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New Life For Nobu: The Restaurant Returns

New Life For Nobu: The Restaurant Returns

In town for one weekend to kickstart the reopening of his Hong Kong restaurant, chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa talks about how he fell in love with the culinary world, his relationship with his team and why the return to this city is so important for his brand.

In spite of being one of the best-known restaurants in the world, Nobu’s Hong Kong location was, like countless other venues, unable to escape the wrath of Covid. In March 2020, when the InterContinental decided to close, Nobu shared that fate. But now, almost four years later, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Nobu Hong Kong is back, reopening in the same hotel that now goes under its original name of Regent Hong Kong.

“I’m very excited about the re-opening of Nobu Hong Kong,” chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa says. “Hong Kong is a vibrant city with a rich food culture. It’s a world-renowned dining destination and we’re very excited to be a part
of it, especially with this new space at the reopened Regent. You just can’t beat the stunning view of Victoria Harbour!”

As prolific as Matsuhisa has become, not just in the culinary world but also in pop culture – his restaurants are mentioned in plenty of songs and he’s even starred in movies – you’d think he was always destined to be a celebrity chef. And you’d be right, though it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

His culinary journey began shortly after the death of his father in a motorcycle accident, when Matsuhisa was aged just eight. While dealing with the loss, he and his brothers were raised by his mother and grandmother, who did all the cooking for them. It was this close-knit family unit and their shared meals that inspired Matsuhisa
to enter the kitchen.

“Food was always an important part of my life growing up,” Matsuhisa tells me. “My bedroom was close to the kitchen, so I’d wake up every morning to the sounds of my mother and grandmother preparing breakfast and the fragrance of miso soup.”

By the age of 10, his heart was set on becoming a chef after his first visit to a sushi restaurant. “We sat at the counter and watched the chefs prepare the fish and hand it to us, piece-by-piece,” he reminisces. “I ate it in one bite, and I just said, ‘Wow.’ I hadn’t started cooking yet at that age, but I knew immediately that I wanted to become a chef.”

Eventually, seven years later as an apprentice at Matsue in Tokyo, he stepped into a commercial kitchen for the first time to pursue that dream. But unlike anything he’d imagined, he was relegated to washing dishes and doing deliveries – for three whole years.

“One day, one of the chefs gave me a broken knife and told me that if I could fix it, then I could keep it,” Matsuhisa recalls. “I managed to fix it and when I showed it to the chef, he took it back and just said, ‘Thanks.’ Life as an apprentice was like that – hard work and not always fair – but the owner of the restaurant, whom I looked
up to as a mentor, was a good man, so I stayed with the business.”

Harsh though the kitchen must have seemed for a youngster like him, Matsuhisa remained undeterred, partly thanks to a nugget of wisdom passed to him from his grandmother.

“My grandmother told me two things that have always stayed with me,” he says. “She always encouraged me to do something not for money, but because I believed in it. She also told me never to give up and always keep going, even through hard times.”

His perseverance paid off, and eventually he outlasted that particular chef. That departure created the opportunity for him to become another chef’s assistant, and that was when he first began learning how to make sushi.

From then on, the story reads like a fantasy novel for budding chefs. During his tenure at Matsue, a regular Japanese-Peruvian customer managed to convince Matsuhisa to move to Peru and open a restaurant with him. “It was a difficult decision to leave Japan,” he admits, “but I’d always dreamed of travelling, like my father had in Palau, so I took the leap of faith.”

By 1987, Matsuhisa had moved to the United States, opening his own restaurant for the first time in Los Angeles, which fast became one of the hottest spots in town, attracting everyone from foodies to celebrities. Among the latter was Robert De Niro, who visited the restaurant every time he was in town. Eventually, he brought Matsuhisa to New York to open the famous Nobu New York.

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“One day, Robert De Niro came to visit,” Matsuhisa recalls. “I didn’t know who he was at first, but he asked me to have a drink with him after his meal. He asked me if I wanted to open a restaurant with him in New York. He flew me out to Tribeca, where he had lots of developments. At the time my restaurant, Matsuhisa, was only a few years old and I felt there was still a lot of work to do, so I told him I wasn’t ready. Four years later, he called me and asked me again. I was so surprised that he’d waited and been so patient. Because of this, I knew I could trust him and I agreed to open Nobu New York.”

Now with restaurants around the world, Matsuhisa remains humble, acknowledging his success is not solely because of him but everyone he works with. Knowing that, he also wants to pass down his knowledge
to future generations of chefs. 

“Nobu is not just me – it’s also my team,” he admits. “I have a really strong team whom I’ve spent years working with and educating personally. They go out and teach everyone my philosophy for good food and good service, so we’re all working towards the same goal.

“I’ll always remember what it was like to work in someone else’s restaurant, and what it was like to leave and start my own business. Every young chef is waiting to be ready for that next step, and I want to support that. I never think of it as competition. I think fondly of them all and it’s also good for Nobu.”

As we wrap up our conversation, I ask him what success for Nobu Hong Kong would look like to him, especially now that it’s been offered a second life. Matsuhisa surprises me by making no mention of financial success, profits, or any numbers at all. Instead, it’s all about the customer.

“When I enter a restaurant, I always look around the room at guests’ faces,” he says, smiling. “If they’re happy, smiling and laughing, then I know the restaurant is doing well and providing a great experience. That’s all I want.” 

Source: Prestige Online

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