Nobuyuki Matsuhisa -
A Rawer World

In 30 years, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa made sushi into a global food-phenomenon. He was celebrated by Hollywood, and became the face of Japanese cooking for the entire world. But the losses on the way were enormous. One day in Alaska his calling almost cost him his life.

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa

At first, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa thought a science fiction film was playing on the hotel television. Foggy with jet-lag after his flight from New York to Tokyo, he couldn’t understand that the live broadcast on a Japanese news-channel showed a New York in flames.

Deeply shocked, he quickly realised that the pictures showed the district of lower Manhattan where, just hours earlier, he’d visited the flagship Nobu restaurant of his empire. Immediately picking up the phone, he rang the restaurant to make sure that none of his employees were hurt.

At first, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa thought a science fiction film was playing on the hotel television. Foggy with jet-lag after his flight from New York to Tokyo, he couldn’t understand that the live broadcast on a Japanese news-channel showed a New York in flames.

Deeply shocked, he quickly realised that the pictures showed the district of lower Manhattan where, just hours earlier, he’d visited the flagship Nobu restaurant of his empire. Immediately picking up the phone, he rang the restaurant to make sure that none of his employees were hurt.

It was September 11th 2001 and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t just the day that the twin towers fell and George W. Bush declared war on al-Qaida. It was also the day that Nobuyuki, or Nobu as he’s called, realised that sushi had turned into big business. When one of Nobu’s colleagues, New Jersey tuna-broker Saul Phillips, was reached by telephone he actually screamed into the receiver:

“Sons of bitches! I had tuna on one of those planes!”

“Of course it’s terrible how one can look at things,” says Nobu when we meet at the above mentioned flagship restaurant in Tribeca, a bare two blocks from the site that has since become the September 11thcommemorating Ground Zero.

“Thousands of people had died and he was worrying about the fish delivery. Sure, a whole blue-finned tuna can cost up to 200,000 dollars, sometimes more, but still …”

We are sitting at one of the tables in the long, low-lit restaurant. Everything’s made of birch – from the floors, to the bar-tops, to the remarkable birch-like wood sculptures hanging over the tables.

Although the interior was designed by the Rockwell group, famous for their ultramodern spaces, the atmosphere feels more like late evening under bare sky – all that’s missing is the sound of cicadas and waves beating the shore.

It’s half past eleven on a normal Tuesday, but it’s already completely full. The space is filled with wealthy downtown gallery owners with big jewellery, food tourists with big appetites, and besuited Wall Street men, who look to be discussing big deals. They’re all eating Nobu’s lunch which costs just over 300 Swedish krona.

Filipino head chef Ricky Estrellado urges on the sushi chefs behind the counter. Every guest has to get their tuna sashimi salad – the most popular lunch just now – fast.

Nobu himself is clad in a well-pressed, tailor-made sushi-chef’s shirt with the Nobu emblem on, a garment he wears essentially every day. He constantly throws glances at the sushi counter. It’s as if he’s wearing the chef’s shirt to signal to his employees that he can jump into the kitchen at any moment if someone isn’t following his recipes to the letter.

“Yes, I always want to feel ready,” says Nobu.

“I’m a little like a samurai, always with a sushi knife under my shirt.”


23 Nobu restaurants now exist on six different continents.

3 of the restaurants have their own star in the Michelin Guide: Nobu Las Vegas, Nobu London and Nobu Berkeley Street London.

1987 was the year that Nobu opened his first restaurant in the USA: Matsuhisa on La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles.

3 cookbooks have been released so far by Nobu.

Nobu is on a lightning visit to New York.

His whole life has been a single, unending journey around the world, made up of lightning-quick visits. At least it has been since 1994, when he was persuaded by film star Robert De Niro and Hollywood producer Meir Teper to open his very first Nobu restaurant in the old bank building where we now find ourselves.

The restaurant quickly became popular. In Manhattan they joked that it was as impossible to get through on the phone to Nobu’s table-booking number as it was to hail a cab during rush hour.

The New York Times’s powerful food-critic Ruth Reichl literally cartwheeled out of the restaurant after tasting the signature dishes of miso marinaded cod, jalapeño spiced sashimi on yellowfin tuna and lobster-like “rock shrimp” with spicy mayonnaise. Reichl gave Nobu three, hot, coveted stars out of four, and after that it wasn’t long before other cities were queueing up to open Nobu restaurants.

In a short time, Nobu was transformed into the Japanese answer to Joël Robuchon or Alain Ducasse – that is to say, a star chef with his own world-spanning restaurant chain.

On Nobu’s website Madonna is quoted as saying “You can tell how much fun a city is going to be if Nobu has a restaurant in it.” Today there are, by Madonna’s standards, 23 especially fun cities in the world – from Dubai, Cape Town and Moscow, to Hong Kong, Melbourne and Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.

Nobu travels around constantly between his restaurants to make sure that the smallest sea urchin meets his satisfaction. And he travels extremely minimally on his lightning-quick visits.

“The only thing I always have with me is a knife and three mobile telephones,” says Nobu, and laughs. “I have fewer things with me than the ingredients in a piece of sushi!”

That is, however, not entirely true.

Partly because he needs to take with him a couple of his tailor-made sushi-chef’s shirts, and partly because he always has Hiro with him, his assistant who, despite the fact that Nobu has lived in the USA for over 30 years, helps the chef with his English at meetings and interviews, like this one. Hiro is dressed in a pin-stripe suit and is as polite and ultra-professional as the Japanese businessmen caricatured in Hollywood films.

“When you ask Nobu questions, he’ll answer and then I’ll fill in,” says Hiro at the beginning of our meeting, as he pulls back his mid-length, comb-parted hair.

But when I ask Nobu how he’s succeeded in reaching this almost unreal level of success, for the first time in the interview he doesn’t need Hiro’s help. He quickly answers with just:

“My story.”


The blue-finned tuna is one of the world’s most endangered species. So why is it still served at Nobu’s restaurants?

The are less and less fish in the world’s oceans. Those which are sold reach ever more dizzying prices. Fishing is a serious threat to the environment.

It’s seen most clearly when it comes to tuna. Above all, the extinction-threatened blue-finned tuna – a fish that’s still served at Nobu’s restaurants the world over.

The view on the blue-finned tuna, that can reach between two and three meters in length and 500-600 kilos in weight, has changed radically in the last few decades – from something that people in the west used for catfood and salad fillings to an expensive luxury-good.

Despite warning signs of overfishing and high mercury levels, the demand for quality tuna has increased. The world’s most expensive tuna so far sold in January 2010 at the Tsukiji fish market for the pretty price of 32.49 million Yen, which equals roughly 2.5 million Swedish krona.

Naturally it was blue-finned.

“The sushi world is going astray, and Nobu has a certain responsibility because, without a doubt, it was him who inspired the most people, outside Japan, to open sushi-bars,” says The Sushi Economy author Sasha Issenberg, who is critical of Nobu still having the threatened blue-fin tuna on the menu.

Greenpeace did a DNA test on Nobu’s tuna, which was called just “tuna” on the menu, but revealed itself to be blue-finned.

And then British newspaper The Guardian suggested that Nobu could equally well put baby panda on the menu. Ellen Bruno, marine expert at Naturskyddsföreningen (the society for the conservation of nature) says that even if the sushi world is relatively small, it’s still a problem if some of the world’s most threatened and unsustainably farmed fish are being used.

“Above all tuna, eel and swordfish, all of which are threatened species. You should even avoid king prawns on your sushi. King prawns are always farmed by environmentally repulsive methods, that include devastating of mangrove forest, and the spreading of pharmaceutical and pesticidal residues into important local ecosystems.”

Will the oceans’ resources be large enough when China, India and other newly rich lands get a taste for sushi?

“The oceans’ resources should last if we managed our fish stocks well, which unfortunately we don’t do today. It’s a shame that sushi chefs have focused so much on tuna and king prawns when the actual, original sushi was based on using local products in season. We have to hope that China and India understand this better than us and use more vegetables and their own sustainably fished species for their sushi, just as Swedish sushi places should to begin using, as much as possible, alternative ingredients like asparagus, mackerel, scallops and North Sea prawns.”

Many people want to see tougher, stricter laws for the uncontrolled and hard-to-trace fish, above all tuna. How do you see things?

“It is essential that there is a global system for dealing with illegal fishing. But when it comes to blue-finned tuna, it doesn’t help that we can trace them, the species is threatened and the fishing of it should cease immediately. If people as consumers want to buy legally caught fish, then they can buy environmentally certified ones.”

What does Nobu himself say? Yes, when it comes to the blue-finned tuna – that’s becoming as threatened as the tiger or white rhino – the otherwise so international Nobu becomes extremely Japanese and taciturn.

“It’s a sensitive question,” he says curtly.

With the translation help of his assistant Hiro, he refers to the Japanese tradition of fishing. He even points out that his restaurants are now clear that they serve blue-finned tuna, and that it is up to the diners to let them know that they’d would like that yellow-finned species instead.


Shark / ray
Striped catfish / pangash
Halibut (wild)
King prawns
(Tiger prawns, scampi, prawns, tropical shrimp)
Salmon (farmed, South American)
Monkfish / sole

Nobuyuki Matsuhisa was born 62 years ago in Saitama, an hour’s journey north of central Tokyo by commuter train. When he was seven, his father died in a car accident, leaving not much more than a photograph of himself. A sepia-toned picture that would have a very significant effect on Nobu’s future.

In the picture, the father he lost stands with serious expression in front of a palm tree. Beside him stands a black man wearing only a loin cloth and a leather necklace. The photograph was taken on a visit to the tropical Pacific island of Palau where his father, who was a lumber merchant, bought timber that he sold at home in Japan.

When Nobu was lonely he could sit and look at the photo, dream away, and think that one day he could be like his father and journey to foreign lands far beyond Japan’s borders.

“My father was and is my great idol,” says Nobu. “And the fact that I didn’t get to grow up with him made him into a bit of a hero figure. I often fantasised about what he was like and romanticised him, exactly like, I think, all children that have lost a parent at an early age do.”

When Nobu was eleven, his older brother took him to a sushi-bar for the first time. From the very second they entered the place through a sliding door, and heard the chef shout “Irashaimase!” – “Welcome!” Nobu was enchanted.

“It was unbelievably exciting. Actually a completely different world,” remembers Nobu, and smiles one of his many cunning smiles.

“I decided there and then – or, rather, after I’d tried a shrimp-like sea-insect, called shako in Japanese – to be a sushi chef. I would take a position as an apprentice in order to, like my father, work my way up in the world. That seemed obvious.”

After concluding his architecture studies in Saitama, Nobu asked different fish merchants at the local fish market if they could give him contacts in the sushi world. He was tipped about Tadayuki Nakane, who owned restaurant Matsuei Sushi in the central Tokyo district of Shinjuku (most famous for its big video-screens with adverts, and its train station where the crowds can give the most stress-tolerant Westerner a heart-attack).

Nakane took Nobu under his wing. He let the 18 year-old move in with him, two floors up in the same building as the sushi bar. In the same flat lived Nakane with his wife, his mother, their three children, and the sushi bar’s two sous-chefs.

Space was tight, but now wasn’t the time to complain.

Sushi culture is one of the world’s most hierarchical, and Nobu got to begin, like everyone else, at the bottom.

The days began at half six in the morning, when Nobu accompanied his master Nakane to Tokyo – and the world’s – biggest fish market Tsukiji, and where in two or three hours they filled their straw basket with fresh fish and shellfish.

Back at the restaurant, Nobu cleaned the whole place until lunch. After that his job was to serve tea, set and clear the tables and wash-up until it closed at midnight. During the afternoons he had to cycle round the neighbourhood and collect empty plates from people who’d had food delivered the day before to their homes or workplaces. Every fourteenth day the restaurant was closed, but even on these days Nobu was forced to cycle round and collect plates.

It long days and hard graft. After two years, Nobu began to feel frustrated. He still hadn’t advanced further than boiling the rice. The doubts began. Had he really made the right choice?

“I wondered when I’d be standing behind the counter making sushi,” remembers Nobu. “Soon,” Nakane always said, “You’re nearly ready.”

“Soon” turned out to be a further three years.

“That’s not an especially long time. Some people would have to cook rice for ten years before they got to take care of the fish. That was just how it was. There was no sushi school, or even a cookery school, everyone learned by working their way up. It was tough, but it also taught me to respect my employees,” says Nobu, nodding towards his sushi chefs who stand toiling behind the counter several tables away.

When Nobu finally got his chance to stand behind the counter, he took it at once.

A Peruvian of Japanese origin, who used to drop in to the sushi bar a few times a year, was so impressed by the young sushi chef that he asked Nobu if he wanted to come with him to Peru’s capital, Lima, and open his own restaurant there.

Nobu said yes immediately.

The dream he had had when he was little, to follow in his father’s footsteps and travel overseas, was now being fulfilled.

Sushi, that is to say vinegar-flavoured rice with raw fish, shellfish, whale or other meat, has its roots in 9th century China. The word sushi itself means “sour” and that was probably how this traditional dish tasted then, long before the time of fridges, when it was drowned in vinegar, salt and soy.

The food spread quickly to Tokyo, but it was only a thousand years later, in the 19th century, that sushi chef Hanaya Yohei got close to what’s served in a sushi bar today. Like all chefs in Tokyo at this time, Yohei got his fish from Tokyo Bay (which means that maybe the most popular type of sushi outside Japan, salmon nigiri, came about much later, simply because there are no salmon there). In order for the fish to avoid parasites, Yohei saw to it that they were either boiled or marinated in soy sauce. Then he served them on rice pillows twice as large as the ones we’re used to today.

Serving fish raw as sashimi first came in with the arrival of refrigerators in the interwar period. It was also then, after the large, destructive earthquake in Tokyo in 1923, that modern sushi spread out from the capital to the rest of the country. Sushi now quickly became mainstream in Japan as a whole, and those who moved overseas took the dishes with them.

When Nobu came to Lima in the middle of the 70s, it was the perfect city for sushi chef. The fish from the Pacific in the west were nearly as fine and fresh as those he’d got used to in Tokyo. There were only four other competing Japanese restaurants in town and, with Mitsubishi and several other large Japanese companies having just then having established themselves in Peru, the demand was high. A whole generation of Japanese businessmen was looking for good sushi.

Nobu named the restaurant Matsuei after his master in Tokyo. Just like during his apprenticeship, he again had to do everything in the restaurant, with the small difference that he now worked chiefly for himself, his wife Yoko, and their two daughters.

His freedom allowed him to forget that all the Japanese ingredients he was used to at home in Shinjuku didn’t exist, and instead he began to experiment with the local Peruvian ones.

The Peruvians at this time ate mostly meat. Grilled guinea pig was – and still is – the national dish, and when they actually ate fish and shellfish, they lime-marinated everything into cerviches – the most internationally widespread Peruvian dish, in which the main ingredients are white fish, lime, coriander and onion.

When octopus was caught in the nets, the fishermen threw it back because it brought bad luck. Other kinds of fish, eel for example, they landed but didn’t bother about.

When Nobu visited the local fish market in Lima he quickly noticed the small stall with very fine eels without a price tag. He asked what they cost, at which the fishermen asked what he wanted them for. Nobu lied and said that they were for his dog, which he’d brought with him from Japan and was now home-sick because he hadn’t eaten eel for so long. The fishermen laughed and Nobu got 30 kilos of eel for next to nothing.

The next day at the restaurant he made eel sashimi with jalapeño, and deep-fried eel in the batter called tempura in Japanese cooking.

It sold out in a flash.

After Nobu had been buying eel at low prices for a few weeks, the fishermen asked how Nobu’s dog was.

“It was clear that another sushi chef had been at my place. He’d tried my eel dishes, and then gone to the fish market, bought eel and told them the truth, that there was no dog involved,” says Nobu and laughs at the memory.

Overnight the price of eel had gone through the roof. This had no effect on Nobu, who continued to buy as much eel as before. This made his Peruvian-Japanese business partner furious. He felt that the most important thing was to earn money from the restaurant. Nobu wanted first and foremost to make people happy with his food. The conflict pushed Nobu to experiment even more and to make the most of everything he bought, from gills to tail-fins.

It was here he laid the groundwork for the completely new sushi menu which revolutionised the restaurant world.

The style which, he shyly admits, is known as “Nobu-style sushi.”

“The struggle between me and my partner, where he just wanted to earn money, and I wanted to use the freshest fish lasted for three years,” says Nobu. “Then I’d had enough and decided to leave the restaurant.”

Nobu moved on to Buenos Aires where’d he’d been recommended for a chef’s job by a friend. But life in the Argentinian capital wasn’t at all what Nobu had been expecting. It was hard to leave the total freedom that he’d had in the kitchen and go back to being subordinate to a head chef. In addition, the Argentinians were even more meat-crazy than the Peruvians.

The cost of living was low, but so was pay. After a couple of years, Nobu got tired of it and decided to move back to Japan with his family, and put his sushi-knives on the shelf for a while. Back in Tokyo, Nobu fell into a depression and stopped thinking about food at all. Until one day a Japanese-actor friend recommended he open a restaurant in Alaska. Then the light returned to the sushi chef’s eyes.

What he didn’t know was that the move to Alaska would nearly cost him his life.

The old gold-mining town of Anchorage was on the cusp of a new boom. Oil had been found in Prudhoe Bay and the local Ted Stevens Airport had become a hub for increasing numbers of airlines, as a pitstop between North America and Asia.

Finally it was believed that the US could benefit from its northern wilderness state.

Nobu took out a large loan and made sure that all the ingredients he needed could be sourced through the airport. At this time, airlines had begun to transport fresh fish from all the world’s fish markets in the same boxes used to transport human organs between hospitals. Nobu was enjoying working in the USA at last, even if it was in its most arctic corner.

But he wouldn’t enjoy it for long.

After working 50 days in a row, he took his first holiday and a friend invited him round for a Thanksgiving dinner. The the phone rang. It was his current business partner saying that the restaurant was in flames.

“He had a special sense of humour,” remembers Nobu, “so at first I thought it was tasteless. We’re sitting here, nice and relaxed, so he rings to bother me with this bad joke.”

Unfortunately it turned out to be for real. Anchorage was so small that Nobu heard the fire engine sirens through the receiver and saw the smoke in the distance.

“I had no insurance and got deeply into debt. Alaska had felt like my last chance to do something with myself. I fell into an even deeper depression than after Argentina. I began to think that the only way forward was to commit suicide. Like a samurai – harakiri.”

You mean that you considered killing yourself with a knife, followed by someone decapitating you with a sword?
“Yes. My thinking went that far. Everything felt so hopeless. I had struggled and never got anything for free. I had invested in quality, but the only things I got back, I felt then, were debts and crushed dreams.”

“If I hadn’t had my wife and my daughters I don’t know what would have happened. Or, I do. Then I would have taken my own life.”

Then I would have taken my own life.

No town outside Japan has played a more important role in the spread of sushi around the world than Los Angeles.

It was here in 1929 the Los Angeles Times reported that, for the first time on American soil, “sashimi, raw fish” was served at the city’s Japanese Café to welcome the two big Japanese ships that had cast anchor in Los Angeles’ harbour.

It was here, in downtown Little Tokyo, that the city’s rich, famous and urbane ordered their first “exotic” sushi and sashimi in the USA’s first sushi bar Kawafuku. The owners, a married couple called Saito, opened Kawafuku in 1966 and raked in the money for four years before moving back to Tokyo. At home in Japan, rumours spread about the Saito’s success – that you could skip the long apprentice route in Japan, and start your own business, earn a fast buck in California.

Americans had got a taste for their nigiri, sashimi and maki, which got its ultimate confirmation when sushi chef Ichiro Mashita at the restaurant Tokyo Kaikan experimented with the Americanised maki roll, the californian roll. Mashita took away the most exotic ingredients – tuna and the seaweed wrapping – and instead served the rolls with cucumber, crabmeat, avocado, rice and sesame seeds.

It was even Los Angeles that Nobu came to in 1987, after he’d succeeded in paying off his debts in Alaska and borrowed 70,000 dollars from a friend. Here he opened a new restaurant, Matsuhisa.

The whole menu was now literally a biography of Nobu’s life as a chef.

It was the first restaurant in Los Angeles that ordered its raw ingredients directly from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. Here spices like chilli, garlic and coriander from Peru; tuna steaks reminiscent of the big steaks served in Argentina; and fresh king crab and wild salmon that he’d come across during his short time in Alaska, mixed.

Nobu had come home. All the sushi pieces had fallen into place.

Matsuhisa lay in Beverly Hills, and the 1980s’ sushi-hungry Hollywood stars flooded in. The place quickly become known, with the gossip rags printing paparazzi pictures with captions like: “Here we see Tom Cruise and Mimi Rogers outside Matsuhisa.”

Whoosh! Matsuhisa was named the world’s best restaurant by the New York Times.

“Even if sushi was popular even earlier among Hollywood stars, it was Nobu who really glamourised and popularised this Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, which is actually what it comes down to.” says Kat Odell, editor for the Los Angeles section of the food site

Toshi Sugiura, who in 1998 set up the world’s first sushi academy outside Japan in west Los Angeles, thinks that it’s a little unfair and degrading to say that Matsuhisa was just a celebrity hang-out.

“The food was something that we’d never seen before. All Japanese people learn that you must respect tradition. It goes so far that you can’t have this or that piece of crockery with this or that dish. But Nobu turned all this upside down. And it feels completely right, purely geographically, that he opened in Los Angeles, where we had a large Japanese and Latin-American population. All the tastes were familiar, but still completely new.”

When Robert De Niro, within a year of Matsuhisa’s opening, asked Nobu to open a new place with him in New York, the sushi chef was at first hesitant.

He was afraid of losing what he’d built up, and falling back down to the depths. Afraid because he didn’t know if he had the energy to pull himself up another time.

“Mr De Niro flew me to New York and showed me round the city for three or four days,” remembers Nobu. “We flew by helicopter over Manhattan and ate fantastic food at places near his home in Tribeca. He talked of his dream about this sushi restaurant that he wanted to call Nobu. Everything sounded great. But despite how much I liked his idea, and despite how much fun we had during those days, I still couldn’t start up something new with him.”

A whole four years later, De Niro rang Nobu at home in Beverly Hills and asked if he’d changed his mind. Nobu said no. But added that he might be ready one day. The next morning De Niro was waiting outside Matsuhisa when Nobu arrived.

“Then I felt that if he now thought so much of me and my art that he’d waited all these years, then he could only be a good partner.”

The rest is modern sushi history.


9.5% Atlantic and Mediterranean
20.4% Indian Ocean
70.2% Pacific

Including the seven largest varieties of tuna: skipjack, yellow-finned, bigeye, albacore and three different types of blue-finned.

* Source: Eleanor Partridge, marine research coordinator, Greenpeace.

In the 17 years that have passed since Nobu opened his restaurant here in Tribeca, sushi has reached every street corner in the world.

The American journalist and author Sasha Issenberg, who recently wrote the book The Sushi Economy on globalisation, which traces the movement of sushi, suggests that the main reason for its spread is that this Japanese food tradition has always been ahead of its time.

“When all the health advice in the mid 90s was saying how good it was to eat algae, seaweed, edamame beans and ginger, more and more people dared to try raw fish and got a taste for it,” says Issenberg on the phone from Washington. “I’d have been more surprised if it hadn’t taken the world by storm.”

Even the Swedish DJ Peter Lindgren knew early on that there was something special about sushi. After going on a sushi course at the end of the 80s, where he learnt amongst other things how to make a jellyfish salad, he had the naïve idea of opening an Asian cross-over restaurant in the premises of underground-club Babys on Sankt Eriksterrassen.

It was called East.

Earlier there had been a handful of luxury Japanese restaurants in Stockholm. But places like Seikoen on Stockholms Ström, known for being Stockholm’s first Japanese restaurant when it opened in 1973, and Shogun in Gamla Stan, served above all meat dishes and stews like yakiniku and shabu-shabu.

It was at East, which in 1991 moved to Stureplan, that many Swedes dared to try sushi and sashimi for the first time.

“It was mostly large and small sushi, and large and small sashimi,” remembers Lindgren, “and it was mainly salmon and shrimps, the most Swedish ingredients. There weren’t very many who dared take it further and, for example, order jellyfish salad. We had a guy who stood in a corner and didn’t have so much to do at first. It it grew quickly from five portions of sushi a day to 500.”

“Our success was partly due to how Stureplan was changing, but it was also due, quite simply, to it being unbelievably good food,” continues Lindgren. “I was at Nobu’s restaurant in London several times, and let myself be inspired. You can’t overestimate how much he’s meant to the whole restaurant world. Everyone who’s at all interested in food has been there and peeked in.”

Restaurant personality Erik Videgård, who worked in the kitchen at East at this time, agrees. He says that Nobu’s dishes are among the most subtle he has tasted.

“It’s just ‘wow,’” he says. “The nuances never end.”

Both Lindegren and Videgård suggest that Stockholm is on the way to getting a decent sushi-scene, but that we’re not even close yet to restaurants like Nobu. Restaurants where you talk about different species of salmon or different parts of a tuna as different dishes. We simply haven’t got to the “second wave,” as in the USA, where today several restaurants compete with the best in Japan. Take just New York’s Masa, awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, where the tasting menu costs as much as a return trip to Tokyo (about 4,000 Swedish krona).

Videgård and Lindgren say frankly that 95 percent of all the places that have opened in Sweden since the 90s can’t be called sushi-restaurants.

“The biggest joke was when Tina Nordström had got big with her food programme and got it into her head to make sushi,” remembers Videgård. “She used short-grain pudding-rice and said that it worked just as well with gravlax or smoked salmon. It was awful, but also symptomatic of the Swedish view of sushi.”

The biggest joke was when Tina Nordström had got big with her food programme and got it into her head to make sushi,

So what is it that’s so difficult? I put the question to Nobu.

“Sushi is based mostly on a small number of ingredients, it’s that that makes it difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind,” he says.

“You must be able to make perfect rice. You must have a razor-sharp knife. You have to pay a little more for the freshest fish, for the freshest shellfish, and for real wasabi – not just horseradish with green-dye like most of the sushi chefs outside Japan use. That shouldn’t be called wasabi! You most use real wasabi and ideally you’ll grate it with dried shark skin. Simple, isn’t it?” he says and laughs.

But at the same time it’s so difficult that most people never learn or can afford to practise the art – because it hinges on not fiddling. Everything, absolutely everything, must be perfect.

Nobu looks around the restaurant. Lunchtime is nearly over. The people from Wall Street, the gallery owners and food-tourists pay their bills and he seems more and more nervous. He taps Hiro and, although the question is in Japanese, it’s easy to understand that he’s asking his assistant when they need to rush off.

Not yet, I understand from Hiro’s answer.

Nobu is stressed and constantly on the move. A state resulting from him not just being a star chef, but also an out-and-out star. A celebrity with a schedule that would cause most to go under.

He prepares octopus eggs on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods and demonstrates his knife skills for American TV personalities like Martha Stewart and David Letterman. He has small bit-parts in Hollywood films like Casino, Austin Powers and Memories of a Geisha, and plays golf with close friends like Celine Dion and Mark Wahlberg.

But mostly he’s out on his endless round-the-world trip, tacking between Nobu restaurants. I ask him if he even has time today to prepare food and do what he loves most, come up with new dishes.

“Oh yes, I manage to do everything. I still get completely intoxicated by fish and spice markets. If I see something special, I just have to go home and make something with it at once.”

You say “home.” Where is home?

“Los Angeles, and most of all Beverly Hills, is my home. I have my wife there, and I still run Matsuhisa there, which is itself the reason that I live the life I live today. Of course, I also feel that Japan is my home, but it’s like I owe the USA this home feeling, because it was here I broke through at last.

Don’t you miss you wife when you travel?

“Yes of course. We only see each other for two weeks a year. But we’ve been married for 38 years, and I think all my travelling is the main reason that we’re still together. No, I’m joking again. We really love each other.”

What are you into just now – some special cuisine, a special ingredient?

“I’m thinking about beginning to distribute real wasabi, that grows along the water in Japan, and export them around the world. They’re so much more expensive than fake wasabi, but are really worth it. I’m trying to find a way for it to survive the long air-transport. It’s hard to explain, but when I get into something, it’s a little like when you were young and saw a pretty girl. It’s the same rush. That’s exactly how I feel about real wasabi just now.”

There’s no sign of Nobu slowing down and sitting back – quite the reverse.

Soon the 61 year old chef will launch his biggest – and craziest – idea to date. A 16 suite and 180 room sized Nobu hotel, that’s soon to be completed in six of the towers at pleasure-dome Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

“Everything will be covered in seaweed and you’ll be able to order the whole menu as room service,” says Nobu with a straight face, making the daft sound entirely normal.

You’ve no plans to expand northwards and open a Nobu in Stockholm or Gothenburg?

“Stockholm is an unbelievably beautiful city, but do you eat sushi there?”

There’s a sushi bar on every street corner.

“Really? Why am I surprised. It’s the same thing in Mexico City and Dallas. Two big cities far from the sea. If there’s just a big international airport with good destinations, then the conditions are there for a good sushi town. It all depends on having good chefs and people who are prepared to pay for quality. It sounds like me and Hiro should fly to Stockholm again.”

Do you fly by private jet?

“Yes, often. They’re not my planes, unfortunately. But whenever I travel somewhere we make sure that someone flies us there. In addition to checking on my restaurants, there’s always someone who wants me here or there for openings and lectures and exhibitions.”

Do you have a recipe for jet-lag?

“I don’t remember how it feels not to be jet-lagged! I always try to sleep as much as possible during the journey. When I arrive I eat as strong food as possible, ideally with wasabi in, so I wake up, or I go and swim in the hotel pool.”

Now Hiro looks at the clock and says to Nobu, again in understandable Japanese, that it’s time to get moving. The next moment I see Nobu in his white chef’s jacket whisked away with Hiro in one of New York’s all-yellow taxi-cabs, one the way JFK airport where a private plane is waiting to take off.

Miami, Mexico City and the Bahamas await.

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