The path to Matsuhisa - and independence
Dressed in only a T-shirt and jeans, I borrowed my friend's car and drove to the site, thinking it was a small fire that would be contained by the time I got there. But when I drove up, I was overwhelmed by smoke. Flames engulfed the building. You couldn't see anything but smoke.
The restaurant was finished. I had no insurance. I was deeply in debt. Two weeks after the fire I returned to Japan. I had nothing to do and no way to work off my debt. Alaska had felt like my last chance to make something of myself. It was as if all my hopes and ambitions had gone up in smoke with the restaurant. I fell into depression and started to think that the only way to get out of it was to kill myself.
But my wife and daughters depended on me. I decided to try one more time. If not for myself, I had to do it for them. This time I stayed in Japan for only a week. A friend in Los Angeles had just opened a sushi restaurant with his family, and he told me to get on a plane and fly to California. Leaving my family behind in Japan, I hunkered down and worked for my friend. Because of my debts, I was starting from below zero.
I worked there for two years, until I received my green card. That's when my friend turned to me and said, "Okay, you've graduated now." He kicked me out. But that was a good thing, a little push to help me get on with my life.
Was that when you started to think again about opening your own place?
Well, first I moved on to yet another restaurant, where I took a sushi chef position, with a bigger salary and more responsibility. I worked there for six and a half years and was able to save a little money. When the owner put the place up for sale, I knew it was time to take another plunge.
But I still didn't have all the money. Luckily an old friend loaned me enough to start my own restaurant. That was in 1987, nine years after the disaster in Alaska. I named the place Matsuhisa. My wife was my only business partner, and I was finally able to create my ideal cuisine. I bought the finest fish, so food costs were always high. For the first two years we accepted only cash - we couldn't afford a credit card machine. We didn't make a profit; at the end of each month we were able to pay rent, our vendors and our bills at work and at home, but that was it. I didn't mind as long as the customers enjoyed the food.
And they did. I didn't do much advertising, but we started to build up a reputation for great quality and service. Repeat customers brought in their friends. Our prices were reasonable, the food was interesting, and I was featured in Food & Wine magazine.
So you were finally happy?
Yes. We had seven employees including myself, and I had no business partner to argue with. It was a small place, but I loved it. Because of our Beverly Hills location, Hollywood stars starting visiting us soon after we opened. Robert De Niro was one of them. A year later he asked me to open up a restaurant with him in New York City.
I flew out to see the building he had bought - a big, warehouselike place - and stayed three or four days. He showed me the location again and started talking about the dream. But after all my bad experiences, I wasn't quite ready to take on another business partner. I agonized for a few days before thanking him and turning him down; he said he understood. And each time he visited L.A., he would stop by Matsuhisa and ask how I was doing.
Four years later De Niro called me at home. "How about it, Nobu?" he asked. I said no, not yet, maybe someday. But he came into the restaurant the next day, and I realized that he was waiting for me. I started to think, If he believes in me this much to wait for me all these years, then maybe he would be a good business partner.
In 1994, Nobu New York became our first joint project. The concept was the same as Matsuhisa, and the food had a big impact. It was always lively inside. We were able to serve delicious food without worrying about the cost.