Nobu: A Memoir Book Summary

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Nobu A Memoir Book Cover

Nobu: A Memoir by Nobu Matsuhisa

My Thoughts

Nobu is my favorite restaurant, their customer service, and food quality is incredible. When I saw that Chef Nobu had published a memoir I was excited to read it. I did not plan on writing a summary before listening to the book. While listening I discovered so many insights and pearls of wisdom that I had to make a summary.

The lessons in this book will benefit anyone regardless of what industry you’re in or where you are in your career path. Nobu talks about career development, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, the restaurant industry, working with partners, business expansion, creativity, continuous improvement, mentoring and training employees, customer service, interpersonal skills, and more.

Throughout the book, Nobu emphasizes the importance of Japanese culture in his own life and in the philosophy of operating his restaurant and hotel businesses. As someone who reads books written primarily from an American perspective, I found it interesting and insightful to learn from this perspective.

My Favorite Quotes

  • Keep moving forward, even if it’s just a millimeter a day.
  • The character of the people who work at a restaurant is more important than its size or reputation.
  • I would rather be known as a good man than for my restaurant to be known for making money.
  • Put your heart into your work.
  • Guests can always tell whether or not we have prepared their meal with heart and soul. Food that has been made from the heart will touch the hearts of those who eat it.
  • The only way to ensure that our guests go home happy is to notice when something isn’t right before they tell us and to act on it immediately.
  • You can only be considered a full-fledged chef once you can pass on the skills you have learned from others to up-and-coming chefs. Only when an apprentice finally reaches your level can you call yourself a master.
  • It takes time to teach others. If we only consider the work we need to do that particular day, it would be far faster to do it ourselves. If we don’t teach others and cultivate their skills, we will never have time to do the work we really want to do.
  • Putting our guests’ satisfaction first is crucial, as long as we do that, results will always follow.
  • Cooking is very truthful. A dish made by a chef who longs with heart and soul to explore new things tastes very different from a dish made by a chef who feels obligated to come up with something new.
  • As long as our focus remains superficial, we will get no closer to the true nature of our work. If we haven’t grasped its essence and don’t love it from the bottom of our heart, our work will never bear fruit. Once we have found the essence of our profession and start doing it purely for the love of it, our hard work will always open the path before us.
  • Instead of trying to beat or make more profit than someone else, the real contest is to do our best for the sake of our guests.
  • True competition increases the quality of both parties. With this type of competition, rivals can coexist and prosper together.
  • If we don’t consciously seek true competition which develops the level of all involved, it is impossible for a restaurant to grow.
  • Being an example is more effective than reprimanding.
  • You can’t teach someone to have a hungry spirit.
  • Appropriate advice, given at the right moment, can trigger dramatic development.

Key Questions

  • What would I want if I were this person?
  • What if I were the other person?
  • What if we all tried to see things from the other’s perspective?

Nobu: A Memoir Outline

Preface

Whenever Nobu hits an obstacle, he searches for a solution and carries on. Gradually the hurdles that appear before him have become smaller. He finds that if he plows ahead, no matter how impossible it may seem, and just does his best, someone is bound to lend a hand.

“Keep moving forward, even if it’s just a millimeter a day.” This is Chef Nobu’s motto.

Chapter 1: Drawn to Foreign Lands and Sushi

When Nobu went to a sushi bar for the first time in his life, he was captivated by it and he thought it was the coolest thing ever. He decided then and there that he wanted to be a sushi chef.

Nobu spent three years washing dishes and delivering sushi. At age 17 he took his first step as an apprentice chef at Matsue Sushi in Shinjuku, Tokyo. The sushi bar was closed only two days per month, those were their only days off.

Every day he got on the bus with his boss and went to the fish market. He followed him with a basket to carry the fish. He learned how to identify a good fish by watching his boss select them.

Sticking it out made Nobu what he is today. Initially his wages were so low that he couldn’t even buy himself a knife.

Nobu was expelled from school as a teenager. After that he determined that nothing would let him deviate from his path to become a sushi chef. He had announced to everyone that he was going to become a sushi chef, if he gave up he would look like a fool.

Work for a fine person, not for a fine shop.

The character of the people who work at a restaurant is more important than its size or reputation.

I would rather be known as a good man than for my restaurant to be known for making money.

When a child knows that his parent believes in him, he simply cannot betray that trust. Trust is the foundation of the bond between parent and child, as well as that of master and apprentice. The owner of Matsue Sushi believed in him and gave him a chance, Nobu could not waste that opportunity.

Aim high and you will grow.

After watching how his boss treated customers, Nobu automatically assumed he should do his best to fulfill their requests, regardless of how unreasonable they might be.

All of Nobu’s thoughts were focused on how to make his customers happy. He planned what to say when recommending a new dish, how to present it, and how to explain it. His enthusiasm was infectious and his guests responded in-kind. This was the origin of Nobu’s philosophy, which is “Put your heart into your work and cook with passion.”

Chapter 2: Once You’ve Hit Rock-Bottom, Impatience Vanishes

Be patient, keeping moving forward, one step at a time, even if its just a millimeter a day.

I work hard to make good food and provide good service. Not because I want to own a lot of restaurants, or make a lot of money, but because I want to make my guests happy.

The Origin of Nobu’s Black Cod with Miso

Because American’s love tender-fleshed fish such as salmon, tuna, and hamachi (young yellowtail), he went to the market to search for types of fish that would please his customers. He found frozen black cod at the market which instantly inspired him to make a Japanese-style dish that involves curing the fish in Kyoto-style white miso overnight and then grilling it.

At that time, Kyoto-style white miso was almost impossible to find in the states. He added mirin (sweet cooking wine), sugar, and other ingredients to ordinary white-miso and then tried packing the cod in it. He soaked the fish by placing it directly into the miso mixture. It became another instant hit.

Nobu's Black Cod with Miso Dish
Nobu’s black cod with miso, this might be my favorite dish ever!

Nobu developed this dish while working at Oshou in Los Angeles. Word soon spread that interesting and innovate cuisine could be had there. The sushi counter was always full, with a long line of people waiting outside.

Chapter 3: A Place Filled With The Laughter of My Guests

It never occurred to Nobu to think of how much profit he wanted to make, he was just overjoyed to be able to do the work he liked best.

Nobu created new dishes specifically for each individual because he wanted to make them happy. If a guest ordered something that wasn’t on the menu, it didn’t matter. Nobu viewed his guests’ requests as homework, exercises that helped him to evolve as a chef. If the result of what he prepared pleased his guests, it made him very happy.

Cuisine is like fashion; always evolving. Sometimes when he serves a newly invented dish, it is clear from his customer’s expression that he or she is not completely satisfied, even if they insist that it is delicious. When that happens, he considers what he can do instead. He runs it through his mind over and over until he finds an answer and creates another new dish.

Put your heart into your work. That is what he repeatedly tells his staff. Guests can always tell whether or not we have prepared their meal with heart and soul. Food that has been made from the heart will touch the hearts of those who eat it.

When you are at a sushi counter and the chef places a freshly-made piece of fish in front of you, there is an instant when the topping settles onto the rice. Properly blended sushi rice has just the right amount of air mixed in. The instant the sushi is placed on your plate, a bit of that air escapes and that is the perfect moment to eat it. Discerning guests do not miss this moment. The most crucial element for eating sushi is timing, not any rules about which kind to eat first or how to hold it properly. Each piece of sushi represents a concentration of infinite details.

When something I make is good, my guests praise me. When it is only satisfactory, I can sense it from their expression.

It is wrong to see an unhappy guest and do nothing until they tell you outright. The only way to ensure that our guests go home happy is to notice when something isn’t right before they tell us and to act on it immediately.

When Nobu first apprenticed at Mitsuwa Sushi in Los Angeles, he noticed that the customers never ordered anything from his boss. Without them saying a word, he could make sushi in small bites that perfectly suited their tastes. At first, this was a mystery to him. Later, he learned that this skill is the mark of a professional. Nobu longed to become like him, to be able to serve his guests exactly what they wanted without them saying a word. This is the origin of his approach.

To provide this kind of service the chef must constantly observe the expression on each guest’s face.

Matsuhisa (Nobu’s first restaurant) is the result of his own pursuit of the thought “What would I want if I were this person?”

You can only be considered a full-fledged chef once you can pass on the skills you have learned from others to up-and-coming chefs. Only when an apprentice finally reaches your level can you call yourself a master.

Alone, Nobu could do the work of one person. With three or four others, together they could do the work of five or six people. It was at this point that he realized the importance of training.

It takes time to teach others. If we only consider the work we need to do that particular day, it would be far faster to do it ourselves. If we don’t teach others and cultivate their skills, we will never have time to do the work we really want to do.

A sushi chef takes pride in giving guests something that so exceeds their expectations that it surprises them. That is why he gave priority to satisfying his guests before sales or profits. As a result, these guests couldn’t wait to tell their friends.

Nobu does not cut costs for ingredients. Putting our guests’ satisfaction first is crucial, as long as we do that, results will always follow.

Good food, good service, teamwork. This is a motto that Nobu drilled into all of his staff.

Chapter 4: Robert De Niro, The Man Who Waited Four Years

In 1989, Robert De Niro asked Chef Nobu if he would partner with him to open a restaurant in New York. Nobu declined in order to focus on building his Los Angeles restaurant a solid foundation first. Four years later, in 1994, Nobu accepted the offer. The restaurant was founded by Nobu, De Niro, Drew Nieporent, and Meir Teper.

Nobu New York was three times the size of Matsuhisa, which meant changing their approach to every procedure, even from the very first step of pre-work. In New York everything was systematized for maximum efficiency. The kitchen was divided into different sections such as salad, grill, and fry sections.

Tasting by the servers was done almost daily at Nobu New York. Servers cannot explain a dish with confidence if they haven’t tried it. Drew and his company developed a training program for Nobu’s team, and this tasting was part of that thorough training process.

You can’t do your best when you are feeling stressed out.

In New York, Nobu wanted to create the same environment as at Matsuhisa, an environment in which they could enjoy their work and remain intensely focused on the job at hand.

Nobu has never been concerned about Michelin or Zagat ratings, they aren’t important to him. What brings him joy is seeing his guests smile, what matters most is seeing his guests smile.

A few months after opening his first restaurant, Nobu decided to ban smoking for the sake of his customers. This was because the dining area was too small to have smoking and non-smoking sections. They lost customers because of this. The no-smoking policy in all Nobu restaurants worldwide dates back to this time.

Although people may say Nobu restaurants are expensive, Nobu uses no processed foods, selects only the choicest ingredients, and does not seek to make an exorbitant profit.

Nobu believes that if he had opened Nobu New York before he had established the Matsuhisa style, that neither would have developed to this extent. The new venture succeeded because the staff in Los Angles had been so well trained that he could leave it with complete confidence and spend weeks at a time in New York.

Nobu has had several opportunities to be in movies and commercials because of his relationship with De Niro. Experiencing this unknown field was a great education for him. By following his calling, he received these offers. He wasn’t consciously seeking them. Devoting himself to his profession led to people inviting him to try new things, and that broadened his horizons.

Chapter 5: Conveying the Taste and Service of Nobu to the World

In each restaurant, a Nobu team is organized under the general manager.

  • The sushi chef who runs the sushi counter
  • The executive chef who oversees the kitchen
  • The front of house manager who is responsible for the dining room and captains
  • The back of house manager who is in charge of inventory

Recently they added the position of Corporate Chef, a person responsible for all the kitchens in the restaurants within their region.

Work is distributed among these sections, each headed by its own leader.

When they open a new restaurant, they bring experienced staff from other Nobu restaurants to fill the most important posts and to teach the new staff. For the first few months, they gather a task force of experienced trainers from other Nobu locations to help with staff training.

He is always aware that the Nobu brand would be destroyed if he ever took it for granted. Good food, good service, and teamwork. He is always reminding Nobu staff to focus on these.

  • Good food means putting your heart into your cooking and using carefully selected ingredients.
  • Good service means personal service, practicing the Japanese art of perception, to anticipate what each guest wants before they even say it.
  • Teamwork means that everyone, from chefs to general managers, works together as equals.

Nobu thinks that a cuisine unique to a certain country or culture is one that utilizes the “umami” distinct to that region. Umami is an internationally recognized term for a savory taste discovered by a Japanese scientist. As an example, parmesan cheese would be the umami of Italy.

Nobu takes great care to communicate his ideas directly to the staff. Not just in words. He demonstrates with passion, and then lets them try it. He spends 10 months a year going from one restaurant to another to communicate the Nobu philosophy.

At every restaurant, Nobu starts by sitting down at the sushi counter and asking the sushi chef to make him two or three pieces of sushi. He can immediately tell if the rice is too tight or too loose.

Nobu chefs are taught to pay attention to the little details. For example, sashimi should be plated quite differently when served for only one or two people at a sushi counter, than on a plate at a table intended for four or five guests.

Many people will never notice such details, and there is no need to explain. When we take care of such details as a matter of course, and someone who does understand notices, this effort becomes a thing of great value.

Serving anything processed or store-bought is simply not Nobu style. This is why cheese is only used as a seasoning at Nobu restaurants.

Nobu always has a local chef and a Japanese chef manage the kitchen of every Nobu. There are some things about the spirit of Japanese cuisine that it takes a Japanese mind to understand. Likewise, it takes a local chef to understand the preferences of the people who live in that region. This means that Nobu restaurants can adapt to any location.

People can grow and change if they are given the opportunity. Lessons gained through a flash of insight become firmly rooted. The only way he can help all of their staff to understand the Nobu philosophy is to keep sharing it until it clicks.

Nobu asks his chefs to aim for “his” best. With the occasional mistake, the Nobu menu is being continually renewed. Regulars know that anytime they come, they can count on enjoying their favorite dishes and on discovering something new.

New dishes are not created in one try. Cooking is very truthful. A dish made by a chef who longs with heart and soul to explore new things tastes very different from a dish made by a chef who feels obligated to come up with something new for Nobu to try. “Sobagaki,” a dish developed at Nobu Tokyo, took over a year to perfect.

Nobu loves people who respond immediately to his advice. This makes it easier for him to share his ideas with staff, and results in their rapid development. People who respond cheerfully but don’t put his advice into action progress much more slowly, which is a waste.

Chefs at Nobu are always thinking together about new menu ideas.

“It’s selling, so why worry?” This attitude can lead to major loss.

In cooking, simple is best.

As long as our focus remains superficial, we will get no closer to the true nature of our work. If we haven’t grasped its essence and don’t love it from the bottom of our heart, our work will never bear fruit. Once we have found the essence of our profession and start doing it purely for the love of it, our hard work will always open the path before us.

This is why Nobu keeps traveling the world. To encourage their staff to try new things, and to remind them not to lose sight of the essence.

Chapter 6: Transcending a Crisis in Our Partnership, Constantly Perfecting Quality

Nobu Paris opened in 2001 and closed in 2003. This was the only Nobu restaurant that ever closed due to a breakdown in communication with his business partners. The approach of the local partner was not compatible with Nobu’s philosophy.

Nobu has no desire to push forward on a project about which he has any doubts. He will turn down offers if he cannot reach a complete agreement with potential business partners.

When we spend all of our time worrying about money, we lose sight of the smiles on our guests’ faces.

He does not want to waste his energy haggling for better conditions. If he has extra energy, he would rather spend it on his guests. This is why he turns down offers from people who try to bargain. When negotiating, it is important to ask “what if I were the other person?” Because he has stuck with this approach, people now know that Nobu doesn’t bargain. That makes decision-making quick and easy.

The painful experience of closing Nobu Paris strengthened the foundation of their management team. All three of the partners (De Niro, Meir, and Nobu) have gotten very good at carrying out their individual roles and respecting what the others do.

When they get an offer to open a new restaurant, the process works like this:

  • Meir starts the process by consulting with the prospective local partner. If he thinks there is a possibility of doing business together, he contacts Nobu.
  • Nobu meets with the candidate. If he feels they can work together and understand each other. If Nobu feels they can understand each other, it goes back to Meir.
  • Meir leads the way in negotiating the license contract.
  • Once the contract is concluded, Nobu consults with their COO and corporate chef about personnel and concrete operational details. This includes which chefs they should send in, and who should be promoted to the position of manager.
  • When it is time to open the new restaurant, De Niro handles the publicity.

It is fun to work with partners who have high ideals.

Larry Ellison has been a regular customer of Nobu since the early days. He also owns the Nobu Malibu building. Nobu Malibu was originally located in a mall. When Larry bought land along the beach, he suggested that Nobu move to that location and they did.

Nobu likes it was great Japanese restaurants open near his. He sees competition as a favorable development that will raise the prestige of Japanese cuisine in the whole area. It does this by generating competition to produce the best quality. Instead of trying to beat or make more profit than someone else, the real contest is to do our best for the sake of our guests.

True competition increases the quality of both parties. With this type of competition, rivals can coexist and prosper together.

If we don’t consciously seek true competition which develops the level of all involved, it is impossible for a restaurant to grow.

The three key players in the management of a Nobu restaurant are the manager, the chef, and the sushi chef. He cannot open a new Nobu until they have developed these core members. Nobody can open a Nobu without personnel who understand the Nobu philosophy.

Being an example is more effective than reprimanding.

Some Nobu personnel continue to speak harshly to others even after working with them for some time. In such cases, he gives them this advice. When you say it like that, you can hurt the other person’s feelings. Instead of telling them in words, think about how you can be a good leader and show them what they should be doing by your own example.

People who repeat mistakes because they simply aren’t trying hard enough usually leave the Nobu team of their own accord.

You can’t teach someone to have a hungry spirit.

We all need praise to grow and develop.

If we are to grow of our own volition, we must experience that frustration which makes us determined to master something no matter what.

Don’t waste time thinking about whether you know or don’t know. About whether you can or can’t do something. Start by doing, by putting thought into action. It is this attitude that gives an organization energy. The most important role of a leader within any organization is to create this kind of business culture and raise up the next generation of leaders.

Chapter 7: Heading Into a New Stage, Launching Nobu Hotel

Great achievers are people who can learn from any situation, and make that knowledge their own. That is what it means to have a hungry spirit.

When climbing from one level to the next, we might, in our haste, be tempted to skip a step instead of taking them one at a time. If we miss that step, we may never have another opportunity to gain that experience. Even if it slows us down, taking each step one at a time helps us to truly grasp the value of everything we need to reach where we are going.

It is when timing, character, and passion coincide that a person emerges as a leader.

A restaurant where young employees thrive feels great.

Nobu believes they have built a great system that allows people to step-up their careers by identifying their next goal and working toward it. This is the result of carefully fostering the development of each individual restaurant. The ideal restaurant is one where junior employees are eagerly learning and progressing.

Young people who are working hard and developing quickly will listen intently to every little piece of advice. This makes Nobu want to teach them even more, and they in-turn develop even further.

If you want happy staff, the key is good communication, not money. When someone listens empathetically, it makes us feel good. Such a relationship of trust inspires us to strive even harder. It is impossible to build a true organization with a management approach that relies on money as the sole incentive for staff improvement.

Pioneering new things is always met with criticism.

Nobu’s first hotel was opened in Las Vegas inside of Caesar’s Palace.

A spirit of mutual learning, not rivalry, makes organizations stronger.

The desire to learn from one another is far stronger among Nobu’s restaurants and staff than rivalry. Nobu thinks this the result of creating a business culture that readily welcomes and incorporates new ideas and approaches.

If a regular guest from Nobu Atlantis in the Bahamas asks for miso cappuccino for dessert at Nobu New York, the NY staff will immediately email the Bahamas staff for a recipe. They will get a response with the recipe and a photo. This kind of thing happens daily in Nobu restaurants.

My staff’s success is my success.

Employees are people, not robots. If all we do is make them work, they cannot develop. By focusing instead on how to motivate each individual to strive and grow, we end up generating growth in our business as a whole.

When chefs are given the opportunity to go on business trips overseas, Nobu wants them to be greedy to learn, to bring back new ideas and knowledge, and to teach them to the staff back home. When the chefs raise the level of their restaurant in this way, they will in turn raise the level of their own work. Whatever effort they make will come back to them.

Nobu wants his young chefs to be hungry for knowledge.

People who are eager to learn from others pick up far more than those who push others aside in their desire to be number one.

Chapter 8: Work Hard with Passion, the Rest Will Come

More important that calculated plans, we need to have the courage to try something that catches our interest, and the determination to do it right once we get started.

We don’t always need to have a specific reason for doing something. If we just get it started, the value of what we are doing will become clear to us later on.

Approaches to Training and Teaching

Communication is more important than a manual.

Appropriate advice, given at the right moment, can trigger dramatic development.

Teaching people requires patience. If you want to convey a skill to others, you have to keep at it until they have fully grasped what they couldn’t understand before.

As long as you are still working from a sense of what feels right, rather than from conscious understanding, you can’t explain the skill to anyone else because you haven’t truly mastered it.

That is why chefs, or any other artisans, can only be considered full-fledged when they are capable of teaching others.

When skills and know-how are shared within the unit of a team, it becomes possible to do things that you could never have done on your own.

Doing Your Best

If you are always doing your best, you never need to make excuses. People who give it their best shot are forgiven when they make mistakes.

As long as you do your very best, it doesn’t matter if you are internationally-minded or not. The road will always open before you.

You can only understand life by living it for yourself. You will never find the answer without making your own efforts.

To be considerate requires imagination, the ability to intuit what the other is feeling. If everyone tried to be considerate, we would all speak with greater kindness to each other.

It is effort and perseverance that make the impossible possible. It is only by trying that we actually realize what we are capable of doing. If we keep moving forward, even a millimeter a day, we are bound to achieve good results at some point. We have done well if we can say in the end that we are glad we did our best.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 67th book read in my 2020 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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