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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

Jun 14, 2016

Talking Story with Chef Nobu

On a Sunday morning in Honolulu, standing on the top floor of the IBM building, celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa takes a moment to gaze at the Pacific Ocean.

A seemingly endless swath of blue stretches out before him, a gentle smile rests on his tanned face. The chef, routinely regarded as one of the most esteemed in the world, has amassed more than 30 Nobu restaurants in just over 20 years and has spent the morning touring Ward Village in preparation for the opening of his latest Nobu, located on the ground floor of Waiea. Between a blistering schedule, Chef Nobu sat down with us to discuss what lead him to Ward Village, the story behind his growing restaurant empire, and the secrets to his success.

What was it about Ward Village that compelled you to open Nobu in our neighborhood?

This area is completely new and exciting. I feel like Oahu is changing and Ward Village is becoming a big draw for the city. My feeling is that Ward Village is at the heart of Honolulu's transformation and we wanted to be a part of this development.

Could you ever see yourself owning a home here at Ward Village?

I actually just finished sight seeing the grounds. It's very beautiful and these views are breathtaking. But currently, with my schedule, I'm traveling 10 months a year. But if I ever stop travelling so much or even slow down, I would love to live here. It's a new area and it's exciting and the view from the top floor is so beautiful.

Let's step back for a moment. For those of us who may be unfamiliar with the story behind Nobu, can you please explain how the restaurant came to be?

One of my first restaurants, Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, opened in 1987. Robert De Niro became a customer and good friend and convinced me to open our first Nobu in New York City in 1994. The restaurant was a success because we had a great team, great service, and of course great food. Then, on the heels of the first Nobu, we opened another and then another. We had an understanding at that point as to what makes a restaurant successful: You need a good team, you need to utilize good products, and you need a well-designed space. From there, we continued to expand, always upholding the quality that made us successful at our first restaurant. Now, my team and I travel to all of our restaurants across the world to ensure that we're keeping our standards.

You have 32 restaurants stretching over 19 countries, how do you maintain the standard of perfection that has made Nobu famous?

We opened our first Nobu more than 20 years ago. Since then, we've all become a family. All of the restaurants feel like a family to me. I have a great system of management underneath me checking all the details and basically doing quality control over all of our restaurants across the world. So, there's me, Nobu, but there are many, many others beneath me—a family—ensuring that we continue upholding our quality.

You were really at the forefront of fusion cuisine and were known for melding an array of flavors into your menus. For your restaurant here in Hawaii, are there specific local flavors you'd like to incorporate?

We try to use as many local products as possible in our restaurants and I think it's important to support local businesses as well. In the past 25 years, since I've been coming to Hawaii, I've seen the amount and quality of produce grow very fast. When I first came, the fish was very good, but now the agricultural side of the island is really coming together. So yes, we try and use local ingredients on our menus as much as possible.

Along those lines, the culinary scene has also grown very fast over the past two decades. Do you have a favorite place to eat when you travel to Honolulu?

I really like local food. I travel 10 months of the year and I typically only spend two or three days in one place, so I'm not always able to try all of the new restaurants. I like to taste what's going on at my restaurants and learn new things there. But I do love Hawaiian food.

I understand that you've recently gone from restaurateur to hotelier and have opened a line of Nobu hotels. Where did that idea come from?

The idea came from my partners and Robert De Niro. We have many Nobu restaurants in hotels. One day, De Niro asked me: Why are we opening a Nobu in someone else's hotel? Why not make our own? So that's what we've done. Our first hotel opened in Las Vegas. From there, we worked with other investors to open another in the Philippines. We'll be expanding to Miami, Mexico, Chicago, Saudi Arabia, and many more locations. It's very exciting.

You've had a very successful career. Looking back now, what are you most proud of?

We have Nobu restaurants on five continents. I feel like I have the biggest family in the world and people are still saying that Nobu is the best Japanese restaurant. We had almost three million guests eat at our restaurants in one year. So I'm very proud of how far we've come. We've accomplished quite a bit.

If you could go back in time and give yourself some advice, what would it be?

My mentor taught me well, so I would say to remember his advice: Be patient, try your best, appreciate what you have, and focus on your food. Also, cook with your heart. If you keep trying your best, good things happen. It's important to remember to take it one step at a time. Eventually, you'll be able to look back and see how far you've come. It's a great feeling.

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