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How Robert De Niro Convinced Nobu to Build a $100 Million Sushi Empire

You’ve seen the queues outside his restaurants; you know the prestige of his fabled hotel chain, but who is the man behind the Nobu name? In this unique chat with one of the world’s most celebrated culinary masters, Ben McKimm unpacks the life and legacy of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa.

In the grand bastion of gastronomic institutions, one name stands tall. Four letters, 56 restaurants, 36 hotels and a myriad of flavours, Nobu has become the culinary go-to for celebrities, politicians, businessmen, and foodies worldwide. Here, inside the sophisticated Kuidaore-exuding walls, consistency reigns supreme, with a familiar menu cautiously replicated across every one of the brand’s many global outposts. Whether you’re dining at Nobu in Sydney or London, the holy trinity of Nobu dishes will be waiting for you: Crispy Rice, Yellowtail with Jalapeno, and Black Cod Miso.

Sydney-siders are especially lucky, with the brand’s restaurant at The Crown one of the only venues to offer the all-you-can-eat Nobu Gochiso Lunch. It’s unsurprisingly been a major success since launching, so much so that the great man himself, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, made the trek Down Under to celebrate. In a rare one-on-one, I sat down with the legendary chef to talk all things food and hotels, but it was his admission about business partner, Robert De Niro, that caught my attention. As Chef Nobu revealed, it was the Academy Award-winning actor who gave him the confidence he needed to build his $100 million sushi empire.


As an entrepreneur with stations scattered across the globe, it’s no surprise to hear that Chef Nobu’s working history involves a fair amount of travel. As the sushi master explains, the cross-cultural experiences of his youth helped to shape him into a better chef. “I was born in Japan, and I grew up and learned there before I moved to Peru and opened a restaurant.”

“When I graduated from my training in Japan, I moved to Peru, Argentina, and Alaska, and then I opened my first restaurant in Los Angeles, Beverley Hills, before the first Nobu in New York in 1994. I’ve had the chance to travel all over the world, including the continents I mentioned, and it’s allowed me to see the local cultures, food and products, and the local habitat. This is very good for the experience for me because when I combine my cooking style with the local ingredients, it creates better food and helps shape me as a chef.”

He notes Australia’s unique dining culture (including the use of kangaroo meat, hilariously) but focuses on our ingredients, which he believes are amongst the best in the world. That sentiment rings especially true when it comes to the fish that he uses to create his legendary Yellowtail with Jalapeno.

“I love Australian ingredients because, in other countries, there’s a lot of farmed fish, including tuna, yellowtail, snapper, and shrimp. However, Australia seems home to more nature and you can see it in the fish, especially.”

“For example, the yellowtail. In America, even Japan, they farm yellowtails, so it’s a little fatty. However, when I come to Australia, I find the fish is fresh. They even smell different. I love Australian fish.”

Hearing Chef Nobu speak so proudly about Australian produce is particularly exciting for anyone who’s had a chance to experience the legendary dish. Stunning in its presentation, it is a simple meal that combines finely sliced fish with fresh lemon and soy sauce. Often imitated but never copied, Nobu was happy to share the story behind this dish because, as he says, “You know, all of my signature dishes have a great story behind them.”

“For the Yellowtail with Jalapenos, I was in Hawaii for a big charity dinner with one of my friends. There were more than 250 guests, it was a big success. However, when the party was over and all the chefs went to hang out, we had a few drinks: beer, sake, wine, etc. and being chefs, we started to get hungry. So each chef made one dish to share with everyone, and that day, I was using yellowtail.”


“I went back to the fridge, sliced and prepared the plate, and then, you know, normally we eat sashimi with soy sauce and wasabi, but I was a little tired, so I only used soy sauce. I ended up with a fresh yellowtail, and I found some jalapenos and chopped them up, added lemon juice, and a little bit of soy sauce. So then, each chef is trying this dish and saying, “This is great.”

“I brought the idea back to Los Angeles to add it to the menu. Suddenly, people started saying, “Oh, can I try some of the Yellowtail with Jalapeno.” Then, chefs from other sushi restaurants started to come to Nobu to order the dish and add it to the menu at their restaurants. So now there’s a Yellowtail with Jalapeno all over the world. However, I like to keep the dish simple, clean, and beautiful. That’s the Nobu concept of food.”

While the ‘Nobu concept of food’ applies to every dish on the menu, perhaps none are as important to the brand as the famous Black Cod with Miso.

“My first restaurant in Beverly Hills was only 38 seats. I had no money, but I went to the fish market every day, and one day, I found a frozen black cod which I recognised from my time in Alaska. It was very cheap then, so I bought it and took it back to my restaurant.”

“With this one, I originally tried the Japanese-style marinade with miso. However, I didn’t want to prepare this exactly like they did in Japan, so I created my own recipe. I sliced the fish fillet and experimented with the marinade. First, I tried an overnight marinade, but it was not enough. I tried for two days, but not enough. Then, after three days, I cooked the fish, and it was perfect, so I started serving it to the customers.”

This cheap, albeit delicious, fish would leave a lasting impression on the one person who believed in Chef Nobu above all others. “One day, Robert De Niro came to a restaurant in LA, and he really liked it. Then an interviewer asked, “What is De Niro’s favourite food?” and he answered, “Black Cod,” and it’s been famous ever since. You can find the recipe in my cookbook. People can’t believe I’m giving away the secret recipe, I’m just happy everyone can cook it for themselves. It’s amazing to see this dish served all over the world.”

“You can copy my food, but nobody can copy my heart.”

This dish would spur a unique and long-lasting relationship between the two icons. What started in the late 1980s would continue for the next 30 years as De Niro moved from customer to business partner and eventually, friend.

“I opened my first restaurant in Beverley Hills in 1987. The next year, Robert De Niro came to visit, and he liked the food, especially the black cod. Not long after that, he invited me to New York City and asked me to open a restaurant. I stayed at a hotel in the World Trade Centre for three or four days and spent time with him. He showed me his new building in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighbourhood, the space where he would like me to open the restaurant. He said, “This is my office, there’s the screen room,” he showed me all over the building. He told me about his dream to open restaurants with me, but at that time, my first restaurant was just beginning, and the staff weren’t trained enough.”

“I didn’t want to be too quick to open the next restaurant. So finally, I said thank you so much for the offer, but no thank you, I’m sorry.”

The opportunity declined, Chef Nobu returned to his home base and quietly fixated on improving every facet of the operation. As he explains, the goal was not necessarily to expand or grow, and in fact, by the time De Niro returned to the fold, he had completely forgotten about the initial offer.

“I’d seen him at my restaurants, but I hadn’t really heard from him in five years. Then one day, he called my home and said “Hey Nobu, maybe you need to come to New York one more time.” I didn’t understand what he was talking about, I had completely forgotten. Then he said, “I was watching you for these four or five years. You have amazing reviews in the New York Times, Forbes, etc., and maybe your team has grown, and now it could be time for you to come to New York.” I was a little surprised because I forgot everything, but he was still watching me.”

“That’s when I knew I could trust him, he’s not just a big star. Fast forward a few years and we opened the first Nobu in New York in 1994. He’s still a good friend, a good partner.”

If there is one thing to take away from Chef Nobu’s remarkable story, it’s that perseverance pays off. Under the guise of quiet luxury, Chef Nobu, Robert De Niro, and film producer Meir Teper have established one of the world’s most successful fine-dining restaurant brands. Somehow, in listening to Chef Nobu’s remarkable story, it’s surprising more Hollywood heavyweights haven’t come to the table, not merely in the investment stakes. A respected, albeit reserved chef, joins forces with a titan of the film industry to create a global culinary sensation worth upwards of $100 million. Sounds like Oscar bait to me.