The Zuma effect: Rainer Becker on a decade in Dubai

As the restaurant turns ten, the founder chats to Time Out Dubai

The Zuma effect: Rainer Becker on a decade in Dubai
The Zuma effect: Rainer Becker on a decade in Dubai Image #2
The Zuma effect: Rainer Becker on a decade in Dubai Image #3

When a restaurant celebrates a decade in a city it’s an impressive milestone – especially in a place that grows as fast as Dubai. Japanese culinary powerhouse Zuma marked its tenth anniversary in 2018 and chef and founder Rainer Becker couldn’t be happier.

“It’s a privilege to have that kind of success,” he tells Time Out Dubai. “Obviously it comes with hard work, but I’m thrilled. Time has flown like a rocket – I can’t believe it’s been ten years.”

Zuma launched in London in 2002 and the Dubai branch was born when Becker visited the emirate in 2006. He settled on DIFC as the place to launch in the UAE in 2007, and the restaurant opened the following year.

And the restaurant has since won heaps of accolades – including being the current title holder of both Time Out Dubai’s Best Japanese Restaurant and Best Brunch.

When Becker first visited DIFC there was nothing but Café Bateel – “where I still get my favourite pistachio ice cream,” he admits – and nowhere was open for dinner.

“I was standing in DIFC at 7pm, and there was no one around,” he says. “But I knew there were a lot of financial people working in the area and they have to have lunch, and then if they love lunch they’ll bring friends and family for dinner. Of course I was very nervous, you believe you’ve made the right choice, but there’s always that niggling ‘are you sure?’ in your head too. But we took the risk”.

And it was one that paid off, as the restaurant scene in DIFC has boomed.

“The more competitors you have, the more it keeps you on your toes, it keeps you ambitious,” he laughs. “I’m very proud of the dining scene in DIFC now.”

But what makes a restaurant flourish?

“When you have a successful product you need to make sure it’s always consistent – that’s the key to longevity,” he says, adding that having a “fantastic team” is vital.

With around 20 restaurants around the world – including one up the road in Abu Dhabi – Becker knows a thing or two about global dining. But why did he choose Dubai a decade ago?

“Dubai’s very international,” he says. “People know what good food is all about.”

Seventy percent of dishes in Zuma branches around the world are the same, with the remaining having a regional tweak, allowing chefs to “experiment” a bit. And although it can be challenging to source products in the UAE, it’s easier now than a decade ago, when Becker had to encourage suppliers to import ingredients for them.

“It was a risk for everyone. But they believed in us and that made it easier,” he says.

Becker started out helping his mother in the kitchen, and he soon caught the bug. He began cooking in his native cuisine, German, before progressing into French. He then moved to Australia, where he found a love of barbecue, before discovering robata in Japan, when he lived and worked in Tokyo for six years. And Japanese food became Becker’s passion, thanks to the healthy, tasty dishes, that are “so much more than just sushi”.

Although he’s not so involved in the creation of dishes any more, he still checks everything – and eats at his own restaurants three times a week. One of his favourite dishes is the chicken wings as they’re “so simple – succulent and tasty with crispy skin”.

“Do I cook Japanese food at home? No it’s too labour intensive,” he laughs.

“When I create a dish, I have it in my head how I want it to be. And when you try and copy that onto the plate it doesn’t always work. Sometimes it takes ten minutes, other times it takes months. Always write it down, or you’ll regret it when you can’t recreate it.”

Not one to rest on his laurels he adds, “a dish needs to be better than good. You need a tasty dish where you want to eat more. If you don’t want more, the dish isn’t right.”

Fans of Becker’s restaurants are now eagerly awaiting the arrival of Roka, which will be launching in Dubai in 2019, opening in ME by Meliá in The Opus in Business Bay, designed by the late Zaha Hadid.

“Roka was born through the success of Zuma,” he says. “My business partner [Arjun Waney] said ‘let’s do another restaurant in London, let’s do another Zuma’, but I wanted to try something different.”

The main difference is Roka is based around the robata grill and doesn’t have a sushi bar, and is more “mid-level” dining.

“I’m nervous, which is normal,” he says, “but it’s a fantastic area. It’s very exciting.”

Of course Zuma is not the only Japanese juggernaut in the city, but he laughs off any rivalry with Nobu, saying that the chef often visited when Becker was cooking in Tokyo.

“The world is big enough for two brands. Nobu was successful and gave me the confidence to think that I could do something too,” he says.

“He once told me ‘now you’re competition’, that’s the biggest compliment he could give me.”
Zuma, Gate Village, DIFC (04 425 5660).

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