Restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa shares his recipe for success.
Nobu Matsuhisa learned how to make sushi in his native Japan and how to spice it up working as a young chef in Peru and Argentina. He ran a few ill-fated restaurants before finding success with Matsuhisa, in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Nobu, in New York. A customer, the actor Robert De Niro, persuaded him to partner on the latter venture in 1994, spawning a hospitality group that now has 26 restaurants in 13 countries.
Why have you opened so many restaurants instead of focusing on just one?
I like teamwork, and my chefs give me a good education. My background is Japanese, but the people working in my kitchens are from London, New York, France, Italy, China, the Philippines, so I learn from them, too. I like growing - when the quality is controlled. I’m not looking for Michelin stars. I just like to see customers coming in and enjoying the dinner.
Talent selection seems to be important to you.
Launching a restaurant is easy: Find the location, spend $1 million to make it beautiful. But after the door is open, who makes it a happy place? Who’s cooking? Who’s dishwashing? Who’s taking the reservation? Any kind of vision needs people. That’s what makes a good impression. For the first two or three restaurants, I interviewed everyone myself, and my first question was: “Do you like this job?” I need the people who work with me to have the same kind of passion I do, and to be hungry, always trying to do something more.
Lots of chefs are quite tough and vocal in the kitchen. What’s your leadership style?
When I was young, maybe sometimes I was loud. Now I never am. Nobody is perfect - not even me - and people learn from mistakes. They catch up and then go an extra step. So I walk around and see what people are doing. But I never yell.
You started as an apprentice. How did that experience help you in your career?
I was 18 and knew nothing about fish. My mentor taught me the basics. For the first three years, I didn’t make sushi; I washed dishes and cleaned the fish. But if I asked questions, he always answered. I learned a lot of patience. Also not to waste anything: If you buy the fish, you use even the bones.
You’ve also overcome a lot of adversity.
Yes. South America was not a success because my partnership broke up. In Alaska I tried again, but the restaurant burned down after 50 days, and I actually thought about killing myself. Then I moved to Los Angeles and opened a restaurant that didn’t make money for two years. But those experiences strengthened my values in life, my commitment to family, my endurance. Without having gone through those things, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
You’ve worked with your Nobu partners for more than 20 years. Why has that been so successful?
When De Niro first asked me to open a restaurant with him, I wasn’t thinking about expanding. My LA restaurant was busy, the customers were coming and I was happy. Still, I flew to New York, talked to him, stayed three or four days. But I said no, because after what happened in Peru and Alaska, I worried about partnerships. Then, after four years, he asked me again. I had forgotten completely, but he was still thinking of me. He had patience. That’s when I knew I could trust him. Partnerships aren’t only money: You have to work together, understand each other. Once a month or every other month we meet in New York. Any problems are put on the table and we discuss them. This is my way.
Alison Beard is a
senior editor at Harvard
© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.
I learned a lot of patience. Also not to waste anything: If you buy the fish, you use even the bones.