Saturday, July 21, 2012

The global success story of ZUMA

If you like Japanese food and you frequent London, you'll have heard of Zuma, the city's most successful Japanese restaurant, located in a quiet little street in a pocket of Knightsbridge, just a few steps from Harrod's, Harvey Nics and the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.

Zuma is the brainchild of a friend of mine, Chef Rainer Becker, who I used to know pretty well way back in Tokyo when he was executive chef of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, and I was in and out of that hotel almost every other day. The Park Hyatt Tokyo was the finest and most glamorous hotel in the world then.


It pioneered the concept of modern design for hotels at a time when absolutely no other hotel was even aware of the concept; and since then, every other hotel in the food chain has jumped on board and tried to copy this look and feeling -- some with more success than others.

Well, Rainer left Tokyo to work in London. Next thing I heard, he'd taken some time off and I think he spent a couple of months relaxing in the sun in the Greek islands. If I remember right, this was about the time that he came up with the idea to open a really fantastic and chic Japanese restaurant in London.


This was many years ago, as well; way before London became a gastronomic capital and the city was mostly about stodgy restaurants serving good but stodgy food.

I used to go to London several times a year at that time, and I remember the choices for fine dining and/or good food were limited to traditional British, some modern British, and good Indian.

Japanese restaurants in London then were the usual types: sushi shops or else general Japanese food restaurants with an Asian waitress in a kimono and little wooden tables and token Japanese accents inside. 


Then Rainer opened Zuma and what a sensation he created. It was the talk of the town for about two years, and every celebrity or fashionable person in London made this his or her regular hangout -- or at least tried to. The result was a very successful restaurant that was virtually impossible to get into, unless you booked way in advance or you were Kate Moss.

Zuma was especially popular with actresses and models, you see, because they could have great no-carb dinners by just ordering sashimi and grilled fish. So the waiting list was long and trying to get a table for clients was the perennial headache of the concierge of top luxury hotels.


Well, one day, I was staying at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and we were thinking about where to have dinner that night when I had the bright idea to try Zuma. The Mandarin had a very good Michelin two-star restaurant at that time in the same venue where Heston Blumenthal has opened a new restaurant. I liked this old restaurant very much and I went here as often as possible; but on this particular trip, we'd already eaten there several times so I was looking for something different and near.

I knew the concierge wouldn't be able to get me into Zuma, and I'd lost Rainer's contact details since he'd gone on an R&R to Greece.

So instead I wrote him a letter on hotel stationery and then got the concierge to fax it to Zuma. Voila. It wasn't long before I had my table for that evening. Rainer was away but he'd gotten a table arranged.

When I came back from shopping that day, the concierge came up to me, disbelief written all over his face. He was quite a grand-looking concierge, as most concierge at top London hotels are; and he said to me: "Madame, you have your table. I hope you'll do me the favor of introducing me to someone at Zuma. I've been fairly unsuccessful trying to get tables for guests here."

This was at the very time that Zuma was the hottest restaurant in London, you see.


Well, we went that night, with a slightly jaded attitude, I have to admit. I did live in Tokyo, after all, so there's really no Japanese food that can equal what you can actually get in Japan, as far as I'm concerned. And that included Zuma, I had immediately assumed.

What I completely forgot was that Rainer had been executive chef at Japan's best hotel. So of course he had access to every single top food supplier in Japan. It certainly showed. Not only was the restaurant filled to the rafters and hopping and popping with beautiful people; but it served very good Japanese food as well.

I'd say I was eating the food of the Japanese restaurant of the Park Hyatt Tokyo, along with a mix of other stuff from great Japanese izakaya and robatayaki places. He'd picked the best of Tokyo dining and put these all into his restaurant.

Rainer certainly hit a jackpot with this concept. Zuma London is celebrating its 10th anniversary while Zuma Hong Kong will turn 5 years old.

Zuma London opened its doors in 2002 and now the brand is a landmark destination throughout the world, including in Istanbul, Dubai, Miami and now Bangkok.


Zuma was the result of a chance meeting between Rainer and businessman Arjun Waney. Becker’s concept stemmed from his six years stint in Tokyo. In Japan, where each restaurant celebrates one style of cooking such as tempura, sushi, or yakatori, it was the izakaya - the more informal dining experience with its relaxed energy and ambience - that Becker grew to love.

He said: "I spent six years in Tokyo and had a very definite idea about what I wanted Zuma to be. For me, this was simply bringing all the elements I enjoy from a dining experience under one roof. I prefer a fun, informal and easy going ambiance when I’m eating so I wanted Zuma to have an open lounge area and bar around the dining area."

Anyway, when Rainer and Arjun Waney met, they immediately connected and felt their ideas and ambitions aligned. Little did they know what a successful partnership this would be, resulting in nine restaurants around the world as of today -- and perhaps more to come.

The future continues positively with plans to expand in the USA and UAE. Zuma’s success has not only achieved global recognition, but also international industry and consumer awards and accolades. Rainer’s initial vision of Zuma has proven over the past decade to be limitless in its cultural appeal and timeless in its ethos. The restaurant remains as popular today as it was on the day its doors first opened in London in 2002.

Talk about a wonderful case of serendipity, hard work and talent.


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