The man behind Zuma, Rainer Becker, tells how he created one of the most successful restaurant concepts in the world
With its sophisticated decor, creative menu and convivial air, it is clear why Zuma stands out in an overcrowded Dubai market competing for the same high-end clientele.
Zuma Dubai launched in 2008 on the back of the Japanese restaurant’s success in London’s Knightsbridge and unlike so many other restaurants that have made the leap from the UK, Zuma has not only become one of DIFC’s most popular restaurants but is probably one of the most profitable restaurants in the world, with outposts in Miami, Hong Kong and two more scheduled to open in Florida and Abu Dhabi.
Co-founder Rainer Becker believes its success comes down to attention to minute details.
With Japanese cuisine, it looks very simple from the outside, but it is very complicated to make correctly behind the scenes, the entire procedure is sophisticated – and that is how it is with the concept of Zuma as well.
he says from his home in London.
Becker, a German trained chef, says he married his favourite concepts to develop Zuma by merging the idea of a barbecue with a sushi counter and a bar at the heart of the restaurant.
He was inspired by the Japanese izikaya style of eating, where different dishes are introduced to the table continuously throughout a meal.
“Izikaya is as much about atmosphere as it is about great food,” he says.
He loves that Japanese food demands the freshest produce to taste good and uses cutting techniques that make a world of difference to the outcome of a dish. It is that meticulous attention to detail that gives his food the gourmet edge.
“People think making sushi is easy – that you just boil rice and put it in seaweed and wrap it around some fish and vegetables,” he says. “There is a special technique of washing rice with hands, boiling it the exact amount so it is al dente at the centre of the rice grain, using wooden spoons to cut it, cooling it down to room temperature by fanning it by hand, seasoning it while it’s still warm – and that’s just the rice. The more I learned about Japanese cuisine, the more I fell in love with it.”
Becker is no stranger to the international culinary industry. Before becoming a restauranteur, he worked for the Hyatt international hotel chain for 12 years. He was based in Australia and was involved in developing restaurant themes at the Park Hyatt hotel, which overlooked the Sydney Opera House and boasted an award-winning menu. He then moved to Tokyo, Japan, in 1992 and in the city’s Park Hyatt – where the film Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson was shot – he worked on restaurant and bar ideas.
Heavily influenced by the Australian love of barbecue and the art of Japanese cooking, he eventually branched out on his own and created trendy Zuma in London in 2002 with the notoriously private Waney brothers, who are also behind La Petite Maison.
“At that time, it was kind of revolutionary to have a bar in front of a sophisticated restaurant with a barbecue,” he says. “Every Zuma that we have opened carries this mix of style but has its own speciality.”
After the restaurant’s success in London, Becker and his team opened Zuma in Hong Kong, a venue with a striking glass staircase and a bar on a separate level from the main restaurant. The Dubai location followed, which similarly had a top-floor bar and separate restaurant, with a glass elevator surrounded by chic decor. Zuma in Miami, Florida, overlooks a river, while the newest Zuma, to be located in Abu Dhabi’s new financial centre, will open in February. A Zuma in New York is also in the works as the Miami location has proven so popular.
“We do not want to do too many at the same time because it is very labour intensive, detailed, and we do not want to compromise on quality,” says Becker, who is also opening a new grill restaurant called Oblix in London’s tallest building, The Shard. “We could open 10 restaurants a year because there is strong demand and while it is great validation, it is not as easy as it looks and we do not want to over-expand too quickly.
It is not a chain of restaurants. Each one is very individual. We follow the same concept and passion but for it to be successful, we treat each one as its own entity.