The very first Nobu Hotel—a 182-room tower within Caesars Palace Las Vegas—recently commemorated its fifth anniversary with a sushi, Champagne and caviar celebration on the private terrace of the 10,300-sq.-ft., $35,000-per-night Nobu Villa, the crown jewel of Caesars’ hotel-within-a-hotel. While corporate executives, city dignitaries and VIP guests took in the bird’s-eye view of the glittering Strip, the Nobu’s three notable partners—innovative sushi chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro and film producer Meir Teper—made it clear that they had their sights set on global expansion. The trio recently announced a 10-year contract with Caesars Entertainment and plans to quickly double their hotel portfolio throughout five continents in the next two years. Instead of following hospitality trends, Nobu’s partners have cooked up just the right ingredients to reinvent the boutique hotel concept, even if much of it was a happy accident. Connect chatted with Nobu’s three partners to discover the secrets to their success.
Prior to Nobu, all three of you extensively traveled the world, picking up luxury hospitality lessons along the way. What hotels do you admire and enjoy most?
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa: I like The Peninsula and Four Seasons hotels. They are all very different. But my favorite is Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris, maybe because I also have a restaurant there. Robert De Niro: I like classic hotels like Hotel Du Cap-Eden-Roc in Cap d'Antibes, in the south of France. And I used to love The Savoy in London. In my earlier days, I’d go there all the time for the great, classic elegance of it. I liked the whole feeling of staying there, looking at the Thames. Meir Teper: I have to also say Hotel Du Cap, and the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Melbourne, Australia, possibly the best hotel in the world. The Crowne has beautiful facilities, and service is excellent—like on luxury yachts, you never see when they make up your room. Timing is very important. And at Hotel Du Cap, the grounds are spectacular. You feel you are staying at Palace of Versailles.
Now that you’ve been in the hotel business for five years, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
Teper: Surprisingly, there have not been many surprises because we gave a lot of thought to create something we believed for years that hotels should have. Great service is the most important thing we can provide.
How have you seen the needs and expectations of customers at Nobu change in the past five years?
[inlinead align="left"][/inlinead] De Niro: I always believe in tradition. If you can maintain tradition, people look for that. I know I do. When I go to a restaurant that’s been there for 20, 30 years, I expect it to be just as good and still serve the things I liked for all those years. It annoys me when I go to a place with a great dish or pastry that all of a sudden is not there anymore because the new chef wanted to change things. It must be ego. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That’s my feeling. We don’t have to grab for new things. Leave it alone.
There are so many iconic Nobu dishes—rock shrimp tempura, yellowtail with jalapeno, black cod miso—but they’re now imitated in hundreds of restaurants. How does it feel to have your innovative dishes enter the mainstream?
Matsuhisa: I love that people copy my food. It makes me proud. I say, “People can copy my food, but nobody can copy my heart.” It’s more than technique. Everybody can add jalapenos, but not everybody has my passion, and customers understand that.
What ambitions do you have for new Nobu hotel locations?
De Niro: I want to do a resort in the Caribbean. We’re working on that about 30-something miles northwest of Antigua in the commonwealth of Antigua and Barbuda. It will be the first Nobu Beach Club. I’ve been working on it a long time and investing a lot of money, so at this point it’s a big dream for me. I’ll be very, very happy when that gets going.
With one foot in a global restaurant business and the other in hospitality, how do you manage to bring the two together while maintaining quality and retaining staff?
De Niro: Nobu is great. Not only is he a great chef, but he also has a great sense of community and organization and stick-to-itiveness. It’s up to him to keep the ship afloat. We’re all the support system. For example, I can get people in the door once, maybe twice, but if they aren’t impressed, they’re not coming back a third time. Nobu has a great sense of loyalty to people who work for us. For example, when we have a restaurant that only works seasonally, then what do we do with the people who work there the rest of the year? Where do we put them? We’re concerned about them, so we place them somewhere else that also works seasonally, and everyone benefits.
How do you approach the hospitality business with millennials entering the marketplace with a new mindset?
Teper: You can think about everything, but sometimes things happen on their own. Millennials are certainly attracted to the Nobu style and locations, but what we are experiencing at the hotels and restaurants is that children love Nobu. Parents tell us all the time that they ask their children where they want to go, and they say “Nobu! Nobu!” I don’t want to mention names, but at Nobu Malibu I recently saw a well-known businessman with his two young children. He said, “Ask my son about his biggest goal in life.” So, I did, and his son said, “To visit every Nobu in the world!” That’s a good goal. Matsuhisa: I see many second-generation people come whose parents used to come to Nobu New York or Matsuhisa Beverly Hills when they were dating. As kids they were introduced to Japanese food at my restaurants and grew up loving the tempura or the yellowtail jalapeno (without the jalapeno when they were small). I always talk to families and I say to the children, “Study hard; graduate college; find the best job; make lots of money; and bring it here.”
Chef, you built a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska, only to see it burn to the ground and leave you and your family penniless. How did you survive that Thanksgiving Day disaster?
Matsuhisa: It is my worst experience because it was my last chance. I was born in Japan, lived in Japan and studied to cook in Japan, and then I went to Peru, then Chile and then Alaska and built a restaurant there with my own hands. Fifty days after we opened, my first day off was also my first national holiday in the United States. That was the day the fire came. Suddenly everything was gone—except my knife that I found in the rubble. I was so distraught. My dream was gone. I tried to kill myself. I am here today because a lot of people—my families at home and in the kitchen—supported me. That’s why I always work hard and appreciate the people around me. I don’t look at the next 10 years ahead. I always look at the right-here-and-now in this moment.