Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, the co-founder and master sushi chef of high-end Peruvian-Japanese-fusion restaurant chain Nobu, built an empire of 29 restaurants across five continents with Robert De Niro in a span of 20 years.
Nobu New York, the chain's first restaurant, celebrated its 20th anniversary back in September, marking a milestone in Chef Nobu's long, twisting entrepreneurial journey. On the heels of the opening of his new restaurant in Mexico, the celebrity chef recounted to Inc. how he got to to where he is now. It's a story of failed restaurants, empty bank accounts, and, ultimately, wild success.
The making of a sushi chef.
Born and raised in Japan, Nobu studied to become a chef and got a job in a Tokyo restaurant when he was 18. Soon, the Japanese-Peruvian workers there persuaded him to move to Peru to open his own restaurant.
Once there, he could not find many of the ingredients Japanese dishes called for, except fresh fish. He used olive oil, garlic, chili paste, cilantro--all ingredients foreign to the Japanese palate. He called his cultural fusion "courageous food." Peru's traditional staples opened up possibilities for many new creations. Little did he know at the time that these concoctions would later attract fans from all over the world.
After three years in Peru, Nobu's relationship with his partner deteriorated and the restaurant went bust. He moved to Argentina, where he could not get fresh fish and the pace of life and business were slow. For someone who loved to be in the heat of a busy kitchen, Nobu found it difficult catering to only one or two customers a day, and decided to move back to Japan. He wasn't home long, though, before a friend invited him to the other side of the world once again.
"I was looking for one more chance to go to another country. So a friend of mine introduced Anchorage, Alaska. They were looking for a partner to open a Japanese restaurant. I talked to my wife, 'Can I have one more chance? I'd like to show my food to different peoples,'" Nobu recalls.
His wife said yes, so he and his family moved to Alaska. He borrowed $15,000 from a friend to jump-start the new restaurant, adding to a pile of debt from the two failed restaurants in South America. Nobu knew that this new restaurant in Anchorage had to be a hit.
After nine months of preparation, Nobu had his grand opening during the first week of October. He continued to work tirelessly as the business began gaining traction over the following weeks. After his first day off--Thanksgiving Day--the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was his partner, saying something about how he should come to the restaurant.
"He said the restaurant was on fire. So, sounds like it's not a good joke," Nobu says.
When he hung up, he heard the sirens. He raced to his restaurant and watched helplessly as it burned. The days immediately after, he couldn't eat, and could think only about the fire. All his money reduced to a pile of ash. Another dream lost.
"I have no choice. Now, I have to kill myself. How can I kill myself? Maybe get hit by a train, a car, fall into the ocean--so many different ways. I was so crazy," he tells Inc.
The building of a brand.
With nothing left of his business, Nobu was crushed. His wife and two daughters packed up and went back to Japan. Not too long afterward, he accepted an invitation from a friend to work at a small sushi restaurant in Los Angeles. With only six seats, it was a humble, quiet sushi bar. He finally got a green card and now Nobu and his family could stay, work, and live anywhere in the U.S.
It was in this small L.A. restaurant where he perfected his signature style. For six and a half years Nobu created Peruvian-influenced sushi and Japanese cuisine--filet of salmon with anticucho sauce and sashimi tacos.
In 1987, a close friend invested $70,000 so Nobu to open his own place, Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills. Making Peruvian-Japanese fusion in the neighborhood of the rich and famous, Nobu's reputation grew. One day, Robert De Niro walked in.
"He liked my food, and invited me to come to New York to open a restaurant," Nobu says.
But Nobu wasn't ready and told De Niro he had to wait. "It's still too early for me," he told De Niro. Another year passed and De Niro made the offer again, but Nobu told him he needed to continue with his current location, perfecting his food and brand and working off his debt.
Four years after De Niro's first offer, Nobu's business started to attract serious attention. He was featured in magazines and newspapers and everyone wanted to eat at Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. The phone rang, and De Niro said, "Maybe it's time to come to New York." This time, the chef agreed.
In 1994, Nobu and De Niro opened Nobu New York. It quickly become an exclusive New York City restaurant, haunted by a motley crew of who's who in celebrity and business circles. The wait to get a table was so long that they had to open a restaurant next door called, appropriately, Nobu Next Door.
The duo, along with a few other partners, opened Nobu outposts all around the world in the ensuing years--Dubai, Cape Town, Manila, Mexico City, Budapest, Moscow, and more.
Nobu attributes his success today to learning from failure after failure. He believes in going slow and steady and dealing with challenges head-on. As he learned in Peru, ingredients can be changed to make something brand new. But one ingredient that Nobu says he never left out, and one that is key to his success, is "kokoro," or in English, your heart.