By Don George
Today, we revisit my enlightening conversation with the ever-gracious Nobu Matsuhisa, when he sat down with me on a recent Crystal Serenity voyage to discuss his cuisine and long relationship with Crystal. In Part II of my interview with him, Nobu-san candidly shares the operational challenges of creating world-class sushi and cuisine in a restaurant that is always moving – and how his team overcomes them.
Was it your plan from the beginning to have both the Sushi Bar and the Silk Road restaurant combined?
Yes, we wanted to offer people the intimate sushi bar experience but we also wanted to be able to serve a wider variety of foods in an intimate and comfortable setting. We wanted it to be as flexible as possible. Guests can sit at the sushi bar and order dishes from the Silk Road menu, or sit at a table in Silk Road and order sushi from the sushi bar.
In the early years, were there any unexpected challenges you had to overcome?
Becoming acquainted with the destinations and learning where to get the highest quality fish was the biggest challenge. During the early years, every once in a while we would go for three or four days when we couldn’t get good fish, so we would adjust our menu if we needed to. That was a big challenge. Nowadays, we have many sources for high quality fish and we are able to use our refrigeration system to maximize the freshness.
Crystal ships sail all around the world, visiting some very unusual places and out-of-the-way harbors. In some places the fish that the chefs are most used to working with may not be available, and on the other hand, some very unusual fish may be plentiful. That must be quite an interesting opportunity and challenge for the chefs sometimes.
Yes, it is very interesting for the chefs to visit the local markets. But also, by this time, my company has restaurants around the world – we are in 15 countries now. So now we are actually able to utilize and leverage our local chefs and the relationships they have with local fish providers to get the best quality fish for our ships as well. Naka-san can contact me and I can contact the local chef and so we are able to meet special requests and keep the quality of the fish extremely high.
For example, on some days it is very hard to find fish markets in Cape Town. But now have a restaurant there, so if needed, we can contact the chef at that restaurant and he can pick up the fish that we need, and when we are in port, Naka-san can go to get the fish from him. These kinds of global connections are very useful, and they are possible only because of the Nobu network. So this works very well for us.
It’s also true that over time, Naka-san has made good friends around the world. At the beginning, it was very difficult in certain harbors to find the best fish markets and fish providers. But we have been doing this for more than a decade now, and now fish-sellers around the world look forward to Naka-san’s visits!
In what other ways is Silk Road different from – or similar to – your land restaurants?
Well, in a land restaurant, you may see the same diners every month, or every week, or even multiple times a week. You develop an ongoing relationship with them. In a ship restaurant, you see the same diners for a week or maybe two, but after that, it’s a new set of diners. So the dynamic that develops with the customer is different.
But in each case, our goal is to give the customer the best possible experience. So in that sense they are similar. On Crystal ships, we know that our customers are used to a high level of service and they deserve a very special experience, so we are always striving our hardest to meet both of these expectations.
For example, our training is very rigorous. When we have new staff, we start them out by having them work for a week at one of the Nobu land-based restaurants. And because of the four-months-on, two-months-off schedule, we focus on working as a team here. It’s not about any one individual; our success depends on good teamwork. You work together from morning until the end of the night, so you have to have a smooth working relationship. Since each person’s personality is different, this can be quite a challenge! That’s why we need strong leadership too. This is true for any business.
Good teamwork makes happy teams, which makes happy guests. So to my mind, the teamwork is crucially important.
What is the secret of your success?
Cooking is my whole life. And I have never given up. Of course, a business has to make money. But my secret is that I never think about how much we made today. Always what I’m asking the staff is, “how many people came in tonight, how many people were smiling, how many people left happy?”
Even here in Silk Road I’m always watching all the tables to see how the customers are reacting, if they are happy, how many people are smiling right now.
This is my secret – that above everything else, I want the customer to be happy. That’s always my dream and my goal and my passion: to make happy customers.