Chef Nobu Matsuhisa on Fashionable Food, Paris + Yuzu

Nobu Matsuhisa

Last week the OpenTable team threw our third annual Champagne and sushi party at Matsuhisa during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. We were honored to be joined by Nobu Matsuhisa himself, the renowned chef and international restaurateur behind more than 30 restaurants featuring his signature Japanese fusion cuisine.

We took the opportunity to ask Nobu all about his success, challenges, and what he’s learned along the way. Read on for his best advice.

How would you describe your approach to the restaurant business? 

We have great teams. My philosophy in the restaurant is good food, good service. Good food comes from a chef training a younger chef. For service, we have management service teams also training a Matsuhisa style of service. The Matsuhisa style of service is not formal-formal. But we have great product — great quality fish — and the unique Nobu-style of food here. It’s the combination of food and service and good teamwork that makes the customer feel good.

What advice would you give to someone else starting out in the industry right now?

First of all, I like to say: patience. Try your best. Never give up. They have to learn technique, how to slice fish; technique is never finished. You always have to be looking for the better way. Never stop, never give up.

Do you feel like you’re still perfecting your technique?

I do. [Laughs.] Even me, I learn from the young chefs. I’m traveling 10 months of the year (I have restaurants on five continents) and each continent, each country has new products. I’m Japanese, I’m in the United States, but still I’m learning from the Middle East, Australia, all different countries.

Nobu Matsuhisa

What’s your take on the growing interest in Asian and Japanese food and ingredients in the U.S. today?

My first restaurant opened in 1987, Matsuhisa Beverly Hills. Right now, edamame is popular all over the world. And yuzu juice — when I started they only sold small bottles in Japanese markets. I bought it and started using it. Now it’s a big, 1.8-liter bottle — most chefs are using this yuzu. Yuzu inspires chefs all over the world. Soy sauce’s history in the United States is under 60 years. But in Japan, of course, it’s 700 years already. And miso as well. This kind of Japanese product inspires the world.

What I do is, what’s the next step? For example, miso becomes miso paste and soup. I tried to make miso dried. Now at Matsuhisa and Nobu the most popular dish is sashimi with dry miso, and baby spinach and baby artichokes in a dry miso salad. Nobody [else] uses it — only here.

What’s your vision of hospitality?

Always I stay on the customers’ side. If you’re on the restaurant’s side, it’s how many people are coming, how much sales, money — this is the business. This is important, but I like to stay always on the customers’ side.

A customer comes, makes a reservation, sits at the table, spends money. We have to make the customer stay happy eating and enjoying their time at dinner. Otherwise, if you are just thinking about money and turning the tables — the customer will never feel happy.

In this industry, restaurants fail all the time. Why do you think Matsuhisa and Nobu have been so successful and long-lived?

It’s good teams. For example, Todd [Clark, Partner at Matsuhisa Vail/Denver and Director of Operations at Matsuhisa Aspen/Vail/Denver] — I don’t remember how many years he’s been working here. Now he’s part of the partners. A lot of people in my restaurants start as dishwashers, bussers, waiters, and become captains and managers. Just like a family, it grows. This kind of teamwork is very important.

Everybody is looking for a chance, not the restaurant owner only. People are working hard, always looking for opportunities.

Are there any trends in the industry you’re excited about today?

Food is like fashion, but you can’t be too fashionable. All over the country people have to eat, but fashionable food can’t be eaten every day. My food and concept are very simple, but always with a twist, like a new product or ingredients and presentations. I like to see a customer say, “That’s beautiful,” and after they eat, “That’s great.” It makes them happy.

Nobu Matsuhisa

What are your biggest challenges as a restaurateur today?

With the restaurants growing, it’s always a challenge. New restaurants are coming so we need a new chef and new management team; training is very important and very challenging. If each restaurant has good leaders, it means the restaurant is going to do well. It’s not only me, it’s the teams.

You have restaurants all over the world. What have you learned from operating in so many different countries?

After it opens, we have to do it. It’s not a challenge anymore. It’s not exciting. [Laughs.] But I don’t want to be afraid to make mistakes. I tell people, don’t fret about mistakes. If you make a mistake, learn from it.

It is a bigger challenge, opening in other countries — cultures are different. When I first opened Matsuhisa in Paris [in 2001], we had to close. We just opened again in Paris. It wasn’t time then, but the culture and tastes have evolved. Now, it’s a success.

Where do you find inspiration?

It depends on new products, the fish market, sometimes books, talking like this, and seeing different cultures of people. So many different ways.

What’s your favorite thing about Aspen Food & Wine?

I come once a year, and a lot of friends and chefs come to see me. That’s the most exciting.

Olivia Terenzio is the Content Marketing Manager at OpenTable and editor of Open for Business.