Chef Nobu’s Insider Guide to Tokyo
08 April, 2019
There are few chefs as recognisable as (the smiling) face and name of Chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Since the opening of his first Matsuhisa restaurant in 1987, Nobu - the chef, the restaurant and now the hotels - has largely been credited with bringing Japanese culinary culture to the world stage.
Taken in hand by his older brother to Tokyo's sushi spots as a child, Nobu watched in awe as chefs sliced fish and rinsed rice. All the while his love affair with sushi was igniting and his culinary aspirations being born. Learning the virtue of patience by washing dishes and the art of finding a good cut at the fish market, Nobu is as famous for his humble disposition as he is for his Peruvian-Japanese cuisine - a fusion courtesy of his three years spent in the kitchens of Peru.
After a series of trying times, including a tragic fire at his Alaskan restaurant, Nobu and his family made it to LA where he perfected his signature style and opened his own place, the doors of which were flung open (both literally and metaphorically) by his now business partner and close friend, Robert de Niro, who had to plead with Nobu to open his first NYC restaurant. The rest is history in the form of a number of Michelin-starred restaurants and boutique hotels across the world.
Thanks to all its bright lights, billboards and VR cafés, it's easy to become distracted by Tokyo's play-things - however antiquity and heritage run deep, even in the city's most crowded streets, if you know where to look. Nobu takes us to Tokyo's hidden pockets of quiet, the home of "the best dumplings in the world" and the store where you can find anything and everything.
When you first started out, did you ever dream your culinary empire would become what it is today?
When I started training at 18 years old I didn't think about what could happen in the future. Now, almost 60 years later we have 50 restaurants around the world, but in the beginning never did I think I could create something like this.
Did you always want to be a chef?
Yes, becoming a chef was my dream since I was a child. My older brother used to take me to sushi restaurants, where I was just shocked by how much energy there was in the kitchen and how good the food tasted; it was a different world. From the first moment I sat at a sushi counter, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
How did growing up in Tokyo shape the kind of cook you've become?
For the first three years of my training I was a dishwasher, doing deliveries and cleaning the restaurants - I always stayed behind the counter and never saw the sushi bar. During these three years I learnt a lot of patience. Of course, I was young and I wanted to make the sushi, but that was impossible; I had to learn first.
After those years my mentor began to teach me; he brought me to the fish market. I learnt how to find fresh fish and bring it back to the restaurant, how to clean it and eventually, after a couple more years, how to slice it. Everything in my experience was done step by step, one by one. In my generation, there were no cooking schools or sushi schools - it was just my mentor teaching me everything slowly face to face.
Now I have restaurants all over the world and each of those restaurants has a dishwasher. I know how tough that work is - dishwashers clean the plates, they place the bento grass onto the plate. A chef can't do their job without the dishwasher - that's why they are so important. When I was training as a child I learnt that it's not only about technique but that mentality is equally important, especially in Japanese culture. There is a respect for everything and everyone is important.
How do you think being a chef today has changed since your training?
Now there are cooking schools and sushi schools that students pay to go to, but there was nothing like that before, so I think my generation has more patience when it comes to learning.
Where's the best place to wake up in Tokyo?
There are many nice hotels in Tokyo at the moment, which didn't used to be the case. I have an apartment but before that I stayed at the Grand Hyatt. Now I like the Aman especially.
Where should we go for breakfast?
Most people would say the Toyosu fish market - which used to be the Tsukiji - but really only tourists go there for breakfast. I do go there for lunch though. It's a huge market, there are around 200 stalls selling local and imported fish. This is where professionals come to buy their fish, so you know you're getting the best. My favourite things to eat there are the unagi, donburi, some tempura noodles and then tokatsu (fried pork).
What neighbourhoods should we explore?
I live in Minato (Minato-ku), which is close to Hiroo. Across the street from my house there's a park, and sometimes I'll get up really early to go for a walk there or maybe a jog. In the day time, there are lots of libraries in Minato and lots of children playing. It can be a very meditative environment. I see so many people every day that sometimes I don't want to see anyone at all, which is why I'll wake up early and go for a walk, see the greenery and listen to the sounds. The park in Minato is a form of meditation for me.
Where would you take friends who have never been to Tokyo?
Definitely the temples and shrines, also the Imperial Palace. These are places where you can experience Japanese culture, like Buddhism. I also like to show people Tokyo's train stations - at the central station you can experience real Tokyo life, the different food, coffee, the fast pace.
Where should we go for some peace and quiet in the busy city?
The Meiji Shrine. I can't say you'll definitely feel calm there because each person responds differently, but I've found that the longer the history of a building and the richer the culture, the more you feel something.
Where should we go if we're buying a present for a friend?
My favourite department store is Takashimaya - they have everything. Beautiful food, beautiful fruit, beautiful meats, beautiful dresses. You can find any gift. It's like Harrods but more Japanese.
Where should we go for dinner?
Toryu in Minato. I have two grandchildren and at the weekends I'll take them to this small Chinese restaurant across the road from my house. They do the best dumplings - my favourite dumplings in the world. And for tempura, Tenko is the best. It's a family-run restaurant owned by a friend of mine in the Kagurazaka district. The area was very famous for its geisha houses in the past, so my friend bought one and transformed it into a tempura bar. It's a very traditional but unique setting that has very good tempura.
What about cocktails?
Gen Yamamoto, a very famous cocktail bar. Order a sake martini shaken with ginger or a dry margarita. I like wine too, but afterwards I want something stronger.