The man behind the world-renowned Nobu restaurants opens up about his nerve-wracking first time behind the sushi bar, the darkest period in his life, and how he became business partners with Robert De Niro.
Alyssa Braithwaite

14 Mar 2017 - 4:29 PM  UPDATED 15 Mar 2017 - 8:16 AM

"I was so nervous my legs were shaking." International restaurateur and renowned chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa  - in Australia with 11 members of his team this week - is talking about the very early days of his career. 

While his restaurant empire now includes 32 restaurants, it's been a long road. He's survived the lowest of lows - he's spoken publicly about being so affected by career disasters that he didn't want to live - on the way to today's success. 

The high-profile chef is in Australia this week for the Nobu Festival, a two-day culinary celebration at Crown Melbourne from March 15. The festival gives people the chance to take cooking master class with Nobu and two of his executive chefs, who will share the secrets behind their most famous dishes, or attend a cocktail party and taste some of the dishes that have made Nobu's 32 restaurants around the world so acclaimed.

"The Nobu festival has given me the opportunity to bring together a group of my chefs that do not normally get the chance to work together, making this event very special," Nobu tells SBS, as he shares with us the secrets of his success, and the lessons he's learned along the way.

Find your passion and follow your dreams 

"I remember my first time standing behind the sushi bar. I was so nervous my legs were shaking. The sushi bar is a stage and my first time behind it was a nerve racking experience.

"I always knew that I wanted to make sushi. I had a dream and I followed it – the career is a result of this dream and not something that I aspired to achieve from the beginning."

Don't be afraid of set backs - learn from them

Before he found success, Nobu faced some difficult times - he had a partnership fail in South America, a restaurant burn down in Alaska, and a restaurant in Los Angeles that didn't make money for the first two years.

"Looking back at those tough times, I realise that those experiences are what led to this point. I reached a point so low that I didn’t want to live anymore, but the support from my family is what got me through and gave me the will to go on.

"Those experiences are what sparked everything. I learned patience and gratitude."

Japanese cuisine is full of meaning and beauty

"Dashi – the broth that is the basis of all Japanese cuisine – and the umami flavour are the essence of Japanese cuisine.  What makes Japanese food special is also its seasonality, presentation, and theme of the dish. Every ingredient has a meaning on the plate.

"Presentation is just as important as taste.  It conveys the heart the of the chef and what the chef would like to offer the guest.

"The rise in popularity of Japanese cuisine makes me very proud.  It shows me that people welcome healthy and beautiful food.

"Japanese home cooking – mother’s cooking – is my comfort food."

Take inspiration from all around you 

Nobu's restaurants are found across five continents - a total of 32 restaurants in 26 cities around the world.

"My travels have taught about different cultures, customs, religions, and languages.  There are differences between every country, but I also see that all humans are also very similar.  I approach food with this in mind.

"There is a fruit grown in Asia called the monkfruit. This fruit is a natural sweetener that has no calories.  We are using this monkfruit to replace sugar in our sushi rice, desserts, and cocktails.  We are in the process of incorporating this all of our restaurants worldwide.  It is a healthy upgrade.

"Each Nobu restaurant around the world uses ingredients unique to their locale.  Melbourne has access to really great ingredients such as Tasmanian salmon and a variety of white fish. Nobu Melbourne comes out with some fantastic dishes because of the abundance of great local ingredients."

Don't dismiss friends in high places

Robert De Niro co-founded and provided creative direction for all of the Nobu restaurants.

"I met Robert De Niro at Matsuhisa Beverly Hills. I didn’t know what he did for a living when I first met him, but I could tell that he was very interested in working with me. He came to New York and told me about his dream of opening a restaurant and that’s when I felt that I could trust him.  I went into business not with the actor Robert De Niro, but the human."

Keep a healthy work/life balance

"I try and exercise as much as I can, and it is both a hobby and a necessity for health.  Exercise is very important to me. I break a sweat and try and move my whole body. I also believe that you need to push yourself past the point of comfortable to get the most out of exercise.

"If I had more leisure time, I would love to play more golf and try art as well."

Always strive for excellence

"The Nobu customer is someone who believes in the quality of the dining experience here.  They come to the restaurant excited and with high expectations."

"I hope to heighten the quality of all of my existing restaurants.  It’s also very important to me to educate my chefs and continue giving them opportunities."

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