Having grown Zuma into a global success story, Rainer Becker is for the first time moving away from Japanese cuisine by returning to the capital to launch his most ambitious project yet: Oblix at the Shard. Kerstin Kühn finds out what is in store for London diners.
Rainer Becker is a busy man. So busy in fact that setting up this interview has taken a whole two years. Who knew a chef could be that hard to pin down? But with his Japanese restaurants Zuma and Roka now in six locations across three continents, it's no surprise his diary is packed with trips around the world. And on meeting the charming man with an endearing German accent who is confident yet gentle and engaging in conversation, he's soon forgiven for the long wait.
We meet at the Shard, where Becker is overseeing his latest opening together with long-term Zuma and Roka business partner Arjun Waney. It's arguably the duo's most ambitious project yet, located at the iconic glass building towering over London Bridge. Called Oblix, the new venture forms one of just three standalone restaurants at the 310m high Shard. And being housed on the 32nd floor with 360° views of the capital, it's certainly an enviable position to be in.
But Becker wasn't always convinced. When he was first asked in 2009 to open Zuma at the Shard, he declined the offer. "I was reluctant because I felt that there should only be one Zuma in London," he recalls. "So I said no." At this point however, Becker admits, he hadn't really understood the magnitude of the Shard, its impact not just on the London skyline but also on the city as a whole. And when a few months later representatives returned with plans of what the building would actually comprise, he quickly changed his mind: "I was instantly intrigued by the architecture and the power of its simplicity. I realised that if I said no, I'd probably always regret it."
He still didn't want to do another Zuma though as there "would have been no challenge or excitement". Instead he came up with a totally different concept, a first time departure from the contemporary Japanese cuisine he has become synonymous with around the world: a New York grill. The inspiration is the Shard itself. "The building reminds me of New York so I thought I'd put something New York-inspired in it," Becker explains.
Spectacular views Accessed directly from street level via a dedicated lift, Oblix will be divided into two separate areas, all with floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular views over London. The 100-seat restaurant will feature two open kitchens, which customers pass on entering the dining room, where seating will include booths and standalone tables as well as a library with a communal table for up to 10. Meanwhile the 100-seat lounge bar, with live music each night from 9pm, will offer a range of seating including a central cocktail bar. It will serve weekend brunch, all-day menus and a slightly reduced à la carte from the restaurant.
As far as the menus go, Oblix will celebrate comfort food. It will offer things like slow roast joints from a spit roast, seafood and cuts of meat from a charcoal grill, rotisserie-roast duck and chicken, and various breads from a wood-fired oven. There'll be a posh buffet "modelled on a New York deli" in the bar at lunchtime, offering salads and cold meats, while the main menu will include dishes like steak tartar, Caesar salad, crab cakes, New England clam chowder, and a range of different steaks, with sides such as macaroni and cheese, French fries and baked potato.
"It is a new direction and it's quite selfish really," Becker explains. "For the past 10 years I have been eating Japanese food five, six times a week. I still love it but it's time to eat something new. So Oblix will have dishes that I want to eat. When I opened Zuma it was all about serving Japanese food the way I like to eat it so this is the same thing."
He wanted to translate this into a restaurant environment and the result is Oblix's reception area. Instead of a traditional desk, there'll be receptionists with iPads welcoming guests. "There is no desk they can hide behind so they will approach the diners directly as they arrive and then walk with them through the corridor into the bar or restaurant," Becker explains.
Interactive wine station He's also introducing an "interactive wine station", where diners can go up to the sommelier and ask to taste wines from the 300-bin list. "It makes the whole experience a bit more interactive," he adds. But won't this intimidate some diners? "It's only for the people who want to, you don't have to." Equally there will be water stations around the dining room. "When you arrive at a restaurant, the first thing you want is water. If the waiter has to take your order and go and get the water from the bar it takes time.
This way, diners will be able to get their water as soon as they sit down," Becker says. "We'll see how it works. If it doesn't we move on. It's just about trying to push boundaries to improve things. With my restaurants it's never an exercise of copy and paste."
It's this ability to innovate that has seen Becker's Zuma develop into one of the most successful restaurant brands in the world. Growing up in Germany, he gained experience at some of the country's top restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Koenigshof in Munich and Goethehaus in Bensberg, before joining the Hyatt hotel group, where he worked for 14 years around the globe. After stints in Cologne and Australia, he moved to Japan, where he was executive chef at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo for six years. He came to London in 1998 as executive chef of the Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel, and after working as a consultant on Alan Yau's Hakkasan, he went solo, teaming up with Indian businessman Arjun Waney - whom he famously met through their mutual hairdresser - to launch Zuma, based on the informal izakaya style of dining, in 2002. Zuma's vision - the concept of cold sake, contemporary Japanese dishes and sharing plates removed from the sushi and sashimi of the ubiquitous conveyor belts - was a revolution. A decade on, its ideas are a staple on the London dining scene.
Becker branched out in 2004 to open Roka, the slightly more casual sister restaurant to Zuma based on the robata grill, which now has two sites in London and one in Hong Kong, before taking Zuma to a global market. The group now has restaurants in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai, Miami and Bangkok, with Abu Dhabi and New York set to open next year.
"I'm very excited about opening in New York," Becker enthuses. "Arjun has wanted to be in New York for many years but I lacked the confidence. New York is like London - you have to really understand the city and you only get one chance to make or break it. So I wanted to test the waters first to see if Zuma is a concept that could work in the US and we did that with Miami. It's a holiday place, where the sun is always shining so it's a much more relaxed and forgiving environment."
Three years on and Zuma Miami has exceeded all expectations says Becker: "We've learned the lessons of what it takes to run a successful restaurant in the US and now we're ready to come to New York." Opening in spring next year, the restaurant will be spread across two floors at 261 Madison Avenue, a stone's throw from Grand Central Station.
Becker adds that both Zuma and Roka will continue to expand internationally, with US cities such as Chicago and Las Vegas and more sites in Dubai on the horizon as well as further growth planned for Asia. "It would be stupid not to expand because it works so well," he says. "But the most important thing is that it carries on the way it started. The challenge is to keep its soul at the heart of every restaurant that we open. Quality is more important than quantity and training the right people is key to that. With that we have to grow, because the people we employ want to grow with us."
For now though, all eyes will be on Oblix, which officially opens its doors next week. For me, the last question that remains, of course, is: "What about the name?" Becker declines to explain exactly the inspiration, jokingly hinting that the famous, gluttonous Gaul from the Asterix comics has something to do with it. But what? Will there be roast wild boar on the menu or a cocktail inspired by Getafix's magic potion? "You'll have to wait and see," is all he offers. At least it won't be another two years.
OBLIX FACT SHEET
Opens 6 May
General manager Scott Ward
Executive chef Fabien Beaufour (ex-Eleven Madison Park and French Laundry)
Head chef Rosie Yeats-Greenslade
Restaurant manager Thomas Dosseur
Lounge manager Kathryn Waring
Bar manager Troy Dalton
Interior designer Claudio Silvestrin
Typical dishes include starters such as fried spiced cauliflower, quinoa, yoghurt & mint (£7.50); iceberg, blue cheese & pancetta (£9); wood-fired roasted beets, rye & goat's curd (£7); steak tartar, beef tomato, grilled sourdough (£14); spring vegetable broth, pesto & grilled sourdough (£7). Mains include rotisserie duck with mango chutney (£23), as well as steaks, cuts of meat and seafood from the grill.
Average spend £50 for three courses
Address 31 St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
Telephone 020 7268 6700
EATING, DRINKING AND SLEEPING AT THE SHARD
Designed by Renzo Piano, the Shard is the tallest building in the European Union at 310m, spread over 72 storeys overlooking the capital from its location next to London Bridge station.
It will feature three standalone restaurants: Oblix and two outlets from Hong Kong-based Aqua Group, which made its London debut in 2009 with the opening of Aqua Kyoto and Aqua Nuevo atop the old Dickins & Jones building on Regent Street.
Aqua, which runs 21 restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing, will open the 130-cover Chinese restaurant Hutong on the 33rd floor in June, followed by the 220-cover modern British Aqua Shard on the 31st floor in July. Linking the two restaurants will be a three-storey high atrium bar.
The Shard will also include a 202-bedroom Shangri-La hotel spread across floors 34 to 52, which will open later in 2013. It will feature four food and beverage outlets: a cake shop, a restaurant serving British dishes, a lounge with an Asian-focused menu and a destination bar. It will also have three function spaces on level 34: the Thames Ballroom with capacity for 110 covers for a sit-down dinner, London Bridge Room (30 covers), and the Tower Bridge Room (10).
RAINER BECKER ONâ¦
Arjun Waney He's an incredible man and much better at delegating than me. He's 74 now but his energy is just out of this world. We see each other every week and we have an amazing relationship. It's a friendship, a business relationship, a father-son relationship - it's the whole package.
What makes a great restaurant People look for a good time, great food and service at the right price. I go to a restaurant because I want to be entertained by the food,
I want to have good service and a great, enjoyable atmosphere - all those things are important in a successful restaurant and it doesn't have to be high end to achieve this.
Fine dining I think traditional fine dining restaurants will become very difficult to sustain in the future.
I don't think it's what people look for on a regular basis anymore.
Michelin They make the best race tyres in the world.
Building your career You have to move around a lot. I did when I was young. You can't stay with one company forever, you need to open your mind and expand your horizons.