Industry Insiders: Justin Wyborn, Nobu Poster Boy

Nobu West Hollywood’s man in charge, Justin Wyborn, speaks proudly of the “sense of family” within the Nobu empire. The Aussie-born GM is undoubtedly a poster boy for the company’s family-friendly sentiment. Wyborn has worked at Nobu London, Miami, and the flagship New York City Nobu 57 location. He also opened Nobu Melbourne, Hawaii, and San Diego in addition to his current West Hollywood post.

How did you get involved with Nobu? In 1996, I took a year off university to complete a one-year cadetship at the Savoy Hotel in London. Halfway through the cadetship, I heard about Nobu opening at the new Metropolitan Hotel in London, and a year earlier I had read an article about Nobu New York and loved the concept, so I convinced my university to break my cadetship, which enabled me to work at the new London outpost.

You recently opened the West Hollywood branch. What goes into opening a new location? L.A. has definitely been my favorite and most challenging opening so far. There are so many different people and cultures in the city, and they all come with their own set of idiosyncrasies. I was lucky enough to spend just over two months here before we opened, and I took that time to visit other restaurants and get a feel for what Angelinos were after. But it’s been a year and a half since we opened here, and I’m still trying to find L.A.’s formula.

What’s the most challenging part of your job? We came into L.A. 20 years after Matsuhisa opened his first restaurant, so we’ve been constantly pushing ourselves to think outside of our norm. It’s no longer only about great food and great service, it’s also about entertaining and creating a full night out. Working in L.A., and having to deal with the current economic environment, my job has also included creating events that push the restaurant outside of its normal boundaries of food and service. I now have extracurricular events at the restaurant for just about every night of the week. For instance, every Wednesday I work with Ashlee Margolis and her A-list to create a weekly “tastemakers” dinner.

What’s the most important thing you think people should know about the Nobu brand as it continues to expand? Our mantra is still the same as when Nobu first opened in Tribeca. All of the owners — including Nobu himself and Richie Notar and Meir Teper — are still extremely hands-on with all of the restaurants. They’ve encouraged a strong sense of family within the company and with each restaurant. This sense of family and our passion for our product allows our brand to remain one of the strongest in the world. 

Of all the cities you’ve worked in, which do you think has the best culinary/nightlife scene? London is my favorite for nightlife. It’s a city with great traditions that really thinks outside the box, and it has some really unique clubs and bars that allow you to forget about the gray, cold weather outside. L.A. has great restaurants, and something to offer for everyone, but you just have to find it. Being an Australian, I’m proud to say that Melbourne has some great affordable restaurants. I still think that the best Italian is found in Melbourne — simple and fresh. That’s all you need. New York is all of the above in one city, and I always look forward to going back. Especially for the late-night bars and restaurants.

Any positive trends you’ve noticed in the industry recently? We’re starting to see some unique places open in L.A. that are taking a chance. Street, for instance, has a great concept — street food from around the world. It’s a fantastic idea.

Any negative trends? There are too many people in L.A that are quick to chop down anyone who tries something different or takes a chance. It seems that many people are unable to take a risk and push themselves or their establishments unless they see others making a successful move first. This level of unoriginality and the “Tall Poppy Syndrome” tend to create a negative feel within our industry here.

Who do you admire in the industry? Besides Nobu himself and Richie Notar — Luis De Casas, the director of Nobu openings, has been a great influence in the development of my career. He’s helped me look beyond the basics of a restaurant.

What are your favorite places for dining out in LA and NY? In L.A., The Bazaar, Jose Andres’ place, is great; the city needed it. I went to Fraiche in Culver City last week, which has great, simple, and clean dishes. They do their simple menu very well. In New York, I like Atelier, Joël Robuchon’s place at the Four Seasons. I’ve sat at the kitchen counter many times to eat, and it’s amazing. My favorite late-night place is a small yakitori restaurant called Totto for simple, grilled Japanese.

You work around Japanese cuisine all day, so what’s your idea of comfort food? I rarely cook, but I love the lazy-day-off breakfast and lunch places. My favorite is Square One in East Hollywood. It’s such a random location, but my girlfriend and I tend to find ourselves there for a late meals all the time.