Nobu Matsuhisa Gets at the Heart of the Matter

In an exclusive conversation with Chris Stamp to discuss the most important ingredient in food and design.

Fashion 
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The legendary Nobu Matsuhisa is more than just your typical celebrity chef. While his restaurant has become a household name amongst the affluent Hollywood crowd, there is more than meets to eye when it comes to Nobu himself. The man behind the ultra-successful fusion of traditional Japanese dishes and Peruvian ingredients has led and created one of the most recognized restaurants in the world.

A luxury chain of Japanese restaurants that span across the world, Nobu has continued to be the symbol of high-quality cuisine to most. While Chef Matsuhisa has garnered many accolades as a Japanese restaurateur, he has expanded his passions to the world of fashion. With the help of Stampd, the world-renowned chef has joined forces with the brand to release the next drop of their all-inclusive Beverly Hills Sushi Club.

The collection is deep-rooted in the chef’s love for sushi and Los Angeles’ growing food culture. In true LA fashion, legendary actor and avid sushi-lover Christopher Lloyd models for the campaign. Combining both designer Chris Stamp and Nobu Matsuhisa’s styles, the collection pays tribute to the sushi club with a new BHSC utility jacket, condition bag and cropped hoodie, all available from September 24 at 9 a.m. PST via Stampd.

In an exclusive conversation between Chris Stamp and Nobu Matsuhisa for Hypebeast, the chef discusses how sushi has grown to become an art form in recent years and how the mentality has carried over to his other projects, including Beverly Hills Sushi Club. Both Stamp and Matsuhisa dive deeper into how leading with your heart is the key part of success and how that mentality in particular, is the most valuable aspect of any project.

Chris: How was your childhood and how did your family support you when you were young?

Nobu: When I was young, my mom and my grandmother taught me how to cook with heart.

C: Were they supportive of you following your dreams as an artist?

N: Well, I have two brothers and one sister and I was the youngest, so they always supported anything that I wanted to do.

C: Did you know that you wanted to work within sushi, like as a medium — an art medium?

N: Well, I was young when my father passed away, and I looked up to my brothers. I wanted to play baseball and hang together but I could not. However, there was one time that one of my older brothers took me to a sushi restaurant and I was so surprised because of the energy from the omakase counter, the chef making each one by one. I took a bite and WOW… It was in this moment that I knew I wanted to be a chef.

C: No way, and how old were you then?

N: I was around 11 or 12 years old.

C: Were you creative in other ways? You know, I see sushi as an artform and a medium. The dishes that you have created at Nobu and Matsuhisa, each of those is a specific artform in a sense, I look at it as a painting or a designed article of clothing. For different artists, there are different mediums, and for you, obviously, it’s premium food and fish — do you have other creative outlets, other than being a chef?

N: Actually, I would say I started with very traditional Japanese style cooking even before sushi. But when I was 24, I moved to Peru. So, I was still cooking in restaurants in Peru but before I only did Japanese style cooking and then when I went to Peru, I saw different ways of cooking food. Now after Peru, back in the US, I am more inspired with ways of how to cook.

C: The Peruvian cuisine mixed with Japanese cuisine?

N: Yes, combining Japanese style food and Peruvian influence.

C: Was there anything like that out there at that time?

N: No. In Japanese cooking, there are not many spices — no garlic, no olive oil, no coriander. And that’s why I was surprised to see cooking the same fish in a different way. For example, Japan’s fresh fish is only paired with soy sauce and wasabi — sushi or sashimi. But in Peru, the fresh fish is prepped with lemon juice, kind of like a marinated fish.

C: So different techniques influenced you in different ways?

N: Yes, cultures influence and these influences are different even when the product is the same. Different ingredients wowed me and from there, I created the Nobu style of food.

“…it was a very dark period for me. But this is also why I am here… all of my experiences gave me something… That’s why I have a lot of patience and I appreciate that. Each day, step by step.”

C: And you went to Alaska at some point, right?

N: Well in the beginning, I went to Peru and stayed for three years, and business was good, but I was young and I got in a fight with my business partner. I then left Peru, went to Argentina for almost one year and then moved to Anchorage Alaska and opened a restaurant. 50 days after, the restaurant caught on fire and burned down — it was a very dark period for me. But this is also why I am here. You know, all of my experiences gave me something, like homework. I made my career one by one. That’s why I have a lot of patience and I appreciate that. Each day, step by step.

C: Those steps brought you here to start Matsuhisa. That resonates with me a lot because when I was younger, I started something in my early 20s and step by step was trying to figure out my path, but everything I went through in my 20s is what allowed me to get to where I am now, and if I didn’t go through those steps, I wouldn’t be able to be where I am now. I learned so much from that time I didn’t even realize that it would influence what I am currently doing.

N: Always, I like to give advice to younger people. Don’t go first. Go through step by step. And even if someone comes and gives you a challenge, just do it, even if this challenge isn’t successful. And people make mistakes in these challenges, but just own it. Experience is very good for you and young people because without experience, you don’t know anything. If you take on a challenge and it isn’t successful, you will learn from it. That is my way.

C: In what you do, bringing different mediums of food together and especially within asian food culture, you are one of the most influential people in that space now. How does it feel to be where you are now? And how does it feel to see the community be so inspired about what you started?

N: I think in Asian food, European food, or any kind of food, the most important ingredient is the heart. So even for photographers, artists, musicians, architects, they learn to work, but without heart, they will never impact people. Especially for cooking, if they just use the knife, pan, and even sushi, it’s not much — it’s just fresh fish and rice. 10 fingers make sushi, and these 10 fingers with heart will impact people when they eat. So feel my heart. You know it’s very difficult to explain how to make the best of the best sushi. My answer is just with heart.

C: I know art is also a big part of your life. You’re a big collector and I have seen a lot of the paintings in your house and in your collection. Are there specific artists that really inspire you?

N: I’d say yes, because I feel that an artists’ heart is from the frame of paint. I like art pieces that fuel my energy. I don’t know about other people but these are only my feelings that I know.

C: The feeling you get — yeah, I’m the same way. You don’t know for certain what it is but there are certain things that resonate with you. Who are some of your favorite artists?

N: Well, there are so many different artists I like. You know I started with KAWS and Wes Lang. I like Brent Estabrook, too. And I like a lot of young artists with, again, heart.

C: Do you have a personal favorite of all your restaurant locations?

N: I like LA. I opened my first restaurant in 1987 in Beverly Hills. At that time, people didn’t know much food. At the same time, NY was already known as the best food city in the US. But right now, I like LA, because the weather is nice and people know good quality food and they respect the food.

C: I was just thinking the Beverly Hills location would be your favorite…

N: I love the Beverly Hills location!

C: That’s how I feel about our store on La Brea. It’s one of the things where it all started for me. How many restaurants do you have right now?

N: We have more than 67 in the world over 5 continents.

C: Wow… and I feel like the one that you started with, the Beverly Hills location, opened in the 80s’ — there’s nostalgia there. That one is probably the most special. What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to?

N: I am living in the US but I was born in Japan. And I still like going to Japan to see the culture, food and people and different cities.

“That’s what really motivated me to work harder — my family, my staff, my people.”

C: What are your hidden talents? Or even something that no one knows about you?

N: Me? I’m very shy! But one thing about me is that I am never late, be it for business or with a friend. For example, if I make an appointment, I am never late — always on time. Maybe it’s the Japanese way but people say time is money. To me, time is respect. So if somebody meets each other and if I am late 5-10 minutes, then that person loses 5-10 minutes. Which is why when they say time is money, to me, time is respect. Me, I’m always on time.

C: Very cool. What do you think is the scariest thing in business?

N: Scariest thing… I always try my best but sometimes I am not enough. It might be because I am busy or something that I can’t control and then people start to complain. So it means 100% of it is my mistake. I don’t like to make mistakes many times, and I always try my best.

C: What would you say is your biggest motivation or inspiration in your career? What has motivated you to want to achieve what you have?

N: Probably family. When I was young, I just worked my job but then I got married and had children and then there was my family, friends, my team and all the people around. That’s what really motivated me to work harder — my family, my staff, my people.

C: What is your favorite part of the Beverly Hills Sushi Club (BHSC) collection?

N: I like the design, especially since I started Beverly Hills first. 35 years ago, sushi wasn’t as popular. Now, many people like sushi and even speaking with Chris Lloyd today, I asked what his favorite food was and he said “I like fish, I like sushi.”

C: Sushi has become this universal language.

N: Yes. Now it’s global.

C: I love it. What would you say is your most prized possession in your kitchen? Or what is one thing in your kitchen that is your favorite thing?

N: Well, why we do what we do is for the customer, right? I’m always concerned that hot foods have to be served immediately, and cold foods have to be served cold. Which means we have to be quick — with heart. I don’t want too much detail after the plate, too much decoration, too much complications. My cooking is very simple with high quality — that’s the most important.

C: What do you want to do next for BHSC?

N: I want to continue working with you, Chris. You are much younger than me, and you always try to make something with quality and nice branding. When I’m traveling, I like wearing comfortable clothes, pants, sweaters, T-shirts. I would like to make BHSC’ traveling-wear.

C: What is the next collection for sushi club?

N: Next collection! So I have three restaurants in Colorado — Aspen, Vail and Denver. Our next collection this year will be Aspen Sushi Club. Even out of the country, in resort areas, like Mykonos, Sardinia, and Saint Tropez, I would like to bring the club there — like Mykonos Sushi Club. This is my dream, step by step, to do this with you.

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