In the evocative Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate, the emotions of this story’s heroine, as she cooks, have a profound impact on the flavour and effect of the food she prepares. After meeting Mexican chef Richard Sandoval and Singaporean chef Akmal Anuar, the two minds behind the new Asian-Latin restaurant Zengo, we’re secretly expecting a similar phenomenon from their menu.
The effect, we anticipate, will be laughter. Hearty, loud, raucous, belly laughs. That’s because sitting in discussion with the two chefs, we’ve rarely, if ever, heard so much laughter – from everyone at the table – during an interview. Akmal and Richard clearly have a special rapport as chefs and as friends. Fitting, since the concept they have just opened at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa in Dubai Marina takes its name from a Japanese word that describes the notion of give and take.
Independently, Richard and Akmal have gained a strong reputation for their work as chefs. No stranger to Dubai, Richard is the chef behind Latin titans Toro Toro at Grosvenor House Dubai and Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen also in the Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa. Akmal is, in contrast, a newcomer to the emirate. But in his native Singapore, he is known as (the now former) head chef of the premier restaurant, Iggy’s, ranked number 12 in the San Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Now, Akmal has moved to Dubai to oversee the daily operations in the kitchen at Zengo, working in collaboration with Richard.
‘I was born and bred in Mexico,’ Richard begins. ‘Mexican cooking is very bold, very flavourful, and my cooking style is Latin comfort food with bold flavours. As a chef I like to evolve, to realise I can change and create. Asian food is one of my favourite cuisines and I always wanted to bring the two together. I opened the first Zengo ten years ago in Denver, Colorado. Zengo is Japanese for give and take; back and forth; collaboration; and with the first restaurant, I had a chef I had hired from Singapore. I would make a Latin dish, and give it to him to “Asianise”. He would in turn make Asian dishes, and I would “Latinise” them. This was the whole idea behind Zengo – giving and taking; sharing.’
Despite an increase in Latin-Asian fusion popping up with alacrity around the globe, including Peruvian-Nikkei and Brazilian-Nikkei (combinations with Japanese cuisine) and even Korean-Mexican street food, Richard tells us he does not see his own Asian-Latin concept as part of a trend. Instead, he counters, Asian and Latin flavours are almost like a natural and inevitable marriage.
‘Asian cuisine has very comforting food. A lot of braises, curries, chillies and lots of rice dishes. Mexican food is exactly the same. Look at the flavour profile and it’s very similar – simple, but bold. Look at Japanese; with sushi, you have wasabi to give you that little bit of sharpness. But you can, for example, take out the wasabi and use Serrano peppers. It gives you the same effect, but with a different ingredient. Mole and curry are the same thing. They give the same effect, but with different ingredients,’ Richard says.
‘With globalisation, the world has got a lot smaller. Everybody has access to ingredients that nobody had access to before. At an American diner today, you’ll find spaghetti carbonara, gyros, and tacos. I don’t think it’s a trend, and I don’t think it’s fusion. It’s just the way it is. Twenty years ago, when I moved to the US, I couldn’t find cilantro or chillies in the shops. Today, I can find all of these ingredients. And I could go to any French restaurant and find chillies and cilantro on the menu. Or even Asian ingredients!’
Richard’s relationship with Akmal came about while he was in Singapore doing research for his Latin-Asian combination. He heard that Akmal’s restaurant, Iggy’s, was number one in Asia, but he didn’t know Akmal. He simply decided to just walk into the restaurant and the two chefs got talking. ‘How often do you get a fine dining restaurant where a guest shows up late wearing Bermudas and flip flops?’ says Akmal.
The two chefs burst into raucous laughter at the memory, and it’s clear there are a host of private jokes bubbling under the surface of this recollection. ‘He’d never heard of me, and I’d never heard of him, and normally, we would have to tell the guest that this is not appropriate. But I let him in,’ Akmal continues.
‘It was meant to happen,’ chimes in Richard.
The two chefs bounce and spar off each other verbally. ‘For me, the whole point of Zengo is about having fun,’ Richard says. ‘I already have a lot of restaurants. We’re going to come together on this project, so if it’s not fun, there’s no point. In 90 percent of circumstances this wouldn’t work. Chefs can be egomaniacs, and they are very territorial, but we’ve both accomplished a lot, we don’t have to prove anything. This is not about impressing guide books.’
On the contrary, Akmal reveals he is a little relieved to have left the world of fine dining and awards behind. He argues that the pressure of retaining standards in a ‘ranked’ restaurant is even greater than that of retaining a Michelin star. ‘If you have a numbered rank, each year you worry that you might not be in the same position on the list.
‘One chef doing everything takes a toll on that chef. Now you have two chefs with a lot of experience between them, bringing it to one plate. Two heads are better than one. It becomes more interesting because of what we both put into one dish.’
‘Each of us brings something to the table,’ Richard agrees. ‘I’m more about flavour, Akmal is more about technique. Asian food is in his blood, like Mexican is in mine. It’s who we are. You have two chefs who really understand the ingredients [of their respective cuisines], so this is a well thought out restaurant.’
Though not at a Bermuda shorts level of causal, Richard and Akmal describe the aim for Zengo as a relatively casual and lively venue. In the spirit of this, the menu will operate on a ‘free-flowing’ basis (meaning the food will appear at the table as it’s ready). There will also be three bars named ‘mist’ (described by the pair as a ‘gastro bar’, with technical beverages created by mixologists), ‘smoke’ (dedicated primarily to cigars) and ‘fire’ (an outdoor bar on the terrace, at which we’re promised some fire-juggling entertainment).
Highlights from the menu itself, the pair reveal, include a raw bar. You’ll find items such as salmon nigiri, topped with onion and bonito flakes; tiradito made with beetroot, quinoa, chilli and ponzu, and a vegetarian ceviche made with tomatoes instead of fish. Using the quail from the menu as an example, Richard gives us an insight into how the concept of ‘give and take’ functions during recipe development. ‘The quail is Asianised with sweet soy and Latinised with adobo chilli. Akmal placed caramelised apple on it, and I said, “why don’t you make a salsa out of that?” So I essentially took his idea, brought it together with mine, and we both thought, wow, this really works.’ Other signatures include Chilean sea bass (fished in Patagonia, from a hole in the ice, Akmal says) with zarandeado sauce made from chilli, tomato and herbs, horseradish cream and sesame. There will also be a vegetarian dish on the menu called ‘30 vegetables’, comprised of premium, baby and organic varieties from the land and from the sea. These include sea grapes from Vietnam and oyster leaf from Europe, which, Akmal explains, grow by the shore, on the rocks.
‘If you do a blind tasting, they are exactly like oysters. There is no protein in this dish, so the flavour of the oyster leaf brings a protein feel to it. It is balanced, because you have sweet, sour and umami in the dish,’ he says.
Akmal is particularly enthusiastic about the live Hokkaido scallops that the restaurant will be serving, opened to order. This is just one of the ingredients that Akmal is bringing to Dubai as a result of relationships with suppliers that he established during his time at Iggy’s. Another is prized Blackmore wagyu beef from Victoria in Australia. ‘The farmer only slaughters 50 cows a month. I think he knows all their names. He supplies this beef to me because he knows me from Iggy’s,’ Akmal says, and Richards adds, ‘This is important. If the farmer sells his wagyu beef to a chef who doesn’t do something special with it, it takes away from the specialness
of the farmer’s product. But he trusts Akmal.’
Zengo is now open at Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa, Dubai Marina (04 399 5555).