Few chefs have done as much for a cuisine as Julia Child, who convinced a generation of Americans to put down their can openers and make coq au vin. But Nobu Matsuhisa is in the same category: The charming chef and restaurateur revolutionized Japanese food thirty years ago and continues to set the bar for its flawless execution. We caught up with the globe-trotting chef inside Cherry Creek’s new Matsuhisa, where flowers were being arranged and sound equipment was being checked in preparation for a sake ceremony. Keep reading for Matsuhisa’s definition of Nobu style, his thoughts on retirement, and what food he could eat every day for the rest of his life. (Black cod with miso, perhaps?)
Westword: The first Matsuhisa opened in 1987 in Beverly Hills. How is this Matsuhisa that we’re sitting in different from the original? How has the concept evolved over the years?
Nobu Matsuhisa: After 29 years — next year is the thirtieth anniversary — still the Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills is very popular. It’s the smallest of the restaurants, including Nobu and Matsuhisa. If I go to Matsuhisa L.A., it feels like home. Now Matsuhisa is growing. In Colorado, Matsuhisa Denver is number three. Last month, we opened Matsuhisa Paris. In January, we opened Matsuhisa Munich, and before this, Athens, Mykonos and St. Moritz. Matsuhisa Denver brings the total of Matsuhisa restaurants to nine in the world. Matsuhisa Beverly Hills is still like my home. Matsuhisa is my family name. Family name is very important to me. Matsuhisa is like my kids growing up around the world and very special.
Can you help readers who might not be familiar with your culinary philosophy understand what “Nobu style” means?
My basic cooking style is Japanese, especially sushi. I left Japan to see Peru. I found Peruvian ingredients and decided to use them in my food with the sushi and Japanese food I create. Now a lot of people are using Peruvian ingredients. When I started Matsuhisa in 1987, most people did not know ceviche. Now you find ceviche all over the world. I make sashimi, sliced very thin, then put in Peruvian influences like rocotos and garlic and olive oil. People call this fusion, but I don’t like how this sounds. That’s why I like to make my own “Nobu style” of food.
You got your start as an apprentice at a sushi bar in Tokyo. How old were you then, and what led you to pursue a career in the kitchen?
I was eighteen. The first three years I did prep, cleaning, busboy and delivery. Before I started to make sushi, I did training for three years. I was a kid. My older brothers took me to sushi restaurants. I was kind of in shock because there was a lot of energy in the restaurants. It tasted good; it was a good fit for me. Right now, sushi is all over the world, in supermarkets and on every corner. Not just Japanese restaurants, but even Chinese restaurants and Korean restaurants have a sushi bar. Now Japanese food and sushi are very popular. In my generation, sushi was the most high-end food. Kids could not eat it that often, and it was expensive. My brother took me to a sushi restaurant, and I thought, “Oh, wow! I like this. I want to be a chef.” A lot of young kids have a dream of being baseball players, singers, actors, soccer players — but my dream was to be a sushi chef.
As a chef and restaurateur, you’ve earned Michelin stars, you’ve nabbed the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant and have been nominated for James Beard’s Outstanding Chef award an incredible nine times. In a career of highlights, what’s the one that means the most?
Yesterday I explained to my staff here my philosophy. A lot of chefs are looking for the Michelin star and a James Beard “best chef.” I have the Michelin star. Also, I was nominated for the best chef. My vision is, my philosophy is, I’m not looking for the title. My vision is, people come to my restaurants and I’m watching the customers at the tables smile and enjoy the experience. People are eating, smiling, laughing and enjoying eating my food. This is my best moment. That’s why I’m not looking for a Michelin star or best chef [award].
What qualities do you look for when hiring a sushi chef? How do you assess potential to grow into one?
Now what I’m looking for in the chefs is more entertainment, more personality. Sushi chefs are not only making sushi at the counter; they have to be able to communicate to guests: What did you like? What’s next? I look for more like a Japanese-style sushi chef, more detail. Quality is completely different. In the beginning, it was mostly frozen products we worked with. Now the product is almost all fresh. Quality-wise, it’s changed a lot. Sushi chefs in busy restaurants didn’t have to communicate with guests. For these restaurants, I’m looking for sushi chefs to communicate with guests and not just make sushi. More like a Japanese style.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Do you mean last meal?
No, not your last meal. You might have to eat this for the next forty years.
I grew up in Japan; that means Japanese culture. Asian culture has a lot of rice. I love rice.
If you weren’t a chef/restaurateur, what would you be?
I like the arts. Artistry inspires me. It’s like using balance. It’s interesting, the color. And also I want to be a painter.
I’m not implying that it’s going to happen anytime soon, but when it does, what does retirement look like? A beach? A kitchen? Someplace far away from a kitchen?
I chose my job because there’s no retirement. I’m not thinking about retirement. But one day, I cannot take a plane. I cannot walk. I cannot talk. That means it’s time to retire. This is my passion. If I’m thinking about retirement, maybe my energy will decrease. [Now I’m] still able to walk, to stay at the restaurant. I can talk to people, still can create dishes, still can talk to chefs. I don’t want to give up and retire, so I will continue to work as long as I possibly can.
Matsuhisa is at 98 Steele Street; find out more at 303-329-6628 or matsuhisadenver.com.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.