If it hadn’t been for a fire that burned down his first American restaurant, if it hadn’t been for actor Robert De Niro chasing him for four years to expand his tiny, no-alcohol Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles, if it hadn’t … well, the list goes on. But today, Nobu Matsuhisa is poised to open his largest restaurant to date at Caesars Palace, and then a month later opens the world’s first Nobu hotel.
Then there’s his executive corporate chef whose life he saved by putting him on a diet that forced him to drop more than 150 pounds. The stories bubbling around the always humble and peaceful Nobu are legendary and amazing, more so today than ever before because his first U.S. restaurant that once burned to the ground in ashes has arisen into an empire where he now has 29 around the world, from Beijing, Budapest and the Bahamas to Hong Kong, Cape Town, Dallas and Dubai, leading him to travel 10 months of the year to visit them all.
Nobu’s father, a lumber merchant, died in a traffic accident when Nobu was only 7. Life was a struggle, but he graduated high school in Saitama, Japan, and found a live-in job at a Tokyo sushi restaurant. It eventually took him to Peru and Argentina, where his partners fought about food costs, and he was forced out of that opportunity.
He moved to Alaska, but 50 days after he’d sunk his life savings into opening a restaurant, it burned to the ground on his first night off. He admits that he was broken but not beaten and went to L.A. to work in a sushi bar to pay off debts and start saving for another restaurant of his own. “I didn’t want to give up,” he told me quietly. “Cooking is my life; it’s what I do.”
It took nine years to become solvent again, and Nobu’s fortunes changed. In 1987, he opened a tiny hole in the wall, Matsuhisa, on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. It became a sensation with the stars and is still there after 25 years -- and still doesn’t serve liquor. I’ve known him ever since he opened it. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten credits Nobu as “the man who reinvented Japanese food.”
“As a kid, I had a dream to be a chef, but when I opened the original Matsuhisa on North La Cienega, I didn’t think eventually we’d have 29 around the world,” he said. “It’s taken 50 years of being in America because I only grow when it is right and a new restaurant won’t harm the others and it will do good and be successful when it’s open. “
Every year for the past 18, his business growth has set records. He serves 3 million customers every year and has 3,500 employees on five continents -- and yet still a private company for Nobu, Robert and his Hollywood film-producing partner Mier Teper.
On the Strip for this month’s 6th Annual Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit, Nobu told me that Robert was one of his early L.A. customers and made him an offer to open one in Manhattan. “The first time, I said, ‘Bob, I cannot do it.’ It was still too early to open the next one. After four years of him asking, I told him I was now ready. I almost killed myself after my restaurant in Alaska caught on fire and was destroyed. I worried for years about being away from Matsuhisa. He waited for me for four years, and then we opened in New York and had great success so we could open in London and then Tokyo. Now we have three in New York and will have two in Las Vegas.”
Nobu opened his restaurant in the Hard Rock Hotel, and now he’s coming to the Strip. His restaurant at Caesars Palace, his largest yet with more than 300 seats, should be open in October. And in November, he will open his first-ever Nobu boutique hotel with 180 rooms and suites of “fun, five-star-level luxury.” A second one is already in the planning stages for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“Everywhere I go in the world, I find that people like our sashimi and sushi -- all our fish. We have been very successful elsewhere in the Middle East, especially at the Atlantis Palm Island hotel in the United Arab Emirates. Now I am excited about our new Strip restaurant and first hotel in Las Vegas. It’s easier to fly here from Los Angeles than anywhere else!”
His no-liquor original Matsuhisa is still standing in L.A., and he opened a Nobu -- with drinks -- up the street. “It’s not really competition because Nobu has a bar and is for the younger crowd. But competition is good for us anyway even with the same restaurant because the chefs make it more exciting competing against each other. Business is doing well in both,” he added.
The largest of his global restaurants will be at Caesars with 327 seats in the sprawling 11,200-square-foot space designed by David Rockwell, who also designed the Nobu hotel in the former Centurian Tower at Caesars.
“The footprint remains the same with the same 180 accommodations but completely different with his own signature style and sophistication,” said Caesars President Gary Selesner of the $30 million venture. The hotel will have its own entrance and concierge check-in level, and Gary says its room rates will be priced similar to the new Augustus and Octavius towers.
Nobu, who didn’t have to acquire a gaming license because there won’t be tables and slot machines in his new location, will continue to operate Nobu Hard Rock.
The food and kitchen crew at Nobu Caesars Palace will be under the leadership of corporate executive chef Thomas Buckley, who started out with the Japanese master in the London outpost. Thomas began his food career as a waiter in a hotel after school but at 16 asked to work in the kitchen. It wasn’t until he told his mother in Yorkshire, who raised him as a single parent, that he wanted to be a chef that he learned his father also was once. “I never knew until then,” Thomas said. ”I am second generation.”
Which brings us to the final story in our tale of Nobu. Thomas ballooned in weight when he moved to Miami to open Nobu when his wife, Narissa, became pregnant. “It was awful,” he told me. “I was eating myself to an early grave -- steaks, pies, chips in beef dripping. Everything! I owe my life to Nobu, who ordered me to cut the weight. I stopped eating all the bad stuff and stuck with everything on the Nobu menu. You can call it the Nobu diet if you like because I lost 150 pounds. He is a humble, generous man, and I like his style and philosophies. He lets me be very creative in his restaurants, so in moving to Las Vegas, we will have a lot of new surprises.” For the first time, they will have 10 teppanyaki tables.
As Nobu unveiled the renderings of the new hotel and restaurant, Thomas served vegetable-marinated umami sea bass on sauteed mixed mushrooms and tuna tataki skewers with caviar, micro celery and teardrop tomatoes. At the Vegas Uncork’d Grand Tasting, he served two Nobu favorites: rock shrimp tempura in a butter lettuce cup with creamy spicy sauce and yuzo juice and white fish dry miso sashimi.
Now with Nobu for 10 years after his stint in New York with chef Daniel Boulud, Thomas travels to all the Nobu restaurants to check on them, but he’ll be stationed in Las Vegas to get the new projects here up and running. “We don’t think of ourselves as a chain because each city has its own spin on the dishes using local products from their areas,” he explained, promising that Nobu’s lobster risotto and wagu tartare will be available with their Japanese European influences on the menu.
Thomas is heavily credited as co-author with Nobu in the chef’s third book, “Nobu Miami: The Party Cookbook,” with his Florida and Latin American twists to classics. He plans to do the same with a Las Vegas twist once he moves here.
“The Nobu hotel will take on the look and feel of Nobu’s restaurants with a fun, whimsical and classic appeal,” said Tom Jenkin, Caesars’ western division chief. “All of the things that make you feel good about dining at Nobu will be translated into the feel of the hotel.”
If you have a reservation in the hotel, you’re guaranteed a reservation in the restaurant. And all because a restaurant once burned down in Alaska and Robert De Niro patiently pleaded for four years.
Vegas DeLuxe welcomes Nobu and Thomas to the Strip and predicts that the hotel and restaurant will be the hottest opening of the fall and winter.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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