When Robert De Niro first ate at the Beverly Hills hotspot Matsuhisa, he was so taken by the inventive cooking that he made it his mission to strike up a friendship with the chef. A native of Saitama, Japan, Nobuyuki Matushisa had spent time living and working in South America, and he found ways to seamlessly fold bright Peruvian flavors into the food of his homeland. He didn’t know it at the time, but his brazen approach to fusion was about to alter the meaning of Japanese cuisine in America—and turn “Nobu” into an international brand name.
In 2004, Matsuhisa joined forces with De Niro and restaurateur Drew Nieporent to open his eponymous flagship in NYC. Twenty years later, in a city dotted with indistinguishable Japanese joints, the Tribeca institution remains a destination for classics like jalapeño-accented yellowtail (now an ubiquitous combo) and Chilean sea bass with miso. It has also spawned a global empire, with Nobu restaurants in far-flung locales like Turkey and Hong Kong, and even became a favored point of reference for rappers (“I might walk in Nobu with no shoes,” warns Kanye in “See Me Now”) boasting about their lavish lifestyles.
I could never have predicted how far I’ve come. The greatest lesson is patience.
His father was killed in a car accident when Nobu was just a child, but the tragedy fostered a close-knit relationship with his mother, grandmother, and brothers, often revolving around the kitchen. “My mother and grandmother taught me about traditional Japanese food as a young boy,” he recalls. “They also told me food was not just cooking, but a way to show care. My love for food originated from them. Just like them, I put in my heart when I cook. “
His first big break came in the form of an apprenticeship at Matsuei in Tokyo, where “continuous effort” eventually helped him to become sushi chef. “I always remember the first time I went to a sushi restaurant in Japan. My brother brought me when I was around 11 years old. There was a lot of energy, with sushi chefs welcoming guests and yelling out names of fish and food. I was very taken by the experience, and I knew at that moment that I wanted to become a sushi chef,” he says.
When he moved from Japan to Lima to open a restaurant with his business partner, Nobu discovered that Japanese ingredients were scarce. Being forced to experiment with South American ones proved to be serendipitous, as it eventually led to creations like miso-anticucho sauce and the reimagining of raw, spicy tiradito—all hallmarks of his distinct culinary imprint.
“I could never have predicted how far I’ve come. Everything I do is step by step. The greatest lesson is patience. I’ve made mistakes in the past and have had big obstacles in my career,” he admits. “But I remained passionate and dedicated to cooking and making others smile with my food. “
For three decades, Nobu fans have been smiling over his signature dishes, from that now-ubiquitous lacquered black cod to squid masquerading as pasta. Here, he breaks down 10 of his greatest hits from the journey so far.
Hamachi with Jalapeño
Hamachi is Japanese yellowtail grown on fish farms and raised on grain. The process gives them a milder taste and whiter meat than fish caught in open seas. I put the hamachi-jalapeño combination together one night for my staff. There was a lot of yellowtail left over from an event that day and jalapeño was the only spice remaining. It is a simple dish, but full of flavor; the heat of the jalapeño enlivens the milder yellowtail. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
Black Cod with Miso
The black cod with miso is one of our most popular dishes at Nobu. It is actually a traditional Japanese dish that has been around for centuries. I just made it ‘Nobu Style,’ a little bit sweeter. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
Tiradito is a Peruvian dish similar to ceviche, but without onions. When I lived in Peru, I noticed it was a lot like Japanese Usuzukuri-style sashimi. I decided to deconstruct it by using all the ingredients, layering them on top of each other: fish, spice, yuzu juice, salt, and cilantro. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
Whitefish with Dry Miso
This dish was created for the Nobu Now cookbook and has quickly become a new classic. We experimented with dehydrating different items, including soy sauce and various miso pastes. The miso came out with a great depth of flavor and a lot of umami, so I thought, why not use this as a seasoning instead of soy sauce? We combine yuzu juice and extra virgin olive oil on the sashimi and then sprinkle the dry miso, which adds texture, saltiness, and a savory umami flavor. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
Soft-Shell Crab Roll
At Matsuhisa, I experimented with soft-shell crab and found frying was the best way to cook it. I’d serve it different ways, but one day a customer asked if I could make a roll out of it, so I made it with vinegar rice and nori. To serve it, I used the filling of avocado, flying fish roe, asatsuki (chives), and sesame seeds. Finally, I wrapped the roll in a single sheet of cucumber, which added fantastic color, crunch, and flavor to the final roll. (Photo: Eiichi Takahashi)
The rock-shrimp tempura is a true ‘fusion’ of cultures. Around the world people tend to dip fried items in ketchup with mayonnaise—the resulting sauce is so wrong for fried food, but so good. I love the combination of sweet and delicate rock shrimp in Japanese-style tempura, and a sauce made from chile mayonnaise with yuzu juice and shiitake. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
When I first served sushi in Los Angeles 30 years ago, a lot of people liked their fish cooked, not raw. I once had a customer send back a sashimi dish because she wouldn’t eat raw fish. I wanted to find some way to salvage the dish, so I grabbed hot oil that was sitting on the stove and poured it over the fish, searing it on contact. The customer was hesitant when I asked her to try it, but she ate every bite. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
This is another dish inspired by one of my customers. A regular guest brought his son in for dinner and requested a special dish that the young boy could enjoy. I was aware that he was afraid to try squid because of its tough and chewy texture, so I cut it like penne pasta and tried sautéing it, giving it a slight crunch. I served the dish with vegetables and garlic sauce, calling it “pasta,” and the boy really enjoyed it. It’s become a signature at my restaurants and I’ve noticed people are attracted to the dish because of the word pasta in the name. (Photo courtesy Nobu)
The sashimi salad was another way to get people to try raw fish and truly enjoy it. I noticed they love salads, so I tried to combine salad and sashimi together. I placed the seared sashimi with the greens, dressing it with an onion and soy-based vinaigrette. This dish really opened up my customers to try other types of raw fish. (Photo: Steven Freeman)
Every part of the tuna is delicious, but some cannot be served as sashimi or sushi. One day, I bought a whole tuna, cleaned the fish, and was left with the parts some would just discard. These actually have a lot of flavor. I had a phone call so I had to put the fish in the freezer after chopping it up. Afterwards, I realized I forgot it there. I came up with this dish to make use of the parts that had nice texture as the edges got frozen. I genuinely enjoyed the texture change as the frozen tuna parts melted in my mouth. I decided to add garlic and onion, then serve it with dashi wasabi pepper sauce and caviar. To recreate the texture, I serve it over a bowl of ice. (Photo courtesy Nobu)