How We Met: David Rockwell & Nobu Matsuhisa

'He was obsessed with the height relationship between the eyes of the chef and the customer'


David Rockwell, 53, is an architect and founder of the Rockwell Group design firm. His projects include the W Hotel in New York, Gordon Ramsay's Maze in London and Nobu restaurants throughout the world. He lives in New York with his film-producer wife and their two children

It was about 16 years ago that I first met Nobu. I was organising a charity event for Citymeals-on-Wheels, which caters for the elderly of New York. It was called Feast of the Many Moons and I had spent the day obsessed with getting the most perfectly translucent moons to hang for the event. By the evening, I'd become obsessed with Nobu's food.

It was the first time he had come to New York and the city's foodies were eager for a taste. It was simply incredible. I was friends with Drew Nieporent, who is Nobu's partner, and when I heard they had been talking with Robert De Niro about creating a restaurant in New York, I badgered Drew into getting me involved.

I believe restaurants should be crafted around the personality of the chef, so the more I could find out about Nobu, the better the design I could come up with.

Nobu is very quiet and it has taken some time to draw him out, but it's been refreshing in such a fast-paced world to have a friendship that has had the luxury of growing incredibly slowly.

Nobu cares deeply about detail. When I started work on the first restaurant, I had planned to put some long platforms along one side for the tables to sit on, to give a nice sense of ceremony. He looked at a model and said he didn't want it. But I thought it was a good idea, as did Drew, so I put half a platform in. Later, when the restaurant was under construction, Nobu visited and made a beeline for it and just said, "No platform." We took it straight out. He has a very certain sense of how he wants things to be. When we were developing the sushi bar, he was obsessed with the height relationship between the eye of the sushi chef and the eye of the customer.

There's nothing quite as gratifying to me as when Nobu sees a project for the first time, clasps his hands in front of him and a look of sheer joy comes across his face. It's thrilling to get that out of him.

He loves to talk to me about design; his father was an architect. And in turn I love to talk to him about food. I do like to complain about how hard it is to shop for his recipes.

We love to socialise together, but since having children, it's become harder. I saw him in London a few months ago and, as I live five blocks from his New York restaurant, we always get together when he's in town.

Nobu Matsuhisa, 60, is the executive chef and co-owner, along with Robert De Niro, of Nobu restaurants worldwide, an empire spanning the US, Asia, Australia and Europe. He lives in New York

The first time I met David, at a meeting about my first Nobu restaurant, in Tribeca, downtown Manhattan, I remember thinking he was very tall. Fifteen years and countless collaborations later, David's height has become less remarkable to me and now the first characteristics that come to mind are respect, curiosity, thoughtfulness and passion.

In the beginning, it was difficult to hand over the visual identity of my restaurant to someone who cannot intimately understand my craft as I do. I wanted a designer who would capture the essence of my food in a way that resonated with me. But I feel David has always understood the identity of the cuisine, and has been flexible and receptive to my thoughts.

I never thought about using a Japanese designer, as my restaurants are about blending my cuisine with each restaurant's cultural context, and no one is better placed to design a place in New York than David.

Although our businesses are incredibly different, we are both intensely curious and always looking for ways to innovate. We have really grown together and it is a wonderful feeling to have such confidence and familiarity. These days, when you walk into one of my restaurants designed by David, you can tell it's a Nobu restaurant.

He really understood how to craft a restaurant to best serve customers, and I've learnt from him how different home design is to restaurant design. For instance, a chair in a home should be comfortable enough that you can sit in it for hours on end, but in a restaurant, chairs should be comfortable, but not so much that you have no table turnover.

His designs are warm, theatrical and constantly changing, but David is very respectful and listens to what I have to say. However, when we were working on our first restaurant together, one of the things I thought I had made clear was that I didn't want any steps in the restaurant, as I thought it was dangerous, especially after customers drink too much. When I walked in, I was shocked to see steps. I was angry and made David redo one whole area, but compromised on one step in the back-room. I now understand better that designers want to create different spaces within the dining-room, but David also knows this is one thing I won't bend on.

Our relationship is very honest and we talk though our visions. Even if we begin with different viewpoints, we listen to each other to come up with something better.

I am very lucky to consider many of my business associates friends. Some are closer than others, but I respect and value all of them. With David, however, I feel that I have a special relationship.

www.noburestaurants.com; www.rockwellgroup.com

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