De Niro Moonlights in the Food World
by abby tegnelia
“You believe in it, take a chance, and do it,” Robert De Niro says. “What’s the worst that can happen? That’s how people start things.”
Taking chances on depicting enigmatic, tough characters—the self-destructive boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, the antihero Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver—made De Niro’s career and earned him two Academy Awards. But rolling the dice in an entirely different field? That’s just what he did more than two decades ago when he encouraged Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, then a little-known chef creating the first Japanese fusion food in LA, to branch out and come east.
The actor’s cool confidence in reaching beyond Hollywood may come from the simple truth that great talent recognizes great talent. De Niro was a devoted fan of Matsuhisa, once a tiny, liquor-less joint in Beverly Hills. “To me, Nobu has an artistic temperament,” De Niro says. “Everything he does, it’s special, you know?”
Despite his fame, it took him a few years to convince the humble Matsuhisa to look beyond LA. At first, the actor’s ambitions for Nobu were modest—he just wanted his favorite Japanese food in New York. (The first restaurant opened in Tribeca in 1994.) “I never expected it to go where it was going,” he says. Nobu is now a 25-restaurant empire serving more than 3 million diners a year on five continents; in Miami, the South Beach outpost has been going strong almost 12 years.
When Nobu opened locally in 2001, the town had few celebrity chefs, but De Niro and his third partner, Hollywood producer Meir Teper, felt that Nobu would work well there. Its location inside the Shore Club South Beach—as well as the by-then-famous menu standouts like black cod with miso, rock shrimp, and sea urchin, and signature cocktails such as Midori martinis—translated into immediate success in a city poised for explosive growth. Today, epicures still covet a table at the elegant, dimly-lit space, overseen until this year by Nobu USA Corporate Executive Chef Thomas Buckley, who coauthored, with Matsuhisa, Nobu Miami: The Party Cookbook, featuring playfully refined recipes like foie gras croquettes with yuzu marmalade.
This month, Matsuhisa himself will be coming down to Miami for three events related to the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, including a vegetarian dinner at the restaurant; the annual Best of the Best series (which spotlights top chefs as they pair dishes with wines rated 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s scale) at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach; and a tribute dinner honoring both Matsuhisa and Christophe Navarre, CEO of Moët Hennessy, with Martha Stewart acting as MC, at the Loews Miami Beach.
De Niro, too, makes the rounds at all of his restaurants, traveling as far as Moscow, Beijing, and Dubai—and to the Magic City. “I like Miami. I’ll go with my wife, or a friend, or Nobu,” he says. He’s an involved partner, helping when needed at new restaurants, and with business and design decisions to grow the company. But despite their worldliness, the Nobu team stays local when partnering with investors: “The whole thing is connected with somebody [in a particular city], so they know the place and what people are going to like. That’s the anchor, and we’re not going in as a stranger. Some companies [like] to do a lot of research, but we’ve been doing it where people invite us in.”
Despite Nobu’s growth, De Niro has never wavered from his original idea: that people would turn up for the unique mouthwatering dishes. He says he only sensed Nobu would have such an impact on the restaurant world with the opening of the third restaurant, in Midtown Manhattan. “Then everything started happening.”
The brand today includes a growing chain of Nobu Hotels (Las Vegas, Riyadh, and soon London and Bahrain). “I was the one who wanted to start the hotel part of it,” De Niro admits. “If everyone’s always asking that the restaurant be in their hotels to give them a certain cachet or credibility, if you will, then why aren’t we trying to do a hotel ourselves? The idea of the Nobu Hotel to me made a lot of sense. It was worth trying.”
Worth trying—it’s a business mantra that seems astoundingly simple, and De Niro’s instincts for getting involved with projects outside the film world have proven remarkably good. But he’s under no illusion as to the role his celebrity plays in making a restaurant or hotel catch on. Speaking of Nobu’s success, he says, “At the end of the day, it’s the food, what Nobu does. You know I could help bring attention to the restaurant and all of that stuff, but if it doesn’t work, nobody cares.”
photography by brigitte lacombe (opener); ERIC CHARBONNEAU/WIREIMAGE (DE NIRO); GABRIEL PEDRE PHOTOGRAPHY (SUSHI BAR)