It was a childhood loss that led chef Nobu Matsuhisa, 68, to his calling: The death of his father at a young age underscored the importance of home cooking. “A mother or grandmother cooking for children imparts such love,” he recalls. “This was an inspiration to me, and now I see how this influenced my love of food.” At age 11, he became fixated with sushi in particular. “I saw other boys in the park with their fathers, playing with footballs and model planes, and it made me upset. To cheer me up, my older brother took me to a sushi restaurant, and then I realized that I really wanted to be a sushi chef. This became my dream.”
While a sushi chef at Tokyo’s Matsuei, Matsuhisa met a Peruvian of Japanese descent. One day, the patron asked Matsuhisa if he would consider moving to Peru to launch a sushi place. “I always wanted to travel the world and prepare sushi for customers and make them happy.… I agreed at once,” says Matsuhisa. “Peru is where I started experimenting with flavors and creating dishes that went beyond what you would find in a traditional sushi restaurant. Many of the dishes that we are known for today are derived from that time in my life. Jalapeno, cilantro, citrus, onion and fresh fish and vegetables are at the root of Nobu-style cuisine.”
After Peru, Matsuhisa opened an ill-fated restaurant in Alaska that was destroyed by a fire. He returned to Japan, but Los Angeles eventually beckoned. There, he spent eight years working at two sushi restaurants, saving money and taking on more responsibility. In 1987, he branched out on his own with Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills. The Nobu concept started in the early ’90s in New York and has since gone global.
Today the first Northern California outpost of Nobu arrives in The Epiphany Hotel (180 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto). “My passion comes from cooking food that makes people happy,” he says. “So I love to open new locations; serve new guests; and be inspired by local flavors, ingredients and palates.… It’s like technology—there are always upgrades, new elements and better quality ingredients. I don’t like to stop and say, ‘OK, this is good.’ I’m always looking to make things better.”
Originally published in the July/August issue of Silicon Valley