As culinary fads come and go, facing no shortage of new materials and ingredients to spur evolution, few culinary masters can be credited for possessing the dexterity to create cuisine both conceptually, and with style, like chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa. His approach to the dining experience is as thoughtful and heartfelt as the Japanese culture that the cuisine he specializes in originates from—and with over forty restaurants, spanning across five continents worldwide, Matsuhisa is like no ordinary Chef—in culinary circles, he is a legend.
When I learned that Chef Matsuhisa would be in Cherry Creek, Denver, visiting the Matsuhisa location that is a neighbor to the LIV Sotheby’s International Realty office at 100 St. Paul, I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. Interestingly, a small collection of only nine out of the dozens of restaurants that amass his empire (three of which are in Colorado), are befit with the chef’s surname, Matsuhisa, and thus considered by many to be the most revered.
As I sat down across from the Chef, in an austere, reclaimed teak-encased private dining room, the initial nervousness I felt about interviewing the acclaimed chef immediately dissolved at the first upturn of his cheerful smile—an occurrence that took place regularly throughout the course of our interview.
While I hoped our discussion would unearth the reasons behind the celebrity chef’s thirty-plus years of culinary success, a secret I might have naively suspected to be the result of a unique seasoning or Japanese method of preparing fish, I soon discovered that the culinary heights Matsuhisa has achieved, are less about the exceptionally high quality of food he creates, and more about the passion in which he creates it—a notion the Japanese refer to as kokoro.
“Kokoro means, ‘from the heart’,” said Matsuhisa. While difficult to translate, the word in English means the notion of conceptually uniting the mind, body and spirit; making the elements indivisible from one another. While Matsuhisa describes his craft in the simplest of terms, “We make food, customer eats, customer pays,’ it is the kokoro, or passion, that goes into the process, that gives true meaning to why Matsuhisa is viewed globally as a leader in the curation of fine Asian cuisine.
And while it is evident from his recognition as a multiple James Beard Foundation award winner, and most recent recognition, winner of GQ Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2017, Chef Matsuhisa’s professional success is a reflection of harnessing this union as it relates to the culinary arts, however he pointed out that the concept of kokoro is not limited to only food.
“Cooking, architecture, music, painting, real estate, film—I think basically everything is the same,” he says, noting they all require a similar execution of passion. “Kokoro is very important for me because it is my job as Chef to put my heart into my dish. I grew up in Japan and now Japanese food is enjoyed all over the world.
I am very proud.”
Coloradans enjoy more opportunities than most to experience the Chef’s creations, with three out of nine of the Matsuhisa restaurants located in Colorado. I asked the Chef if the mountains hold a special meaning to him and why.
The first Matsuhisa location was established in Aspen in 1998 after the Chef visited the resort town for the first time to participate in the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. The debut of Matsuhisa’s eclectic blend of Japanese cuisine was so successful, his business partners encouraged him to open a restaurant there, which he did as the first Matsuhisa location outside of Chef Nobu’s original Beverly Hills location, in a 120-year-old Main Street Victorian house in downtown Aspen.
“We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first Matsuhisa in Aspen. At first, it was very seasonal—but after 20 years, Aspen grew, and more restaurants are opening. I also like coming to Aspen for nature.”
For Matsuhisa, a trip to check in on his restaurant locations in the mountains is a welcome respite when his businesses have him traveling most of the year.
“I travel ten months a year—I’m always on planes to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo. I see a lot of people, so when I come to Aspen and Vail in the big snow seasons, a lot of my customers come to see me from all over the world. I enjoy spending time with all of my teams and in nature.”
Each of the Matsuhisa restaurants, whether built at altitude or sea level, present Chef Matsuhisa and his team unique challenges. At Matsuhisa’s mountain locations, altitude is both an inspiration and a challenge.
“In Aspen and Vail, because elevation is so high, cooking the rice, making the noodles—it was a little difficult in the beginning. But every year, this gets easier—the chefs know how to cook the best way.”
In fact, the higher altitudes have helped to inspire new dishes. As a result of having to adapt to more challenging cooking conditions, his expert teams have developed new and innovative techniques, which offer Matsuhisa’s guests unique experiences at each of his three Matsuhisa locations. Chef Matsuhisa has also taken inspiration from local favorites. For example, as a play-off of his famous dish, miso black cod, he developed a dish featuring Colorado Lamb with anticucho sauce, which offered in Aspen, Vail and Cherry Creek, is a new crowd favorite.
One thing that has not changed with Matsuhisa’s expansion to Colorado, is the quality of fish served at Matsuhisa.
“In the beginning, it was very challenging to bring sushi to the mountains. We have different restaurants in different cities, but Japanese fresh fish [was delivered only] three or four times a week,” said Matsuhisa.
Where Matsuhisa had to once rely on the delivery of top quality fish by truck, today, modern technology makes it much easier for suppliers to meet the restaurants’ demands, with fish delivered daily via direct flights from his long-time suppliers in Tokyo.
And while the fish served at any one of his establishments is excellent, creating a connection between customer and restaurant is, to Matsuhisa, one of the most important parts about the entire dining experience.
From the reservation process, to the warm welcome from the host, culminating with the last bite of [omosakye], it is the entire experience of the meal at a Matsuhisa restaurant that Chef Matsuhisa takes pride in. “People come, not to just eat the food, they come for the experience, from beginning to end—just like a show,” said Matsuhisa. “My job is to make customer happy from beginning to end.”
With partners, patrons and staff of his restaurants all wanting to learn more about Matsuhisa’s simple, but profitable philosophies, many encouraged him to share the story of his success, which he does in his recently published book titled, Nobu: A Memoir.
“Before the memoir, lots of publishers offered this opportunity [to write a book] to me, and I always said ‘no, no, no’. I do not like the attention on me,” said Matsuhisa. “But now, we have restaurants all around the world, but a lot of people don’t know how we grew and how we got here.”
To Matsuhisa, now 68, more important than recapping his success, is to outline for readers the important, and sometimes difficult, experiences that shaped his life, inspiring them to conquer their own life challenges.
Early in his career, the first restaurant Matsuhisa opened in the United States, in Alaska, burnt to the ground within three weeks of opening. He considered giving up, but decided to start over, and to continue to pursue his dream of making quality food for people with kokoro, despite the odds. It’s this ‘never give up’ philosophy he hopes to pass along to readers.
“I’ve had a long history, with many problems. Not only good news came to myself but also, problems that taught me. Never give up, learn from other people—these are the philosophies I like to introduce from this book.”
Today, Matsuhisa said he receives letters from chefs, and his own managers and employees thanking him because they understand his philosophies better than before. They in turn, try to infuse the passion that drove Matsuhisa’s success in their own work.
“In any kind of business, you have to work with passion,” said the Chef. “I’d like people to understand that passion is important. It’s how to make good teams, grow leadership—and to keep being inspired about your craft every day.”
As we wrapped up our interview, I glanced back toward the long, gleaming bank of glass, which encased an assortment of vibrant, jewel-toned colored fish, like a cresting wave. I watched as Chef Matsuhisa, in his stark-white chef coat, posed for photos, his arms slung around the shoulders of the restaurant’s local sushi chefs, with other members of the kitchen staff eagerly lining up, awaiting their turn for a photo with the prodigy. And while few might ever reach the status of being known as one of the great Japanese culinary masters of all time, I suspect, based on their visible delight at being in the presence of Chef Matsuhisa, that these employees grasp the vison of kokoro, and smile to myself as I walk out of the restaurant doors.