De Niro Moonlights in the Food World
by abby tegnelia
By the early 1990s, Goodfellas, Raging Bull, and The Godfather had made him an international tough-guy screen sensation, and New Yorker Robert De Niro was spending more and more time in Hollywood, on the eve of later classics A Bronx Tale and Casino. There, he became a devoted fan of the liquorless Beverly Hills hot spot Matsuhisa, which many credit as the home of Japanese fusion. It took him a few years, but the Hollywood heavyweight eventually convinced the humble chef, Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, to open a restaurant in De Niro’s neighborhood, Tribeca, with a third partner, producer Meier Teper. What started off as a one-off idea, perhaps so the actor wouldn’t have to travel for his favorite food, has spread to five continents and serves more than 3 million people a year. Now Las Vegas is home to Nobu’s first hotel—accepting reservations now for its February 4 opening—and its largest restaurant ever.
You’ve been working with Nobu for 20 years—what makes him so exceptional?
The food, the special dishes. Everything he does, it’s different, you know? Japanese food in itself is great, but the way he does it, it’s really terrific.
What is he like?
Nobu has an artistic temperament and sensibilities. He has a strong sense of extended family and cares very much about what he does and for the people that work for him. He cares about their well-being and if a restaurant is having problems.
Nobu Caesars Palace is opening in February, inside a hotel that is not only the first-ever Nobu Hotel, but the first ever in the US for a celebrity chef.
I was the one who wanted to start the hotel part of it. If everyone’s always asking the restaurant to be in their hotels to give it a certain cache or credibility, then why aren’t we trying to do a hotel ourselves? It has a little bit of naïveté, but so what? That’s how people start things. You believe in it, take chances, and do it. What’s the worst that can happen? We put it out there to investors and interested people around the world.
And then you landed in Vegas.
I think it’s perfect for here. Perfect.
How did you meet chef Nobu?
At his first restaurant, Matsuhisa. I said that if you ever want to open a Japanese restaurant in New York, let me know. And he did. He texted me a couple months later, and a couple years later we opened one up. I knew it would do well. It was unique and so special.
Two years later, you gave Nobu a cameo in Casino, the Vegas classic.
Yeah. He played a whale, a high-roller from Japan.
Now high-rollers can order 24-hour Nobu room service.
There has to be room service if we’re having the Nobu hotel and the restaurant—that’s the whole point.
What is your favorite dish?
The cod and the artichoke salad. There are so many great dishes, and many that I haven’t had. I keep going back to the same thing.
You’re a creature of habit.
I should probably go every day for five days, or however long it takes, until I’ve eaten everything on the menu.
Tell me about your involvement with what is now a 26-restaurant empire.
I don’t cook the meals, and at the end of the day, it’s all about the food. I could help bring attention to the restaurant and all of that stuff, but if the food doesn’t work, nobody cares.
It seems like you’ve taken a lot of chances in your foray into the food business
People more or less invite us in: “Do you want to open a restaurant here in our city?” So it’s not like you’re going in as a stranger. Our [local] partners know the place and know what people would like, and feel strongly that it’s going to work. They are from there, so that’s the anchor right there.
So it doesn’t feel like a gamble.
No, it’s not like we just come in and open up and hope people come or something. The whole thing is connected with somebody there, so they know what people are going to like.
How would you describe Nobu’s food to someone who has never eaten there?
I would just tell someone, “Go there—you’re going to like it,” like a salesman.
What made you realize that your restaurant idea might be more successful than you bargained for?
When they were starting to open in different cities. The first one was in London, and then we did Nobu Next Door next to Nobu downtown. When we did Nobu 57, that was really a breakthrough. I never expected it to go where it was going, and everything started happening.
What are your favorite restaurants here in Vegas?
I went to the Italian restaurant that’s also in East Harlem in New York, Rao’s. It was good. And Aureole, the restaurant with all that wine? I went there once. That was one of the first that I remember from years ago. I used to eat at Spago; it was the only one over there!
Where do you prefer to sit when you dine out?
It depends: Sometimes I like to see everything, and sometimes I like privacy.
What makes Nobu romantic?
It’s a special experience, so it’s a good date place. The food is good, and the feeling is good. I can’t even get in on Valentine’s Day… just kidding.
Nobu, Caesars Palace, 702-731-7110
photography by Eric Charbonneau/wire image (matsuhisa), seth olenick (sake), steven free man (cod)