In an intimate setting at his Matsuhisa Mykonos restaurant, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa sat down with Citizen Femme’s Katie Silcox to talk about his life and career, as well as to share the recipe to one of his iconic dishes.
Along with five of his global master sushi chefs, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa was recently in Mykonos for the Nobu Food Festival at Belvedere Hotel. Over coffee, he told us about his first memories of cooking (which are probably not what you’d expect) and spoke about his career highs and lows, partnership with Robert De Niro, places he likes to visit in Mykonos, and upcoming restaurants and hotels.
He also let us in on the recipe for one of his most iconic dishes, along with tips on how to make it at home. Read on to find out more.
Tell us your first memories of cooking:
[Laughs]. My mother and grandmother would always cook when I was a child. But one day there was nobody home except me, and I was hungry so I was looking for some kind of… instant ramen, because I could just use hot water to make it.
Was it tasty?
Kids don’t know much about whether it’s good. I was just hungry. It’s very difficult for kids to cook as they can’t use the knife or the gas, so it was the best option.
Your first restaurant opened in Peru in 1972 – around 50 years ago – what led to this?
I was training in Tokyo from the age of 18. There was a regular customer from Peru who came to visit the restaurant and, about seven years after I started my training, he asked me to open a restaurant in Peru with him. I had a dream to leave Japan already; my father passed away when I was eight-years-old and there was one photo of him with the native people of Peru. I thought I’d like to go like my father did. It’s easy for younger people to decide to go, and I decided it was a good time to follow my dream.
How has the global restaurant scene changed since then?
Cuisine used to be exclusively Italian, Chinese, French or Japanese, etc, but now even French restaurants use soy sauce and the Japanese use caviar and foie gras. Italians use fresh, raw fish – crudo. Food is more international now. Also people [customers] know more about high-end ingredients and the quality of food.
The first Matsuhisa opened in LA (1987) and the first Nobu opened in New York (1994). What do you see as the difference between a Matsuhisa and a Nobu restaurant?
We have 10 Matsuhisa restaurants in Europe. Matsuhisa – such as here in Mykonos and also in Sardinia, Saint-Tropez and St. Moritz – are more exclusive, and in seasonal locations. The Mykonos team will be here while the restaurant is open during summer and will go to St. Moritz during winter. Nobu is found more in capital and bigger cities, year-round.
Both have become two of the world’s most-loved restaurant brands. Did you expect such success?
I’ve never thought about trying to be successful. I think this is because of my past experiences; one of my early experiences was a restaurant I had in Alaska. It caught fire and I lost everything. I almost tried to kill myself. Because of this experience, I never rush. I like to take things one step at a time. But, I tried my best and then one day I was here. So, no, I never think about success.
For Nobu, you partnered with Robert De Niro. How did this happen?
My first Matsuhisa restaurant opened in 1987 [in Beverly Hills] and his friend brought him to eat there in 1988. He loved it. That was the first time I met him. He lived in New York but would always come to the restaurant when he was in LA and say hi; many times I was cooking and would make something for him. Then one day he asked me if I’d like to open a restaurant with him in New York. I was surprised, but went to New York to meet him and discuss it. We talked about locations but my decision at that time was ‘thank you but no thank you’. I wasn’t ready. Because of my Alaska experiences I was so scared in case something would happen – I didn’t want to be back in the position I once was. Over the next four years he kept coming to my restaurant – and then he asked me one more time. I was surprised and thought ‘wow’ – not only did he want to open a restaurant business, he was waiting for me. At that point I thought I could trust him and we entered a partnership.
Matsuhisa Mykonos is celebrating 20 years this month. What is special about this location in comparison with other Matsuhisa restaurants?
This was my first Matsuhisa in Europe but it has almost the same feel as it did when we opened 20 years ago. Though every time I come here, everything is upgraded – even the trees and flowers used to be smaller and are now much bigger. It feels like my European home. It also now has the only Omakase Bar in Mykonos [open until 28 July 2023, accommodates 10 people per sitting].
What is your favourite dish to eat on the menu here?
It’s really difficult to decide a favourite. I love sushi and sashimi. I like meat, I like miso. It also depends on the season. I like seasonal products; in Mykonos that’s Barbounia – that’s the Greek name [Red Mullet in English] and sardines. I like the local fish here.
How often do you visit Mykonos?
Once a year.
What are your favourite things to do while on the island?
Well, it’s a routine. I wake up, have coffee here at Belvedere Hotel and meet Tasos Ioannidis – my European Matsuhisa business partner – to talk about how the night before went at the restaurant. Then I go to the beach to swim, relax and eat lunch at a beach restaurant. Then I’ll come back to the hotel and take a nap before working again.
Without saying one of your restaurants, where in the world have you tried the best sushi?
In Japan. There are Michelin star restaurants, but even small sushi bars with four or six seats are so nice – and very difficult to get reservations. Sometimes you have to book six months or one year in advance.
You’ve very kindly shared your recipe for Yellow Tail Jalapeño with us. Will it ever taste as good if we make it at home?
The most important thing is to get fresh Yellow Tail. You can make the sauce exactly as the recipe, then use a sharp knife to slice the fish and then put it on the plate with the sauce. That’s it…
What do you eat when at home?
My wife cooks at home. I like simple Japanese food such as grilled fish, miso soup or steamed rice. Sometimes I’ll eat sashimi with rice or a salad. But very simple, light food. I also never drink alcohol at home.
Any new restaurants or hotels on the horizon?
Yes, we are opening Matsuhisa on the Greek island of Paros very soon – within the next week. Nobu hotel and restaurant has just opened in Seville, Spain. Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants are still doing well and people often ask us to open more, but we have to discuss locations, partners, money…. Then we need people to work with us: chefs, management, etc. So we have to build the teams first, then take the next steps.
What are you doing when you leave Mykonos?
I’m going to London for five or six days; then back to LA for one day; then New York; then from New York back to LA, on the way to Mexico. It’s all work related.
That’s quite a schedule. Do you ever take holidays?
Yes, I take January after New Year – and also the month of August.
[Interview has been edited for clarity]
NOBU MATSUHISA’S YELLOW TAIL JALAPEÑO RECIPE
Serves two as a side or starter
- Six slices (70g) of Yellow Tail
- A bunch of coriander leaves
- A touch of garlic puree
- Six slices of jalapeño (green chilli)
- 50 ml yuzu soy (20ml yuzu juice and 30ml soy sauce)
- Slice the Yellow Tail into six thin pieces.
- Lay the six pieces onto a plate.
- Place a touch of garlic purée on each piece.
- Place one slice of jalapeño on top of each slice.
- Place the coriander leaves.
- Add the yuzu soy.
CHEF NOBU’S TIP FOR MAKING IT PERFECTLY:
Use fresh Yellow Tail and a sharp knife to slice it.
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