Interview: Zuma founder Rainer Becker

Zuma and Roka founder Rainer Becker reveals what makes him tick and the strategy behind his restaurants
Zuma and Roka founder Rainer Becker.
By Devina Divecha
Sat 26 Apr 2014 10:34 AM

Following directions to Zuma’s Abu Dhabi outpost is easy — but what I don’t expect when I get there is to see a wooden box that says “Zuma” on it staring at me (later Zuma managing director Middle East & Turkey Ajaz Sheikh refers to this design as the “Apple of restaurants”).

Where’s the restaurant, I wonder? I push the door open and walk inside a large, square room and see steps going down. I follow the path, like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. At the foot, I find a large cavernous space overlooking the waters lapping against Al Maryah Island. I am inside the second Zuma in the UAE, and I am here to meet the man behind the wildly successful Japanese brand: Rainer Becker.

The chef-turned-restaurateur fell in love with Japanese food after spending six years in Tokyo, and says: “Japanese cuisine looks very simple on the outside but it’s very complex. That fascinated me over the years.”

Becker was in the UAE towards the end of February 2014 for the launch of Zuma Abu Dhabi, which is a special one as it marks the first instance in which two Zuma locations have been within an hour’s drive of each other, according to Sheikh.

Flashback eight years ago when Becker first stepped foot in Dubai, and he is candid that he wasn’t confident about whether it was the right place for the brand.

However, when he saw DIFC, he says he took a “calculated risk”. “Yes it was a risk, but the feeling of a location is important. And I got a good feeling for DIFC. I think calculated risks are important; I knew DIFC had a lot of offices, so naturally there was the lunch trade, and then the feel factor was there.”

After Zuma saw success in Dubai, there were clamours from Abu Dhabi customers to open one in the capital. Becker says this time around he was slightly surer about the move. “I compare Abu Dhabi to what Dubai was many years ago. It’s an evolving city, and it’s amazing what is happening here.”

While discussing the location of Zuma Abu Dhabi at Sowwah Square, Becker reveals the strategist behind his restaurateur persona. He explains: “The financial centre in Dubai has been very, very good to us. We looked at several sites here, but I felt very comfortable with a financial centre again because it gives you a secured lunch business.

“That’s very important because Zuma is a very expensive concept to run — it’s very labour-intensive. You have open kitchens so you need to always have a presence. Now if you have lunch trade, it gives you a plus point: if you like it for lunch, you might want to bring your friends in the evening.”

Becker has a gut feeling the concept will work well in Abu Dhabi and discounts the notion that it’s still too early to predict that. He says: “It’s still early days but it was also early days when we arrived in DIFC.” He recounts an evening when he was in the DIFC venue just after it launched and the restaurant was empty at 7:30pm. “I got a bit scared! And look at what it is now.”

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Beyond Zuma

Now that Zuma has securely tied itself to the UAE, I ask if any of his other brands will descend in the region. He confirms this may be the case. “We are looking to bring Roka one day to Dubai.” No further details are revealed but Becker adds: “I think there is definitely space for this mid-market concept in Dubai.”

Interestingly enough, a few weeks later when Zuma executive chef A. Refaie Othman was quizzed during Caterer’s Food & Business Conference about a new venture from his company, Othman refused to comment — is the concept coming in sooner than we think?

Becker reveals how he placed Roka as a mid-market restaurant and initially did not serve nigiri sushi or lobster. But over the years, after experimenting with the menu, these two items have found a place there.

He says: “The beauty of having a big menu is that people can choose between a reasonable and expensive price. To kill cheap prices to make money ... it’s not worth it. I want all kinds of people in my restaurant. My target market is everybody who enjoys good food and atmosphere.”

Over the years of opening restaurants across the world, Becker’s focus has had to shift a little bit — to his regret.

“I am a perfectionist and never happy, so I tried to do everything myself, which worked well until the company became too big. And then you realise you need to step back.” However, Becker says he is involved in every aspect of his restaurants to some degree. He says: “My heart is in the kitchen still. I am not cooking as much anymore, but I am in close contact with the chefs.”

Then he grins and pre-empts my question about how he feels not being in the kitchen. He says: “When I was a young chef, and my boss came to the kitchen and tried to do something, you don’t really like it because it’s your kitchen and you are responsible for the restaurant and that’s how it should be.”

Becker is a great believer in trusting his team and says with the expansion of his business in the UAE, he hasn’t been involved as he would in another city, and explains: “We have a great team in Dubai — which obviously makes it easier to open in a new city when you have a sister restaurant.

They know what they are doing; if I am here 24/7, how would they feel? They would think they are not doing anything right. But when you open the first one in a city, then I’m there quite a lot.”

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Recipes and Consistency

Becker says that while he doesn’t interfere in the running of the kitchen, he gets involved in recipe development. He reveals that he sits down with Othman and develops ideas for dishes with his feedback in a collaborative manner.

He has an interesting way of explaining how he creates dishes. “When I create a dish, I eat it first in my mind, and I then try to replicate what I achieved there. Sometimes it takes months because you need to get the taste right.”

Stressing the importance of chefs getting down and dirty with their own dishes, Becker says: “I believe 95% of chefs never eat their own food. They taste it, that’s it. And I know how I was when I was young — taste it with your finger and think it works together. It doesn’t. You need to sit down like a customer and experience the full thing.

Only then if you think you want to eat it again, then you’re there.” He says his chefs who follow this method give him feedback that customers truly enjoy the dishes created with this technique — which he dubs a “chef’s secret”.

Recipe development is not a cake-walk. Becker reveals that to get a recipe right, it can sometimes take three or four months. However once this is nailed down, a dish becomes a “signature” and has to be consistently created.

He adds: “The most special thing [about us] is that we are very consistent. Once you have identified a successful formula, you have to do it consistently and not mess around with it. Many times people try to make a product better — and it is right to do so, but not for the sake of trying.”

In addition to consistency, Becker says design and service is very important too. He says, after a pause: “It’s a combination of everything linked to each together to make a place successful, and keep it successful.”

London Skyline

Speaking of successful restaurants, Zuma and Roka is not all on Becker’s ever-expanding plate. Last year, he opened Oblix on the 32nd floor of the tallest building in Western Europe, The Shard, which marks a departure from the Asian element of his ventures so far. A contemporary grill restaurant with rotisserie duck and chicken, Becker describes it has having “simple food with lots of bold flavours”.

After the building’s developer failed to get Becker to launch a Zuma in the building, Becker paints an interesting picture when he reveals he commutes in London with a scooter, and when doing so, saw The Shard slowly starting to dominate the metropolis’ skyline.

He reveals his thoughts at the time: “I thought if I’m not going to do something in there I will regret it.”

The interiors follow the design of Zuma in that it uses natural materials like stone, something which Becker admittedly loves. The restaurant, which opened in May 2013, is doing well, he says. “We had 700 people waiting for a Valentine’s Day table, and in the first two weeks we had 1200 phone calls per day for a table. I’m not joking! I was overwhelmed by the response.”

He says the fact that it is located in a high-rise building and with the knowledge that it came from the same stablehouse as Zuma helped its popularity. “That adds quite a lot of weight on our shoulders as the expectations are very high. We had all the critics in the first week. I think it is so wrong to every restaurateur to come in the first week and judge it. We had a very tough opening, but if you believe in what you are doing, you go pass through tough times, and now I am very, very happy.”

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All-round restaurateur

Becker repeats a few times during the conversation his clear vision for his venues: “I am a perfectionist and every Zuma has to be like the one in London or better.”

When it comes to running a business, Becker thinks chefs need to think beyond the kitchen. “I think besides being a chef, you need to understand the business side. If you cannot put the numbers together, you will be very short-lived.”

He explains his own ethos as an entrepreneur: “I love all aspects of running a restaurant; not just the kitchen but service, design, how a restaurant functions, how to make it exciting, better and timeless. I want to analyse what people like to eat.

There’s so much going on behind the scenes; the beauty is that you can manipulate the menu. And three or four weeks down the road, you can see the results; you can see where the trend is going, and for me it’s fascinating.”

I ask what he thinks about the level of food and beverage in the UAE right now, and how it compares to when he first set up.

He candidly reveals: “Dubai in the early days was not there. But now, the competition is good because it drives you. If more concepts come to the city, especially Dubai, it’s good for the city, it’s good for the people who live there, and it’s good for the restaurateur because you need to be on your toes. If you are alone you become complacent and then the concern of not delivering is there. The tougher your competition is, the better it is for your product.”

And in spite of all the competition over the years after Zuma Dubai’s opening, it is heralded as one of the best, nabbing a spot in the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants for the last two years. In fact, during the Caterer Food & Business Conference workshop on Michelin guides, all its attendees unanimously picked Zuma Dubai as a strong contender for a Michelin star.

Pump up the adrenaline

So what keeps this intrepid restaurateur going? Becker is a fan of racing and water-sports, and says he loves anything that enhances his adrenaline. “Opening restaurants also gives me a lot of adrenaline because you never know what will happen. Now I know the formula works. But when you come to a new city, you wonder if it’s the right decision, if the energy is right, will the customers like it, and so on.”

He muses: “I think I wouldn’t open a Japanese restaurant again because the market has become saturated. There is so much out there; new cuisines that haven’t been explored. At the moment I don’t have any other concepts in mind; I really have a lot on my plate. But never say no.”

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