By Don George
I recently had the opportunity to sail with Nobu Matsuhisa, the legendary Japanese chef who created and oversees Crystal’s popular Silk Road restaurants. During our cruise, Nobu-san graciously made time to sit down with me to talk about the history of Silk Road and the philosophy behind his acclaimed restaurants. Since I speak Japanese and he speaks English, our conversation quite appropriately mirrored his cuisine and quickly became an enchanting fusion feast.
In this, Part I, of our conversation, Nobu-san shares how his long relationship with Crystal Cruises came to be, and how the two philosophies blend…deliciously.
How did your relationship with Crystal begin?
About 13 years ago a man named Mr. Takahashi, who lived in Los Angeles, approached me about starting a sushi bar on Serenity, which Crystal was just building at that time. Mr. Takahashi was a regular patron at my restaurant Matsuhisa, and he was also an executive with Crystal.
Were you familiar with Crystal at that time?
Yes, I had sailed on Crystal Harmony as a guest chef a few times to New Zealand and Australia. This was when Toni Neumeister [now Crystal’s Vice President of Food and Beverage Operations] was the chef, about 20 years ago. So I was familiar with Crystal and I was very interested by the idea of creating a sushi bar on board. At that time no cruise line had done this.
How did the project go? Was it very exciting?
Well, rather than exciting, I think I would say it was challenging and even anxiety-making. Because normally the cruise ship work schedule is four months on board and two months off, then again four months on and two months off. And during the four months on, there is no vacation whatsoever. That schedule was a really big challenge for a restaurant, and I worried about that.
One of the first things I did was to put Mr. (Chef) Nakaguchi in charge. He had worked in my restaurants in New York, Las Vegas and Miami. And I asked him to become my first head chef on [Crystal] Serenity. After he said yes, I could relax a little.
Still, there was so much to learn! For example, when we pulled into a harbor, we didn’t know where to get the best fresh fish, so we had to find out where were the best fish providers in all the different local markets. For sushi, the quality of the fish is extremely important.
One more challenge was that my philosophy in my restaurants has always been that we should do whatever we possibly can to make our customers happy. Sometimes a customer would be feeling badly or was really craving a particular kind of food. Even if it wasn’t on the menu, we would do our best to provide it, and we would try to create special dishes for customers who wanted them. That’s not always an easy philosophy to maintain on a large cruise ship. But Mr. Nakaguchi – I call him Naka-san – and I talked about this, and we felt it was important to adhere to our philosophy. I think this approach is part of the reason for our success, as it mirrors Crystal’s own philosophy to strive to cater to guests’ wishes.
What was the original philosophy behind the creation of Silk Road?
With my restaurants Matsuhisa and Nobu, my philosophy basically is that I want to make the customer happy. I also like to experiment with ingredients and food combinations, so that is part of my philosophy as well. I had the same philosophy in making Silk Road. Insofar as possible, I wanted to meet the guests’ request by serving inventive and satisfying dishes, to give the customer a happy experience.