"Normally I am the chef. Today is a tie and suit and I feel bad," he told The Associated Press, referring to his preference of being in the kitchen than in front of a large audience for a tribute dinner.
Nobu, as he prefers to be called, was honoured Saturday at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival for his fusion cuisine that blends Japanese and South American ingredients.
"I've been cooking all my life. Life was not easy, but finally I'm here."
Life has been busy — and quite successful — for the Japanese-born chef who started cooking at the age of 18. He opened his first restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills in 1987 and today has 31 restaurants in more than two dozen cities around the world, from the Bahamas to Beijing. Nobu Tribeca was named "The Best New Restaurant" by The James Beard Foundation in 1995.
His latest venture extends into the hotel industry with the recently opened Nobu Hotel Restaurant and Lounge Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, said to be the largest Nobu restaurant to date. Nobu partnered with actor Robert DeNiro on the project, as he has done since 1994 with other restaurants.
"Before I met him, I had restaurants with other partners but never success," Nobu said. "But with Bob, he respects me. He understands my work. We drink and talk with each other. We also fight, but this communication makes for a nice partnership."
One of his fondest memories includes cooking for Princess Diana before her death in 1997. The soft-spoken chef remembers walking up to her table to introduce himself, but she already knew who he was from magazine articles and restaurant reviews.
"I was so proud of that," he said of that moment. Even today, Nobu takes pride in seeing his customers smile at his restaurants. Or the 85-year-old man who visited his Las Vegas spot and sent Nobu a thank you card. He says that is what makes him want to keep cooking.
"Cooking is my life. And still I am thinking of new dishes."
Nobu plans to slow things down — eventually — so he can travel more to see different foods and spend more time with his family.
Until then, Nobu wanted to share a special message to his friends and family: "Thank you is a short word. But I would like to thank you from my heart."