Chef Nobu’s Insider Guide to Tokyo

Chef Nobu’s Insider Guide to Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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.

Discover More
City Guide: Tokyo, Japan