De Niro and Nobu in Doha

We go for dinner with the superstar actor and chef business partners Discuss this article

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© ITP Images

We’re in the biggest Nobu restaurant in the world, among 400 glamorously dressed guests tottering about over 2,415 square feet, and we’re listening to the sounds of Japanese taiko drums while watching legendary actor and director Robert De Niro brandish a wooden mallet in order to smash open a barrel of Japanese rice-based beverage.

No, he hasn’t reverted back to the days of his violent mobster film career. And, no, we are not hallucinating. The act is in fact a symbolic gesture representing an opening to harmony and good fortune, the occasion is the launch of Nobu Doha, and the man who was Jake La Motta, Travis Bickle and Vito flippin’ Corleone actually appears to be smiling.

This is a traditional Kagami Biraki ceremony, and it’s something the star (alongside his Nobu Restaurants’ co-owners Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, film producer Mier Teper and restaurateur Drew Nieporent) host every time they launch a
new venue.

We have been invited to attend the ceremony which, for a mere QR1,500, features free-flowing beverages and myriad plates of signature Nobu dishes such as salmon new style sashimi and scallop foie gras, and offers the unique chance to mingle with the assorted celebrities drawn inescapably to the buzzing glow of the De Niro spotlight.

While it is undeniably a glamorous, star-studded affair – and incredibly exciting for the city – ‘A Night with Nobu and De Niro’ may have been overstated. Their exclusive group sits in a booth, cordoned off from the public, as fans swarm around, trying (and failing) to get a snap of the actor on their phones.

Before the ceremony officially begins, Chef Nobu takes the microphone to humourously and enthusiastically welcome his guests. He concludes by saying, “That’s where my speech ends.” Then he turns to De Niro.

“Let me introduce…”

He trails off. “What’s your name again?” Everybody laughs.

De Niro – notoriously a man of such few words it’s sometimes hard not to think of the persona as a deliberate media smokescreen – smiles and takes the mic.

“It’s great to be here tonight and this is a great restaurant. Thank you all…”

The crowd waits, expectantly. “That’s it,” he says. “Have a good time. I hope you like the place.”

Luckily for us, we got a little bit more out of him earlier in the day, during the seven minutes we were granted to talk to Nobu and De Niro together.

From the start, it’s clear the pair has a lovely friendship, forged by almost three decades of being in business together. Nobu sits comfortably in his chef’s whites beside a dapper DeNiro, donning a crisp white shirt and smart navy blazer, looking slightly uncomfortable with the whole situation but still managing to smile more with his eyes than his mouth.

“Over the years as I’ve gotten to know Nobu more and more, you realise we have similarities,” De Niro says. “We’re empathetic and respectful about what each other feels. Sometimes you can’t break it down – and I don’t know whether I want to do that for an interview here – but there are a lot of things we have, some kind of affinity, respect and affection for each other. He’s a great chef and he knows that I know that.”

Nobu chips in. “He’s my best possible business partner. Now, after over 20 years, we now know which way we’re going. So he has great ideas and I respect him. I don’t know if he respects me,” he laughs. “But he has a great sense of humour.”

De Niro eagerly adds, rolling those famous eyebrows, “Oh, he also has a great sense of humour.”

Interestingly, it took four years after De Niro initially asked Nobu to set up a new restaurant in New York for the chef to finally agree. De Niro has said in the past that each of his acting parts has allowed him to tap into a new or different part of his own character, so we wonder whether his work within the restaurant industry, which includes his own New York venues Tribeca Grill and Locanda Verde, is yet another form of
self-expression.


“It’s not an expression; it’s kind of a need I guess,” he tries to explain. “Very practically I felt that I knew his [Nobu’s] restaurant in New York would be great when we first started. Seeing how it was growing, how successful it was and how people appreciated Nobu’s food and the service and everything, I felt we should grow in other ways, like into hotels.

“So whatever that means… I’m just practical about taking advantage of something and feeling entitled to take advantage of that. Whereas somebody would say, ‘Why do you want to open hotels – you stay over here and do your restaurant,’ I’d say to myself, ‘No’. If you don’t question it, if you don’t say ‘I’m sorry, the reason you want us in your hotel is because we give you more of a caché or credibility… therefore why shouldn’t we do it for ourselves’... We will make mistakes along the way but we want to do this.”


While we’re currently thousands of miles from their first restaurant in New York, neither Nobu nor De Niro are strangers to Doha. De Niro, who co-founded the renowned Tribeca Film Festival, attended the off-shoot Doha Tribeca Film Festival on an annual basis, and was disappointed when the partnership came to an end. “To keep things going you have to show the world and the public you are willing to continue it on and on, that it is not just going to go away but that it is a tradition,” he told Doha News. “That’s what we wanted Tribeca to be about.”

Nobu, as well as making the trip to Qatar on a regular basis, has developed high-end cuisine for Qatar Airways’ business class passengers and, in the region, they’ve also set up Nobu Dubai at Atlantis The Palm Hotel & Resort and are planning the launches of Nobu hotels in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. So it’s understandable that with such a busy schedule, De Niro doesn’t feel the need to make any elaborate speeches.

Later that night, outside in the cool night air of the large rooftop terrace, we end up swept away by the glamour of what they have created in over 30 restaurants and nine hotels.

The Arabian Gulf glints in the moonlight. The drumming stops and the crowd begins to thin, giving the more diehard De Niro fans the chance to finally meet their idol. A fan attempts to snap a selfie with the man many consider to be the greatest actor who ever lived.

Meanwhile, a waitress circles with a tray of De Niro’s favourite Nobu dish – his signature miso-marinated black cod (here, wrapped in lettuce).

“The price of black cod is so high now because he [De Niro] once mentioned he liked it!” Nobu laughs.

“He changed the world.”

Famously spoken by De Niro


A few words from the man of few words

“I don’t like to watch my own movies – I fall asleep in my own movies.”

“I’ve never been one of those actors who has touted myself as a fascinating human being.”

“People treat me with a bit too much reverence. Look at Dustin Hoffman. I always envy the way he can speak and be smart and funny and so on. I just can’t do that.”

“You have no idea that, years later, people in cars will recognise you on the street and shout, ‘You talkin’ to me?’” (On the infamous line from Taxi Driver).

“The hardest thing about being famous is that people are always nice to you.”

“Money makes your life easier. If you’re lucky to have it, you’re lucky.”

A man named Nobu

We dig out five lesser-known facts about this celebrity chef

Not only is he a dab hand in the kitchen, but Nobu has also followed in his famous friend’s footsteps and made a few film appearances himself. Most notably, he played Mr Roboto in Austin Powers’ Goldmember (2002) and joined long-term pal De Niro on the set of Casino (1995).

After serving an apprenticeship at a sushi bar in Tokyo, Nobu moved to Peru to open another sushi bar. Here he was challenged by the lack of authentic ingredients and so played with local produce to come up with fusion dishes. This is known as ‘Nobu style’.

Nobu opened his first restaurant Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills, California, in early 1987 and it was here that he met his future business partner Robert De Niro.

The chef has come under some criticism in the past from conservationists because he continues to use the endangered bluefin tuna in dishes. Due to pressure, in 2011, the decision was made to actually warn customers the dish is ‘environmentally challenged’ on the menu, offering advice to ask servers for an ‘alternative’.

After a devastating fire engulfed his Alaska restaurant, Nobu returned to Japan, in debt, and reportedly fell into a deep depression. This contributed to his hesitation when asked by De Niro to open something in New York.

By Katy Gillett
Time Out Doha,

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