Born and raised in Saitama, Japan, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa — better known as “Nobu” — says he gained a love for cooking from his mother. He went on to learn the art of sushi making as a young apprentice at a respected sushi bar in Tokyo. It was there when, at age 22, one of his regular customers invited him to open a restaurant in Lima, Peru.
Forty-plus years later, chef Nobu oversees more than 30 locations of his famous restaurants — Nobu and Matsuhisa — in 28 countries across five continents.
We caught up with the acclaimed chef during the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to talk about his latest ventures, what goes into creating his iconic dishes and what he loves about Miami’s beaches.
What’s inspiring your passion behind your cuisine these days?
My passion for cooking comes from my mom. My mom was always cooking — breakfast, lunch and dinner. She made miso soup, Japanese pickles, grilled fish, and I was tasting. The cooking is very simple, basic, with fresh ingredients.
It’s not like the new generation of people. They go to supermarkets, maybe buy the bento bowls or frozen foods. My generation’s mothers never bought these foods. They always cooked from scratch, fresh ingredients. So, my mother is where I get my taste for cooking, my flavors.
How do you incorporate your mother’s influence into your cooking?
For 10 months out of the year, I visit different countries. The cultures are different. The products are different. The markets are different.
I like to use as many local ingredients as possible. I cook for the occasion and what presents itself. I’ll go to the fish market, find fresh local product and create a dish for that food item.
You travel 10 months out of the year. Which country, culture or environment has inspired you the most?
Japan is my pillar. It is a very passionate [country]. A passionate culture. It is especially passionate about the food. Japan is my most inspiring country.
If you have a first-time customer dining at Nobu Miami, what do you recommend he order for his first Nobu experience?
We have very large menus at Nobu. Because a lot of customers now are gluten-free, vegan, [or want their] sauce on the side these days, we have to cater to that. If you want vegetables, chicken, beef, noodles, sushi, sashimi, fish, we have it. So, any kind of customer, we can accept.
I recommend my signature dishes. The classics: sashimi salad, salmon, white fish, scallop, miso soup, sushi roll, rock shrimp tempura. [Editor’s Note: Chef Nobu insists dishes are for sharing, so we also suggest trying the multi-course tasting menu, omakese style. Nobu Miami at the Nobu Eden Roc now offers a lunchtime tasting menu and Sunday brunch that we highly recommend.]
What goes into your process when creating a new menu item?
I go to the seafood market, see what special products they have, look for interesting items, and I bring them to the kitchen.
Then, I try it many different ways. It is a long process. It is never immediate. I will see what I want to try with it that day and try it three, four, five times.
I put it on the menu, but not everything is a success. People either like or they don’t like it. If 200 people like, and two don’t, it is a success. But even then, I still try to make it better.
Creating a menu is like fashion — always trying new styles, visually creating, new flavors. Always creating and designing.
Your restaurants are in glamorous places like Miami, Los Angeles and New York City. How do you choose the locations for your restaurants?
We’re in five continents right now. I personally like the bigger cities. People understand food. It’s easy to get the ingredients. The cities are walkable. That’s what I like. The bigger the city, the better.
Over the past 10 to 15 years, many talented chefs have tried to open restaurants and have had a hard time staying open. What do you think has made you so successful?
People come to restaurants not just to eat. It’s a process. You come to a restaurant, it starts with a great host, you sit down, the waiter gives good service. Then, the dinner comes.
My concept starts with the service. It’s about the service, the food and, of course, the beauty. And we’re always striving for the best. You want the customer to feel the passion you do. This is why passion is so very important for success.
Now that you’ve added “hotelier” to your resume, what is it that you look for in a hotel?
A comfortable bed. Nice pillows. Big space. Clean. Good service. This makes the hotel.
When you’re not eating at Nobu, where do you like to dine?
I travel to different cities every couple of days, and still I go to Nobu. I might have a salad one day, a couple of pieces of sushi another day or beef. I like to go to where I am most comfortable — and I don’t have to pay.
You’ve been in Miami for almost two decades. When you have a moment to relax, what do you like to do?
The beach. In the mornings, I also like to start with a swim in the pool for exercise. I have been in Miami for 18 years. And it is still the beach. Miami has beautiful beaches.