IF YOU SEE WHITE FISH with ricotta, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño or Wagyu tacos dripping with spicy cilantro sauce on a menu today, most likely it's an homage to Nobu Matsuhisa. This food icon continues to spread the east-west fusion word at some two dozen restaurants across five continents and in cookbooks like Nobu West. Matsuhisa has craved the excitement of other countries from his early days: training in Japan at 18, moving to Peru, then on to Argentina, and later, off to Alaska, before settling in Los Angeles. RH contributor Libby Platus caught up with the chef at Matsuhisa Beverly Hills.
RH: Your first restaurant in the U.S. was in Anchorage. Why did you leave Alaska?
Matsuhisa: Fifty days after it opened, a fire completely burned it down. I almost tried suicide!
RH: How were you able to start over in Los Angeles?
Matsuhisa: I worked at a couple of Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles, but I had no money. One guy I met in Peru, who worked at the embassy, lent me $60,000 to open Matsuhisa in 1987.
RH: Why do you think Matsuhisa was a success?
Matsuhisa: It began with 38 seats. I did fish and vegetable shopping, prepping, cooking, and dishwashing myself, and I worked so hard to survive. I was very happy because finally I had my own restaurant. Every month, I sent a couple hundred dollars back to pay off the loan. A lot of people supported me. After a couple of years customers came here because they understood we always serve good product and many interesting foods.
RH: What inspires you to create new dishes?
Matsuhisa: I like to see customers smiling, laughing, enjoying their dinners. I still like to ask customers, “What kind of food are you looking for?” New ideas come from customers asking me to make something. My philosophy is: Never think about what makes money — like mathematics: one plus one equals two, right? Sometimes, one plus one equals plus 100, sometimes minus 100! What's most important? My goal is to make customers happy.
RH: Robert DeNiro is a partner in a number of your restaurants. What makes for a good partnership?
Matsuhisa: He understands my philosophies and he trusts my cooking.
RH: When you opened Nobu LA, why didn't you close Matsuhisa, just up the street?
Matsuhisa: It's very difficult to close because this restaurant was pioneering. We started here. Matsuhisa is my home. This is like my soul. All my passion is here. I thought about closing and moving there. But when the Los Angeles Times mentioned that I was closing Matsuhisa and moving up the street, customers complained, “You can't move!” That's why I finally decided to stay.
RH: Are Matsuhisa and Nobu different?
Matsuhisa: We haven't changed Matsuhisa since the beginning, except it's larger. Customers have an image of Matsuhisa — it's nothing fancy. Nobu LA is more fashionable and attracts younger people. They have the bar. The basic menu at all Nobus is the same, but each chef makes his own special dishes.
RH: With this globe-spanning portfolio, how much time are you on the road?
Matsuhisa: I travel 10 months a year. I have jet lag all the time. I also spend some time in Japan.
RH: What place does Japan have in your life now?
Matsuhisa: I was born, grew up and trained in Japan. I traveled around the world. Finally I settled in the United States. Los Angeles is my home, but I feel I belong to two different countries: Japan is my real country; in America I worked hard and America gave me a lot of chances. Now, the United States is my second country. Maybe, at the end of my life, I'll have to choose where I'll spend my last days. It's a difficult decision. Japan is more comfortable for me, because I was born there.
RH: What would be your special last supper?
Matsuhisa: Absolutely sushi — because I started my business from sushi. Sushi gave me 25 restaurants around the world.
RH: Any particular kind of sushi?
Matsuhisa: Any kind.
RH: With a Peruvian twist?
Matsuhisa: No, no other country's influence. Just traditional Japanese sushi.
RH: What's your go-to junk food or snack?
Matsuhisa: I love good French fries.
RH: You use a lot of produce. Do any farms grow exclusively for you?
Matsuhisa: We're using rice from California. We talk to the farmer about the rice we want and they grow it for us.
RH: Are there products you want from Japan that you still can't get here?
Matsuhisa: Lots of stuff. Japan has four seasons, and each has special vegetables. We can't bring those vegetables into the United States. But we don't need them. I like to use as much local product as possible, especially from California, because it's very good.
RH: What inspired you to start using the Peruvian seasonings and techniques?
Matsuhisa: Before Peru, I didn't know any country but Japan. Lima is very close to the ocean. They have lots of great seafood, and eat raw fish — ceviche. Peruvian ceviche is marinated with lemon juice, onion, salt, garlic and chili paste. It was the first time I ate ceviche. I was so surprised! Then, later, when I opened Matsuhisa, I decided to try ceviche on my menus. Twenty-three years ago, people didn't know about ceviche. Now it's known all over the world. The Peruvian government appreciates me because I introduced ceviche, anticuchos and other Peruvian food in my menus.
RH: What lessons have you learned from all your traveling, traumatic experiences and success?
Matsuhisa: Appreciation, patience and love. Alaska may be my worst memory. But I'm here because I was in Alaska. If I didn't have that Alaska experience, I might not be here.