Source: Drew Nieporent, Photo Illustration: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

How Colonel Sanders Inspired Student Who Went on to Help Found Nobu

Drew Nieporent is one of the world's most successful restaurateurs, yet he's still fond of Kentucky Fried Chicken and its founder.

Nobu co-founder Drew Nieporent was a student at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in the mid-1970s when he got to meet Colonel Harland Sanders - the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Drew Nieporent.
Drew Nieporent.
Photographer: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic

"He came to lecture at Cornell and I found out he was staying at the Statler Hotel," Nieporent says. "And because I've got chutzpah, I went along with my housemate Ray Lund and knocked on his door. He was a total hero to me because I loved the chicken back 41 years ago, and I still love it today."

The hotel door was opened by the gentleman in the white suit, who was more courteous and welcoming than a couple of scruffy uninvited guests might expect. He took the time to talk with them, and to pose for photographs. As Nieporent was leaving and thanking him, he said, "Son, with boys like you, America's got nothing to worry about."

Nieporent has made his mark in hospitality. His Myriad Restaurant Group has opened about 40 restaurants around the world, including Tribeca Grill, which he created in 1990 with business partner Robert De Niro and  investors such as Bill Murray, Sean Penn and Mikhail Baryshnikov.  He opened Nobu New York with De Niro and chef  Nobu Matsuhisa in 1994.

(How involved is De Niro?  "He is very active because he loves food and he loves the restaurant business. He's into it. When he's around I speak to him quite a bit. It's not like, 'Bob, we just changed the purveyor of the beef.' But I'll keep him in touch with our goings on.)

Nobu went on to become the ultimate celebrity destination in New York and in London, which is still going strong almost two decades after it opened on Feb. 17, 1997. Nieporent says his partners initially weren't sure they wanted to open in London. He and Matsuhisa finally decided to visit the site in what was to become the Metropolitan hotel on Old Park Lane.

Drew Nieporent (left) and his college friend meet Colonel Sanders in the 1970s.
Drew Nieporent (left) and his college friend meet Colonel Sanders in the 1970s.
Source: Drew Nieporent, Photo Illustration: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

"Nobu flew over on the Concorde and I took a late flight and landed in London in the morning," he says. "As my cab was pulling up at the hotel -  it was called the Londonderry at the time and it was closed - Nobu had a big smile on his face. I got out of the cab and said, "I guess we’re doing London." He goes 'yes.' We went around the corner had lunch, and got back on the Concorde."

It's difficult to overstate Nobu's impact on dining in London, where restaurants from Zuma through Novikov to Sexy Fish carry its DNA. Nieporent says the increased competition hasn't depressed sales at Nobu London or Nobu Berkeley St, which opened in 2005.

"We've never had a down year, which is curious because when you talk about all the competition, you'd think they would slowly but surely peck away," he says. "But the reality is that we have never had a bad financial year. We feed close to a thousand people a day in London between the two places." (Ubon, an offshoot at Canary Wharf, was less successful and closed in 2008.)

Celebrity life: Nieporent with the boxer Muhammad Ali.
Celebrity life: Nieporent with the boxer Muhammad Ali.
Source: Drew Nieporent, Photo Illustration: Tom Hall/Bloomberg

"I've been coming for over 20 years and I love it here," he says. "At one point I sort of related to it that it was about 10 years behind New York, but that's not true anymore. I would say you’ve probably caught up. I've always said that London is the best eating city in Europe."

Nieporent still loves New York, where his Bâtard has won several awards as best new restaurant.

"It used to be a lot of restaurants treated customers like guinea pigs and a lot of the food was very experimental. And now the balance has leveled out a bit and restaurants are opening with the thought in mind of pleasing the customer, not just the chef. "

Colonel Sanders' influence hasn't rubbed off.

Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines

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