Why Chef Hervé Courtot Thinks Nobu Has Been So Successful

The story of celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa's rise in the culinary world is the stuff of legends. The unassuming chef rebounded from a string of early failures to head one of the most successful privately-held hospitality empires, encompassing his popular Nobu-branded restaurants as well as an ever-expanding portfolio of world-class hotels. Matsuhisa's story is so dramatic that Hollywood is turning it into a four-part docu-series.

According to Inc., Matsuhisa began his career in Japan when he was 18. There, his crew of Japanese-Peruvians convinced him to move to Peru. When he arrived in Lima, he wasn't able to cook with the traditional Japanese ingredients, so he improvised with local staples, ultimately creating a Japanese-Peruvian fusion before a soured relationship with his business partner led the Lima restaurant to close. From there, Matsuhisa opened a second restaurant in Argentina that eventually flopped and a third in Alaska that burned down (via Salon). 

After back-to-back failures, Matsuhisa moved to L.A. with $24 in his pocket — leaving his wife and kids — and spent nine years working for several sushi restaurants before once again striking out on his own and eventually joining forces with famed chef Hervé Courtot, who has been a key member of the Nobu empire since 2001. With over a decade of experience with the acclaimed chef, he understands what qualities Matsuhisa brings as a visionary and leader to recover from devastating losses and turn an 18-seat Los Angeles sushi joint into a globe-spanning hospitality phenomenon.

Chef Hervé Courtot attributes this to Nobu's success

Matsuhisa opened his sushi joint in Los Angeles 1987 and it slowly caught the attention of Hollywood and, notably, actor and restaurateur Robert Di Niro. The actor invited Matsuhisa to open a New York outpost in a renovated warehouse in Tribeca. However, it took four years for Matsuhisa to take Di Niro up on his offer. When Nobu finally opened, it dazzled New York's notoriously competitive culinary scene (per Salon).

But it was more than De Niro's backing that grew the Nobu empire. Matsuhisa credits his success to his team, per the Harvard Business Review. For example, while Nobu has its core menu items, chefs at each of his eateries are encouraged to create their own specials that incorporate their culinary backgrounds. His appreciation for his team stretches from the line into the dish room and extends to the front of house. 

Chef Hervé Courtot agrees, telling FirstClasse, "I think it's Nobu (Matsuhisa) – the chef himself, and the way he works with you, which is always pushing you and supporting you. Today, he owns 45 restaurants all over the world and he's 68 years old. Most people may say, 'That's enough, I'm famous, I'm rich so leave me alone' but no, he stays humble and he gives so much motivation to other people. He's a good example and I don't think I've met many chefs like him – that's one of the reasons that makes Nobu so successful."