Harpers and Moet named him Chef of the Year in 2004, the Guild of Chefs Awards appointed him Best Newcomer in 2003 and he reached 45th place in The Caterer’s top 100 list of the most powerful people in hospitality in 2012: German-born chef and restaurateur Rainer Becker is the face behind award-winning restaurants like Zuma and Oblix in London’s Shard. He talks to Discover Germany about how he managed to create one of the most successful restaurant concepts in the world.
Born near the Moselle River, Rainer Becker started out his career as a chef at some of Germany’s top Michelin-star restaurants, such as the Königshof in Munich. But even before that, Rainer Becker knew that he wanted to become a chef. He smiles: “I think it always has [been my biggest wish to become a chef]. I’m not entirely sure where the desire arose but it is still there – I really love to cook. I remember when I was at school telling my parents I wanted to cook. They weren’t so keen of course; my father didn’t feel it was a career option. He actually sent me off to a relative’s restaurant one summer to work (at my insistence) with the specific instruction to my uncle that I would be put through my paces – I think he was hoping I would be put off. Instead I came home even more convinced and enthusiastic than before. At that point, I will give him his due, he chose to support me 100 per cent.”
Australia, London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Miami:
Soon, Rainer Becker’s wanderlust got the better of him. Working for the Hyatt Hotel Group for 14 years, he was appointed executive chef at the Park Hyatt hotel in Sydney and then became the executive chef in Tokyo’s Park Hyatt for six years before moving to London in 1998. Here, he worked as the executive chef for the Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel and was a consultant at the prestigious Hakkasan restaurant. Then, alongside the successful restaurant investor Arjun Waney, Rainer Becker opened his own Japanese restaurant Zuma in London’s Knightsbridge in 2002. It celebrates the informal izakaya style where dishes are continuously brought to the table throughout the meal. “I think the informality, the freedom and joy of Australia was huge in nudging me towards what was to become Zuma. I loved the Australian easy way and joy of sharing food, enjoying being with friends (…) without pomposity or regulation,” notes Becker and adds: “Izakaya is a mix up, it’s a place where you can just eat what you want, when you want and have a drink. They are kind of like Japanese pubs really. I wanted to recreate that informality which ties back to my enjoyable experiences in Australia, but I wanted to create that feeling in a different environment: something more elegant, incorporating the beautiful design elements I had seen in Japan.”
So how did his time in Japan directly influence the Zuma idea? “Like every chef who visits for the first time, the religious Japanese food culture influences, however it wasn’t until I lived there that I actually understood it. That was my greatest gift, having the time to really immerse myself in the food culture. It was from there that Zuma was born – a mixture of my own learnings, of Australia, of Japan – all of it.” This concept soon proved to be hugely successful so that Zuma restaurants were opened in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai and Miami, to name a few locations. “I never thought it would be this successful to be honest and I don’t know why it boomed so much. I can only tell you what we do. For me it’s detail, detail, detail. You have to be aware of all the details, all the time. If working in this industry is just a job then it’s a hard life but if it gets under your skin, if it becomes part of you, then it’s the best job in the world. You have to be that connected. My team, all of them all focus on the one thing: how does the guest feel? Everything we do is based around our customer, that’s the starting point.”
Conquering the world:
In 2004, Becker’s second restaurant concept ‘Roka’ opened in Charlotte Street London, three more Roka’s were established soon after in Canary Wharf, Mayfair and Aldwych and other gems, such as the famous ‘Oblix’ in London’s landmark The Shard soon followed suit. Located on the 32nd floor of The Shard, Oblix takes a step back from the Japanese focus, caters for breath-taking panoramic views across London and serves great dishes from the grill in a sophisticated, yet relaxed, ambiance. Now a huge success, one would not believe that Rainer Becker was reluctant at first to open a restaurant in the Shard. “I’m a pretty big fan of architecture and when I was invited to consider a restaurant in The Shard I was delighted. However, our original conversation was around Zuma. After consideration I didn’t think that two Zuma’s in one city would work so I changed my mind. It was the building that haunted me though. I thought that every day I saw it I would regret not being there so the idea of Oblix began to take shape. I need to add that originally I was offered just one side of the building. I just couldn’t make my mind up which had the better view so decided it had to be the whole floor or nothing. So now there is Oblix Restaurant, as well as Oblix Bar and Lounge – that way you get the whole of London.”
Of course we wanted to know from the owner himself which signature dish we should try on our next visit to Oblix. Becker answers: “I always loved roast duck and I created a recipe years ago that I loved. That was maybe the start of the Oblix idea; I have had a few people joke that I opened a restaurant solely for that roast duck dish,” he laughs and adds: “More seriously I guess a signature dish would be anything from the rotisserie or the grill as that’s the heart of Oblix.”
The recipe to success:
With all of Rainer Becker’s restaurants being award-winning establishments, it seems like everything that he touches turns into gold. But what exactly makes a good restaurant today. He explains: “As a chef it is not easy for me to admit, but it is important to note that service is as important if not more so than the food. Mistakes can happen but it is how it is dealt with that makes the difference. I have never understood a divide in a restaurant between kitchen and front of house as we are all on the same team. That is the only way to work.” With this in mind, the concept at Oblix restaurant is designed for guests to walk through the kitchen on their way to the restaurant. Before they leave, guests can interact and give feedback. “It gives the chefs a direct interaction with the floor and a direct response to what they do, so it really makes the whole working environment unique and enjoyable for the whole team,” he says.
Despite having achieved so much already, Rainer Becker does not think about slowing down. “Zuma New York opened last year and has been incredibly well received. Powered by the success of New York we decided to open another one in the US. First there was Miami, then New York, so next stop Las Vegas.” He adds: “You have to remember that in 2002 I never thought I would ever open another restaurant other than Zuma London. To think that the restaurant is now global, that we have four different Roka restaurants in London now and then Oblix restaurant and Oblix Bar… well if you had told me back in 2002 that this would be the picture in 2016 I would have laughed in your face. It’s been quite the journey and I am hugely thankful to everyone who has been on it with me who has made it happen.” But what about personal dreams for the future? He smiles: “A day off would be nice….!”
TEXT: NANE STEINHOFF | PHOTO: DAVID GRIFFEN PHOTOGRAPHY