How did you get in to the restaurant industry?
I was a kid with two dreams, one to be a sushi chef and the other to travel. My father passed away in a car accident when I was seven years old, and after that my older brother used to take me to sushi restaurants. It was a revelation; sushi was very high-end food and I knew immediately I wanted to be a chef. I went to high school then started training with sushi chefs in Tokyo when I was 18. My mentor taught me how to pick good fish, slice it and make sushi. I don’t know any other job. After seven years, a Japanese-Peruvian customer came into the restaurant and asked me to open a restaurant in Peru. That’s why I left Japan.
How did Nobu get started?
I opened Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1987. A year later Bob (Robert) De Niro ate in the restaurant and liked it so much he asked me to open a restaurant with him in New York. The first time I said no, because it was too early. After five years he asked again, and we opened the first Nobu New York in 1994. If he had never asked, Nobu would never have got started, but now we have 40 restaurants around the world.
What's your working relationship like with De Niro?
He’s a big supporter of mine, we’re a good team and good friends. He trusts me and understands what I want. And because he’s a Hollywood star and travels all over the world, he appreciates good food. When we open new locations he comes to promote it. He doesn’t cook at all, but I do!
What's a typical day like for you?
I travel 10 months a year, but am based in Los Angeles when I’m at home. This morning, I woke up in London at 5am and went to the gym. I like to sweat and it’s the best way to fix jet lag. Then I had a shower, breakfast, and went into the kitchen and stayed with the chefs. Chef Thomas [Buckley] has come from Miami to work with the team here on new breakfast and lunch menus. After lunch, I’m going to my room for a nap then I’ll go back to the restaurant and stay all night.
That's quite a long day...
The restaurant industry is very long hours, but I don’t know another job. I don’t mind because I love staying in restaurants and watching how customers are eating, drinking, smiling and laughing. Those are the best moments.
What do you do on your days off?
I don’t want to see anybody else. I don’t hide, but I like to keep quiet with my family and exercise.
What's the biggest challenge of running a global business?
The more restaurants you have, the easier it is opening more. The biggest challenge is finding the best people. We need good teams, and that is very difficult. If you start a company, it will grow like a family – but the education and training is challenging.
It's been more than 20 years since you opened Nobu London, how has the restaurant scene changed over that time?
Before Nobu London opened, I came a couple of times for research and didn’t think there were many exciting sushi restaurants, there wasn’t much variation. But I like London, it has energy and some big chefs have opened here. It’s not overly classical. People are trying to do something new.
Your first two London Nobus are in Mayfair so why open a hotel and restaurant in Shoreditch?
Mayfair had been open 20 years, customers were very steady and high class, and we were already getting second generation diners. Shoreditch is very young and hip with a different feel, and is a challenge. When we launched Nobu New York 24 years ago it was quiet and there wasn’t much exciting happening in the area, now the Tribeca audience has changed a lot – it’s the same in Los Angeles. London is changing, it was time to open in Shoreditch.
Why did you decide to branch in to hotels?
We have nine hotels worldwide now. The idea came from Robert De Niro, who owns the Greenwich Hotel in New York. A lot of Nobu restaurants are in hotels, so one day he said ‘hey Nobu, why are we opening restaurants in someone else’s hotels? Let’s do our own’.
You're also opening the first Nobu residences in Toronto...
It’s the first Nobu hotel, concept and residence, and it’s sold out before it’s even built! It’s very exciting, with 660 condo units and 36 hotel suites on top of a Nobu restaurant. After this, we want to do a couple more hotels with residences.
How big can the Nobu business become?
I’m not looking at the future. The business is not just me, Nobu is a success and grows all over the world because of my teams. They’re a strong family and I like to watch them grow from kids to adults, getting married and having children. One of our general managers, who started Nobu Dallas, Doha and San Diego, proposed to his fiancée in the past two weeks.
What keeps you going?
Cooking is my whole life. I like to create the best food and service, without it there would be nothing to do.
And what of the future?
Nobody knows what’s coming tomorrow, that’s why I try my best every moment. I don’t know how many more years I can live, but I don’t want to give up my passion.
This feature first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.