restaurants, like Dover sole and Scottish scallops.

Europe and London have a different culture, so the fish preparation side is different. The Japanese know how to choose fresh fish, how to slice it, eat it and how to fish - it's in our culture - but the British government says we have to buy wild fish and then freeze it because of the bacteria. In Japan we'd never do this, so we had to develop a technique to defrost it in the best way.

You now have two Nobus in London - were you worried they would cannibalise each other? I worried about this Nobu [Park Lane] when we opened Nobu Berkeley Street, but it turns out that each restaurant has a different character and customer. The Berkeley has music and a bar and attracts a younger crowd, so Park Lane has remained equally popular with its regulars. There are a lot of regulars here who have been coming since day one.

How do you maintain the standards? I have a really strong team - I can't do it all myself. I educate my chefs and directors and I believe that good food is not enough - there has to be good service too, and they need to be equally valued, and then that makes a good restaurant. I spend a lot of time travelling repeating this philosophy. A lot of the general managers are the same people who have been there since the opening. It's not just about caring for the guest, but caring for the staff and then they in turn care about the customers. And of course, we never drop our quality.

You've opened your first hotel - why did you decide to branch out? My partner Robert De Niro, who we call 'The Codfather', owns a hotel in New York already, and one day he asked me why we only do restaurants, why not a Nobu hotel with a Nobu restaurant? I spend my life in hotels, so I know what I'm talking about. It's about the smaller details, the blankets, the bathrobes, the nice creams, as well as other factors like spacious rooms and getting the service right - you never wait more than 20 minutes for room service.

Once we opened the first one, people could see it was a success, then other investors came to me and suggested we do more. We've already got three more projects in the Philippines, Riyadh and Miami.

How do you find the operational challenges
of a hotel compared with a restaurant? The hotel is a big operation and that means a lot of people with a lot of issues and a lot of problems. People learn from mistakes and experience, and I always challenge myself, but the real challenge is to manage the people. But my life is always a challenge to myself.

How have you seen the Japanese market develop over the years in the UK? It used to be very traditional, but I'm very proud of myself that people know so much more about Japanese cooking and food and it has been exported all over the world. But quality is very important. We have always had that, but I now hope that others focus on the quality and the passion behind it, not just the money.

How do you see it evolving from here? I think the health benefits associated with 
Japanese food will see it continue to evolve. 
I see it as becoming more fashionable and exciting as the quality rises and these benefits are recognised.

Nobu in a nutshell

•Nobu was born in Japan and began his career in a Tokyo sushi restaurant. Aged 24 he accepted an offer from one of his customers to open a restaurant in Lima in Peru, but after three years, irreconcilable differences saw him leave.

•After a brief stint in Buenos Aires
in Argentina, he was asked to open 
a restaurant in Alaska. When this restaurant burned to the ground one night, Nobu went to Los Angeles, where he worked at a sushi bar for nine years 
to pay off his debts.

•In 1987 he opened his own restaurant, Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, which was an instant hit. He began his partnership with Robert De Niro, who urged that they open Nobu in New York in 1994. He now has 
25 restaurants in 21 countries, most recently in Cape Town, Moscow, 
Mexico City and Perth, as well as a collection of awards, which include Michelin stars for Nobu New York, Nobu London and Berkeley Street London.

•Most recently, he launched the first
Nobu hotel, a 181-room hotel designed
by the Rockwell Group, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

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