The big interview: Zuma founder Rainer Becker

The man behind the award-winning restaurant on the UAE and what he eats himself

The big interview: Zuma founder Rainer Becker

You don’t have to be a foodie to be familiar with the name Zuma. A massive global brand, the Japanese restaurant celebrated a decade in the UAE last year, which is an impressive milestone – especially in a place that grows as fast as here. And chef and founder Rainer Becker couldn’t be happier.

“It’s a privilege to have that kind of success,” he tells Time Out Abu Dhabi. “Obviously it comes with hard work, but I’m thrilled. Time has flown like a rocket.”

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. A second branch opened
here in Abu Dhabi in 2014, with the same resounding success.

And the restaurant in the capital has since won heaps of accolades – including sweeping the board at Time Out Abu Dhabi’s 2018 Restaurant Awards, taking home Best Japanese, Best Fine Dining Brunch and the main gong – Restaurant of the Year.

With around 20 restaurants around the world, Becker knows a thing or two about global dining. But how did he know Zuma would be a success in the UAE?

“The UAE is very international,” he says. “People know what good food is all about.

“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 Japanese dining scene in the emirates

has boomed. Becker has another restaurant, Roka, opening in Dubai this year too, a casual dining chain specialising in robata, born from Zuma’s success.

“The more competitors you have, the more it keeps you on your toes, it keeps you ambitious,” he laughs, shaking off any thoughts of rivalry with other famous names.

“The world is big enough more than one brand. Nobu was successful and he 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.”
But in a difficult market, 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.

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 when he started, 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.

Interior design is also important to Becker.

“I like to be inspired and see what works,” he says. “If you have a good product you don’t need a glamourous design to work. All my restaurants are different but you can tell they’re Zuma. Here in Abu Dhabi it’s similar to Dubai, but not the same. I have a clear vision every time I open on how it should look.”

As a huge motorsport fan, Abu Dhabi was an obvious choice thanks to its F1 links.

“My hobby is racing and restoring cars,” he says. “I’ve always been passionate about motorsport. It’s a similar adrenaline rush when you start a race as when you open a restaurant – you need to be on your toes. You can’t take your eye off the kitchen counter in the same way you can never take your eye off the track”. 

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.”

And judging by the powerhouse that is Zuma, it’s safe to say he’s getting it right.
Zuma, The Galleria, Al Maryah Island (02 401 5900).

More from Restaurants

Some venues will welcome your pooch

The 30cm-tall tower is a seriously big part of Knockout Burgers

The sweet treats include flavours from the UAE, Turkey and India

99 Sushi Bar & Restaurant is offering the Natsu menu until the end o September

Bite into Knockout Burgers with Abu Dhabi Showdown Week

These perfect combinations are available until September 7


Follow us