Book review: Nobu, by Nobu Matsuhisa
Along the way, I have faced some major stumbling blocks. But each time, I have managed to overcome them. Whenever I hit an obstacle, I search for a solution and carry on. Gradually, the hurdles that appear before me have become smaller. I find that if I plow ahead, no matter how impossible that may seem, and just do my best, someone is bound to lend a hand. Keep moving forward, even if it’s just a millimeter a day. That’s my motto.
Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa is the Japanese chef behind LA restaurant-scene institution Matsuhisa, and the Nobu restaurants that are now dotted around the globe. His memoir of his life and work philosophies has been translated into English for the first time as Nobu.
It’s a short but very sweet dash through his life, career, and some of the significant events that helped shape his life philosophy, which for Nobu is inextricably linked to the work of cooking and serving that he loves. There’s something truly wonderful and uplifting about reading the stories of people who are so deeply passionate about their work.
Born in Japan, he went international after discovering his deep passion for cooking, working in Japanese cuisine restaurants first in Argentina, later in Alaska. Both endeavors ended in personal failure, including feeling underworked, disagreements over fundamental concepts, financial problems, and ultimately a fire consuming the Alaskan restaurant that led him to feeling suicidal after yet another major setback.
But he persevered, and as in the above quote, he shares the thinking that helped him and, simplistic and minimalistic as it appears on the surface, it’s impossible not to be moved and affected by his words and experiences. Eventually making it to California with connections there, he opened Matsuhisa where he finally enjoyed creative culinary freedom and eventually, more success than he’d anticipated or dreamed of. All of his mistakes or failures led to this important end.
America is where I learned how important praise is for motivating people to improve. In Japan, there is a strong tendency to point out people’s faults. The Japanese even have a saying: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” If I had stayed in Japan and been faced with constant criticism as I tried to create new dishes, I might have given up before even coming close to where I am now and decided to just cook the things I was taught.
I loved one anecdote of serving an American woman sushi, who recoiled and exclaimed that she didn’t eat raw fish (what was she doing in a sushi restaurant, but ok.) He was disappointed that she wasn’t willing to try something new, but he had a spur of the moment inspiration and blanched it with hot olive oil then sprinkled on ponzu sauce. He was delighted when she tried it despite not being actually cooked, and the sweet anecdote shows his willingness to compromise on certain principles while sticking firm to others and sharing what he’s passionate about.
That’s the biggest theme here, and clearly the strongest guiding principle of his life – finding what you’re passionate about and sharing it with others, to broaden their horizons, or simply to put a smile on someone’s face. He stresses that over and over – that’s what he loves most about his restaurant business, just making people smile. He’s a living embodiment of the creed to do what you love because you just love doing it, and money will follow.
Robert DeNiro became one of many celebrity fans of his LA outpost, eventually offering a business partnership to extend to New York, and this became the Nobu that went global. As his profile grew, he was extended other expansion opportunities, some of which he takes while holding fast to his roots and the simple beliefs that made his special brand of cuisine and restaurants so universally beloved.
On his involvement in ventures outside cooking, like a cameo in an Austin Powers movie and his latest — Nobu-themed hotels with Japanese accoutrements, he explains, “My true vocation is, and always will be, cooking, but by following that calling, I received these offers. I wasn’t consciously seeking them, but I think that devoting myself to my profession led to people inviting me to try new things, and that in turn broadened my horizons.”
There’s something reassuring about his stories, whether or not you’re also working in the culinary world – he has a special way of making his advice universal and applicable. I think there are a lot of people who take comfort, either openly or secretly, in tales of others who have floundered and still managed to come out on top. I can’t express how relieved I am by stories like this, the whole book is like a comforting pat on the back and promise that if you work hard enough and don’t quit on yourself, it’s all going to be ok. And the bad things were necessary anyway, so don’t regret them or fret about what they cost you.
Life won’t always be smooth sailing, so when adversity strikes, just tell yourself that you’ve returned to your starting point…I spent the first three years at the bottom of the heap [in the culinary world], washing dishes, making deliveries, cleaning tables, and pouring tea. I believe that I became what I am today because of this experience. If I had skipped that stage, I might have become one of those owners who don’t understand the feelings of their staff…There are countless examples of people for whom an experience at the time was nothing but agony, yet who now look back on it with gratitude. No experience is ever wasted.
He repeatedly espouses the concept of consideration for others, both in how you work with them and how you consider their perspectives.
“What if I were that person…When we pursue this thought to perfection in our work, a single piece of sushi has the power to touch a person’s heart. I have proven that this attitude can eventually spread worldwide. The consideration shown by each of us really does change the world.”
As much as I love “foodoirs”, I admit I don’t devote that much thought to the philosophy behind cooking or restaurant experience. Nobu makes me rethink that, as he demonstrates how much thought goes into every single seemingly tiny aspect of his food, presentation, service and guest philosophies. There’s so much to learn about what’s meaningful to him and why, how he protects his core beliefs, and defends his choices even in business disagreements. He’s been able to prove himself time and again by holding to these core philosophies, and it’s a quietly powerful lesson to learn.
The memoir is a little short and skimps on details in some sections, and sometimes emotional episodes are breezed over quite quickly, considering the impact they must’ve had. When he does focus more attention on a difficult event, the death of someone close to him, he’s open and raw and hard on himself for not being as perceptive of the situation as he feels he should’ve been. It was a strange contrast that made me think he was restraining himself on other topics and must’ve felt so much pain over this one that he let it spill out.
I crossed the sea with nothing but my knife and flung myself into learning other languages, cultures, and values. And I like to think that I helped spread Japanese cuisine to other parts of the world in the process. It wasn’t international awareness or foreign language ability that made this possible. Rather it was the fact that I never wavered in my convictions as a Japanese. If you have convictions, it will always communicate to others…So don’t be afraid to leave home. Get out into the world. Instead of worrying about how to become internationally minded, just go ahead and try it. When you do, you will almost certainly hit a wall, but figuring out how to get yourself over that wall will give you the chance to grow.
Sweet, charming, experienced, and humble, a world-famous chef reveals the experiences that helped shape him and his thinking, and imparts meaningful lessons about life and business along the way.
My rating: 4/5
Nobu: A Memoir
by Nobuyuki Matsuhisa
translated by Cathy Hirano
first English translation published November 7, 2017
by Emily Bestler Books/Atria (Simon & Schuster)
originally published in Japanese in 2014 as
“The Smiling Faces of My Guests Mean Everything”
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.
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