In a cooking lesson with Chef Nobu, one writer learns the simplicity of sushi is the product of a lifetime of mastering the craft.

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Portrait of Chef Nobu
Credit: Mark Schafer

While there are a lot of names that come to mind when thinking about sushi, one tends to pop up first: Nobu Matsuhisa, the mastermind behind the celebrity-adored Nobu Sushi chain, with locations (and ultra-luxe hotels, including Travel + Leisure's best resort in the U.S.) around the world. 

Born in Japan, and with stints cooking in places like Peru and Argentina, Nobu Matsuhisa built a culinary empire, but the root of his cuisine started by mastering the art of sushi while working at a restaurant, starting at an early age, after his father passed away. Then, sushi was not a common food for most Japanese people. "It [was] very exclusive and a very special food," Chef Nobu said in an interview in his swanky midtown restaurant, adding that his own family rarely had the chance to eat sushi at the time. 

While other kids were dreaming of becoming famous baseball players, Nobu originally wanted to be an architect. But as his love — and skill — for sushi making grew, his dreams changed. "I studied [architecture], but in my mind, 'Architect? Forget about [it]. I want to be a sushi chef.'"

And a sushi chef he became. But in the beginning, long before opening his first iconic restaurant, Matsuhisa, in Los Angeles, working in a Tokyo sushi restaurant was a different experience. "It used to be very old fashioned. I started working to stay with the other sushi restaurant families," he recalled, adding that, at the time, he slept there and only had two days off a month to see his own family.

Now, decades later, Chef Nobu doesn't have to sleep at his restaurants — though he does have a sushi bar where he loves to cook in his Los Angeles home. At the root, though, his passion for sushi hasn't changed a bit, and neither have the basics. "You know, my philosophy is [that] cooking [is] always hard," Nobu said, and the magic ingredients are simple: "A sharp knife and a clean fish," plus rice and 10 fingers. 

To prove to me how intricate the art of sushi making truly is, despite how basic the ingredients seem, Chef Nobu took me behind the counter for a once-in-a-lifetime private sushi making lesson. There, I learned exactly what he meant by 10 fingers. To craft the perfect piece, Chef Nobu and his staff sculpt the rice and fish using a series of six hand motions, almost like a dance, using each finger and motion deliberately and effectively. 

It looks easy, but trust me, it's very, very hard. 

This 10-finger, six-step process is Nobu's signature — and what makes his food distinct. "I like to separate the people eating my sushi," Nobu said about his iconic sushi process. "That's why [I] always make 10 fingers, always each process like, 'Okay, make the best one.'" And this process, he said, brings joy to both the guest and the chefs. Watching guests smile after each bite makes him smile and his team smile, Nobu said. "It's always cooking with the heart, these are my recipes."

Chef Nobu making food in a kitchen
Credit: Evan Sung

Beyond cooking, Chef Nobu tries to spend time visiting his native Japan — and knows that there's plenty for tourists to experience in the Land of the Rising Sun. According to the chef, Tokyo and Kyoto are the "most famous" cities, but he likes to spend time exploring the different prefectures. "Each location is a different weather," he said, and has its own local food. "My wife comes from Okayama — it's Kurashiki. It [has] very good seafood, and peach, melons. And also [the mountains] are famous, so Hokkaido, the ski resorts."

But, Nobu said, if it's your first time to Japan, you cannot miss Tokyo's second-to-none food scene.

"Tokyo is, I think, a completely different city because they have everything: high-end food, very local food, and street food and [family] restaurants… in the city of Tokyo you can get anything you want."

Until you can make it to Japan, chances are you're not too far from Chef Nobu's delicious sushi. "Now there's a Nobu restaurant [on] like five or six continents," he said, losing count.

But, whether you're in Dubai or Dallas, Cabo or Chicago, it's safe to say you can always expect the same storied sushi, because, as Nobu himself says, it's all about the details and making the guests happy. "That's why I [love] my job. And still, I never changed my philosophies: always, cooking is hard."