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December 21, 2014

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Nobu’s secret to success? Watching his first restaurant go up in flames 50 days after opening

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Erik Kabik / Retna / ErikKabik.com

Nobu Matsuhisa attends the Grand Tasting of 2014 Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit on Friday, May 9, 2014, at Garden of the Gods in Caesars Palace.

Nobu Caesars Palace Hotel Grand Opening: 4/28/13

Robert De Niro, Ed Sheeran and Nobu Masuhisa attend the Nobu Caesars Palace Hotel grand-opening celebration Sunday, April 28, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Nobu Hotel and Restaurant Ribbon Cutting

The Nobu Hotel and Restaurant ribbon-cutting opening with chef Nobu Matsuhisa and business partner and actor Robert De Niro in Caesars Palace on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013. Launch slideshow »

He must own the secret to eternal youth. At age 65, he still looks as young and full of life as the day fellow chef Wolfgang Puck introduced me to him in Beverly Hills, Calif., in the late 1980s. Wolf told me to keep my eyes on Nobu Matsuhisa as a future great star chef.

What’s even more incredible is that when Nobu came to America to seek fame and fortune, his dream went up in smoke — literally in flames. Fire destroyed his first restaurant within days of opening its doors in Alaska after he moved from Lima, Peru. A customer at a restaurant in Japan where he worked had persuaded Nobu to move to the South American country and open his own restaurant.

It was where he honed his cuisine of incorporating Peruvian ingredients into Japanese dishes. The dream was always to get to America, though, and finally it came true. Only it crashed and burned almost immediately.

“I’d been here 50 days,” recalled Nobu. “I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to die. It was the bottom of my life.”

He will never forget watching the flames burn the building to the ground. In all the years I’ve known him, it has served as the fuel of his extraordinary success as he’s gone on to build an amazing empire of nearly 40 global restaurants and hotels — open or about to open.

Nobu has restaurants from Moscow to Melbourne, from Beijing to Budapest, from Aspen to Athens, from Los Angeles to London, two here in Las Vegas and his first Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace. Before year’s end, he will open Nobu hotels and restaurants in the Middle East, Asia and Miami.

It’s mind-boggling growth in a partnership with actor Robert De Niro and banker and producer Meir Teper, who was here for Vegas Uncork’d. (Nobu appeared in the 1995 Martin Scorsese film “Casino” playing a wealthy businessman who was a guest in Robert’s Las Vegas casino.)

Nobu pulled up a big bottle of his own sake for our late-night chat at his restaurant in Nobu at Caesars after his Master Series Dinner at the Vegas Uncork’d celebrations.

We’d just enjoyed an extraordinary seven-course dinner working our way through a magnificent menu of yellowtail tartare, salmon kelp roll with tuna crispy rice, fluke spinach salad, Chilean sea bass, braised short ribs, four sushi and five mini desserts.

Why did you pick this menu tonight for Vegas Uncork’d?

Well they’re mostly my signature dishes. I wanted the guests to taste as many of my most popular dishes as possible. I wanted them to get the hint of the peppers and the different sauces. I knew they would like the seared beef and the different combinations they probably never experienced before.

And your huge empire is continuing to grow? When do you open the next hotel?

The next hotel opens in the Philippines on Oct. 1. Manila. Then Dubai, just a restaurant by the end of the year. Plus, Kuala Lumpur. I think now 33 around the world, plus five Matsuhisas. I’m starting to lose count, but we will keep going. When I grow up, I want to be like you. I want to always keep going. I don’t want to ever stop.

I’ve been cooking all my life. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy seeing the customers’ smile. I’m a lucky person because the company keeps growing, and that means my team keeps growing. They used to be the kids, and now with more experience they become the corporate chefs and corporate pastry chefs.

We become a bigger organization, and we get more kids in who will become tomorrow’s corporate chefs. And so it goes — and grows. We are now the biggest and most organized we have ever been.

Remember when you first came to America and that first restaurant burned right to the ground?

Alaska, Anchorage. Just two months — after 50 days of opening. I almost killed myself, but I didn’t. It was the worst experience. It was the day of my life I have never forgotten. Every day I remember it. Nobody wants to go that far to the bottom to get back to the top. I went all the way to the very bottom, but I wake up every day and have so much appreciation for the people around me.

It’s that appreciation for life and people that keeps me young.

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.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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