It’s been 15 years since Rainer Becker, creator and founder of Zuma, introduced the Robota grill to Europe and changed Japanese cuisine as we know it – first through Zuma and then ROKA where the Robata grill is championed as the centre piece in each and every restaurant. Rainer, is a creative genius! Not only has he been busy expanding Zuma (globally) and ROKA (numerous London locations), he also found the time to set up Oblix the wonderfully located, contemporary restaurant and bar experience with panoramic view on the 32nd floor of The Shard, this one inspired by a classic New York grill instead of a Japanese one. We caught up with the restaurateur extraordinaire to see what else he has planned…
Did you always know you were going to be a chef? What was your back up plan?
There was never a plan B for me – I wanted to cook. My father decided it wasn’t much of a career so he sent me to his friend’s restaurant to work there for one summer. I got stuck in doing basic cooking and kitchen duties. It was not easy! Should have been enough to put off any 16 or 17 year old kid, right? I came back more fired up than before, so from that moment on, he supported me! My training was traditional and I worked my way up in a few restaurants of note at that time in Germany. I was given the position of Executive chef at the Park Hyatt Hotel, Sydney in the early 90s. I loved Australia and their approach to the whole eating experience; I love grilled food and just the fun of dining. Things took a significant turn I guess when I was appointed Executive Chef of Park Hyatt in Tokyo. It was the first time I spent any length of time in Japan, over five years in all, and it was that period of discovery, that time, that I learnt about the subtlety and purity of the Japanese food culture and the tastes and flavours and indeed textures of Japan. My time in Japan was what first sparked the idea for Zuma.
We hear Zuma is celebrating 15 years this year – do you have any other exciting projects in the pipeline?
We have just opened in Las Vegas and are now looking at other cities and locations in the US as the American market has been incredibly supportive – we already have restaurants in Miami and New York. Although the next Zuma may probably be back in Europe. In five years time I see myself doing exactly what I am doing now. I have been very lucky so far, my career has been not only successful but it’s been about doing something I love with people I love to do it with.
Do you have a favourite cuisine, if so what is it?
I love Japanese food, naturally, and if I had to single out one cuisine as my favourite that would probably be it.
What or who inspires you?
Japan! In 1994 I moved to Japan. It took some time to gain the trust of the chefs as their non-Japanese boss, but I persevered and learnt so much from them.
My time living in Tokyo was impactful, and I immersed myself in the food culture. For a western palate understanding and acclimatizing to the subtleties of traditional Japanese food (ingredients, textures and flavor) can take a little while. I was eating Japanese food every day in every meal …well everything but breakfast. The journey of discovery during that time is really where the Zuma concept was born. I wanted to bring Japanese food to a non-Japanese audience. I wanted to offer a modern Japanese cuisine with bolder flavours and more freedom, one that was still authentic but not traditional, that non Japanese diners could connect with.
London has a great food scene and in particular street food scene is growing, do you have any plans for hitting the street food market?
None as yet no… but I never say never.
What are your favourite dishes across the Group?
Ah, it’s just too difficult to chose. Some of the dishes like Tuna Tataki and Barley Miso Chicken are so popular they’ve been on the menu since day one. Personally I also love the simplicity of dishes like the robata grilled chicken wings.
Are there any Chefs you’d like to collaborate with?
There aren’t any that spring to mind immediately. I enjoy dining out and trying new dishes though. I think Brett Graham at the Ledbury really appeals to my palate, and I love Italian food so Ruth Rogers’ River Café is my absolute favourite. I also frequent a local restaurant near my home called Riva, another gem- consistent and a great atmosphere. As yet I have never had another chef cook at Zuma… but who knows. Japan is opening up, becoming more accessible, and indeed the world of gastronomy is opening up. We have had events with Japanese bar experts so you never know.
Tell us about your new upcoming book?
The book is a project that I’ve been planning for the past 5 years, but it always gets put on the backburner whenever a new restaurant project comes about. It’s a cookbook, but also something I want non-cooks to enjoy.
Tell us something about Zuma that no one knows?
I actually introduced the Robata concept to Europe and the Middle East – Zuma was the first restaurant outside of Japan to have a traditional Robata grill, which I had custom made here in the UK. Robata was a very novel idea at the time. Now there are so many around, I should have patented the idea! Robata grilled dishes weren’t what people considered to be typical Japanese food. It became such a popular element within the Zuma offering, it seemed a natural progression to create Roka, a concept where the robata grill is the main energy, the beating heart of the restaurant.
What was the last thing that you saw that made you stop and stare?
I love architecture and design, so wonderful buildings make me stop. That’s one of the reasons we opened a restaurant in The Shard (Oblix Restaurant and Oblix Bar). It is such a phenomenal building that can be seen from every angle of London, there’s truly nothing like it and I just knew that I would spend my days regretting not being part of it.