Sarah Ferguson talks to Rainer Becker, the founder of Zuma, who is in Abu Dhabi to to oversee the kitchen trials at the restaurant, set to officially open March 1.
Exclusive: Rainer Becker on bringing his Japanese chain Zuma to the capital
Zuma is a global phenomenon, offering Japanese cuisine in great world cities including Dubai, London, Hong Kong – and, soon, Abu Dhabi. He tells us exclusively of his plans.
Since its launch at DIFC in 2009, Zuma has become a Dubai institution. What prompted you to open a second UAE restaurant in Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi has always been on the radar. To be honest, it grew from my love of motorsport. I love Formula One, so when I first looked at Abu Dhabi it was the first F1 in 2009. People would come here for the F1, then ask me: “When are you opening Zuma in Abu Dhabi?” So after a while those kind of messages attract your attention. We opened five years back in Dubai and the success was phenomenal. That also instils confidence to expand in this location.
How do your UAE restaurants differ from, say, your flagship Zuma in London and locations in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Turkey and the US?
I want every Zuma to be a little bit different but the design approach and materials used are always the same, it’s always natural; stone, glass, wood and steel, they are the four fundamental materials for Zuma, but the difference is in how we use them. The stone here is from Thailand, as is the stone in Dubai, but the craftsmanship is different. Dubai uses old Arabian patterns which are laser-cut out of the granite and in Abu Dhabi, it’s cut rough and natural.
I always challenge the designer to do something different and we have worked together for many years now so we have an easy understanding of the concept. We get a lot of regular international Zuma customers who dine in our restaurants around the world, from Miami to Hong Kong, so it’s important they see something different but feel they are at home.
What do you think of your location at the new Galleria development on Al Maryah Island?
Fantastic. When I went to Dubai for the first time, I think eight, nine years ago, obviously Dubai looked a bit different at the time and when someone showed me DIFC I couldn’t believe it. There were only two restaurants, it was 7.30 at night and there was nobody there. However, it’s always good where you can attract a lunch crowd, so because of the business district, naturally you have access to lunches and if you like somewhere for lunch, it’s easy to then drive there for dinner. That was the main attraction to settle in DIFC and as it was a growing place. Similarly with Abu Dhabi, when the financial centre on Al Maryah Island was planned, we followed in the same footsteps.
You’ve worked in Germany, Australia, London and Japan. At what point did you realise you wanted to focus on Japanese cuisine?
During my time in Japan I fell in love with the cuisine, culture, the food – the whole package. After six years, I thought it was time to go back to my European roots but not necessarily Germany, at the time it was a different culture, so I decided on London. I still think London is the culinary centre of Europe.
You opened the restaurants at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. Do you miss being in the kitchen?
I do miss it, definitely. I still work with my executive chef on the menus and I’m tweaking all the time, but the real physical part is not there like it used to be. I do miss it, but the flip side is I get to watch some incredible talent grow within the company. You can nurture a talent – that, too, is a great payoff. Zuma is a big company but also like a family and many of the staff have been with me for years.
Which Zuma dishes are most popular?
There are many dishes from the very first days of Zuma still on the menu, because they became signature dishes over the years; people expect them in every restaurant. However, we also evolve the menu, which keeps the chefs motivated and excited. The first page of the menu is always new dishes and once the customers accept them, we switch them with main-menu dishes that don’t sell so well. And that’s a very healthy process.
Is it true that your business partner, Arjun Waney, was interested in investing in Zuma after getting frustrated with the long waiting list for Nobu?
Yes, he’s a foodie, he loves food and he loves quality and that’s why we work so well together. It’s nice to have an investor who respects the produce and the concept. At the time, Nobu was the only contemporary Japanese restaurant in London and it was difficult to get a table, so he probably thought: “OK, I’m fed up now.”
How does Zuma differ from Nobu?
It’s different, but both restaurants are contemporary Japanese. I call Zuma authentic but not traditional; what I mean is it’s not fusion, we are not mixing other countries’ cuisines. During my time in Japan, in the first couple of months I couldn’t get a kick out of Japanese food as I found it bland and subtle. But after three or four months, slowly I could taste the nuances.
If I’d done traditional Japanese cuisine in London, it wouldn’t have worked because how many of my target clients have experienced what I have experienced? Maybe one per cent? So I spiced it up the way I like to eat it when I go back to my roots so it’s bolder and more flavourful, but it’s not fusion, that’s important.
And Nobu, obviously Nobu lived in South America for many years and loved South American cuisine, so he married South American food with his Japanese roots. One of the strongest aspects of Zuma is the robata grill [an open charcoal grill]. It’s a surprise that I was the first in Europe with a robata grill, probably the first outside of Japan; it is such an integral part of Zuma now.
What’s the best thing about Japanese food and the informal, shared izakaya style of dining?
You can try so many dishes. If there are four of you and you order three courses then you have 16 dishes to try. Also, the sharing aspect is very social; it makes the dining experience exciting as you can try different flavours all at the same time.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career?
There are many proud moments. I think the first was when Nobu, who is a good friend, came to Zuma and said: “Rainer, now you are competition.” In the early days, we didn’t know how the market would react, we were launching a whole new way of eating. I guess it was groundbreaking, which wasn’t helped by the fact I was German with an Indian business partner doing Japanese food in London.
The next highlight was opening Roka in 2004 – obviously the pressure was on by that point to replicate the success of Zuma, the expectation was high. I am humbled and proud at its success. Roka is focused only on the robata grill because it became so popular in Zuma I wanted to create a place that celebrated barbecue robata cooking. There is a Roka in Hong Kong and plans for a Dubai Roka.
Where can we expect to see the next Zuma popping up?
We are opening in New York at the end of the year. It’s a big one. We take it step by step when opening new restaurants. Consistency is the most important thing. And you need to create a team first; it takes really a good year or longer to establish it. If you open too many too quickly then you cannot look after the restaurants, you need to protect the standards and the brand. With the Abu Dhabi team, we have trained most of them in Dubai; they have been working there for the past two months.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your business?
The London restaurant is 12 years old now but I still get a kick when I go there. The most important thing in an expansion is the team you create, that they love what they are doing, because I couldn’t do it by myself. When you go into upscale restaurants, and you are paying a certain price, you don’t want to be disappointed so the team really needs to be there 24/7. I am lucky I have great people with me who have been supportive.