Right as Rainer

19 July 2004
Right as Rainer

Two years ago the only Becker that people in the UK had really heard about was Boris: he of Wimbledon and Nobu cupboard - or was it the back stairs? - fame. But that was before Zuma, the phenomenally successful Knightsbridge restaurant and celeb hot spot which was the brainchild of another man bearing the Becker moniker: Rainer.

When he and his business partner, Arjun Waney, launched Zuma on an unsuspecting London public in 2002, it preplexed industry watchers. "Yeah, a German chef, Indian investor and a Japanese restaurant - how crazy is that?" laughs the man in question, relaxing into a stylish sofa in his now much-lauded restaurant. Of course, he's only being polite. Becker is not a man who ever lacked faith in his vision.

Why should he? The 42-year-old came to London with a wealth of knowledge of all things Japanese - culinarily and otherwise - at his fingertips after spending six years running the food show at the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo. And, though he hadn't ever owned a restaurant of his own, during his time with Hyatt (14 years in all) he had launched a number of restaurant concepts around the world - starting, precociously, in 1988 with a fusion restaurant, Graugans, at the Cologne Hyatt Regency and including five eating outlets at the Tokyo flagship. Great training for that Zuma moment. And also for its kid sister - Becker's brand-new venture, Roka, which opened yesterday in London's Fitzrovia district - Charlotte Street, to be exact. But more of that later. Let's get back to the man himself. For some reason, I had it in mind before we met that he would be a tricky customer: one of those chefs with an ego that demanded I walk on eggshells. Perhaps it was the fact that the interview had taken the better part of a year to set up. Needless to say, on the day, he was charm personified. More than that, I actually liked the man. Becker's slant on the world is definitely one of unified perfection; of integration of food and environment in terms of restaurants. I suspect he was born with the ethos, but he has refined the trait in Japan, where holistic approaches to business and life are the norm. Look at Zuma: why has it been so successful? Well, obviously, the food is fantastic, based on wonderful produce from Europe and Japan and the not-inconsiderable skills of Becker and his brigade. But the restaurant's design and the way it's run is key. And Becker had an absolute certainty of vision for his baby right from the word go. He wanted to bring to London what he'd experienced and loved about the modern dining scene in Toyko. He wanted authentic Japanese cooking, not traditional - that's very important, because traditional can be intimidating and exclusive - delivered in chic, buzzy surroundings. If that meant getting one of Japan's premier design companies, Super Potato, on board, so be it. If it meant tracking down a house sake over three months, he'd do it. If it meant tracing a particular ceramic piece on which to model some of his tableware, it had to be done. He's not a man who settles for less than his dream. "When I arrived in Tokyo, I was told to go to a restaurant called Shunju; and when I went to it I thought ‘Wow! This is something' - and I hadn't even tasted the food. I loved the way the designer had used materials like granite and wood. It was cutting-edge and modern, but warm. "Then we ate the food - home-made tofu; modern dishes; sesame dressing. I fell in love with it. And that became my ambition: to bring this to Europe," he enthuses, leaning forward and moving to the edge of his seat. Recalling his Japanese epiphany, Becker jumps up, darts across the restaurant to grab a serious-looking design book and starts flicking through its pages to underline what he's talking about. "Isn't this fantastic… look, look. I love the lines of this… can you see?" Second-guessing my next question, he adds: "Some people call me fusion - but they say that because they have never been to Japan. They've only been to traditional restaurants in the UK, and when people do something a little bit different, of course they say it's fusion. But, hell, go to Japan. See what's waking up. See what the young people are doing, the young chefs. There's an evolution going on there. I know some restaurants which won't take traditionally trained Japanese chefs because they cannot do what they want. That's the other Japan." There's no denying this "other" Japan has been translated into reality at Zuma - in its clean-lined, warmed-edged modernity created with the use of cool stones and warm woods that so impressed Becker when he first visited Shunju; in the flow created in the dining room around the central robata grill; in the food itself: the sushi, the sashimi, the home-made tofu, the ultra-fresh fish, the tempura, the grilled meats and veg, the inventive desserts. Interestingly, most of Becker's produce is sourced in Europe. With the fish this is particularly vital, as the hallmark of Japanese sushi and sashimi is its zingy freshness, so, for instance, tuna is from the Med, scallops from Scotland. He goes to Japan only for stuff he can't get here: fresh wasabi, or red carrots, for example, which come from just outside Kyoto and owe their startling colour to the minerals in the soil and local microclimate. "They're the best carrots in the world. They taste sweet, like proper carrots should," says Becker. "There's no point in buying asparagus from Japan just because it comes from there," he continues, "because the longer the product travels, the older it becomes, and that's no good for the food we do. Japanese food is very healthy. It's based on the produce itself, and you cannot cover it up. Actually, culturally, the Japanese have a greater respect for the product than we in Europe. It doesn't matter what it is - even an onion. And they've perfected a way of killing fish in order not to stress it out, because then the quality is better. In the Med they beat the shit out of tuna, but in Japan it's more humane. OK, perhaps not the whales, but in general." The conversation veers on to the sourcing of Becker's Kobe beef - a product of the most pampered cattle in the world (they're massaged and fed on ale over three years) and the most highly-prized beef in Japan. But Becker is reluctant to divulge this particular gem. "Trade secret," he grins. And now Becker has launched another restaurant on London - Roka - in a bid to capture a more mid-spend north London market (£60-£80 per head is not unusual at Zuma). How, I ask, is he going to manage his time between the two sites? "My mission," he says, candidly, "is not to stay from morning until night in the kitchen. My heart is there and I'm a passionate chef, but I invest a lot of time in training, and Colin Clague \[head chef at Zuma\] has worked with me for a long time, so I don't need to be every day behind the stove. Also, I have another mission - to change my own talent and come up with new things. I just like to move on. My father told me, ‘Aim for higher than you can do,' and I've always tried to do this. When I was 16 I had a dream of buying a moped, then I had a dream of buying a motorcyle, then a nice car. You set your dreams. I like this." Will there be another restaurant after Roka? Maybe, he answers, but only if he can do it properly. He doesn't want to spread himself too thinly. And he's also clever enough not to want to put his own signature above a restaurant name. "If you do, you have a problem, because people expect you to be there. Chefs who do this are driven by their own ego. At the moment, at Zuma, I say hello to regular guests when I'm around, but it doesn't matter when I'm not here." Ah-ha, so no ego in your make-up then, Mr Becker? "Of course I have," he laughs, then leaps up to grab another book - he has a library of 300-odd - hunts for a page (the book is by Japanese chef Hirohisa Koyama) and reads out: "For the ultimate cooking, a chef has to kill his own ego." Couldn't have put it better myself. Conscious that we are speeding towards lunch service at Zuma, I make a last attempt to discover Becker's Kobe beef supplier. Is it David Wynne-Finch in Wales (Caterer, 30 January 2003, page 9)? Does it come from the USA? No, apparently not. The farmer is European. "Any other thing that chefs ask me I give them," he says. "Gordon Ramsay has asked me many times. But I just say, ‘No, Gordon, I'm not giving you that.'" n Rainer Becker on…Japanese brigades "If the chefs respect you, they die for you. Really. When I first went to Japan the youngest executive chef was 55, the oldest 74. I was young \[30\] and I looked younger; and I was a Westerner and opening a hotel in Tokyo. They were just laughing at me. And I understood them. The culture these guys had come up through was that you got promotion because of your age, not because of your work. But that's changing. And once you gain respect, you get complete loyalty." Japanese management etiquette "You have to take people aside and speak to them if there is a problem. Never reprimand a chef in front of the brigade - it's a loss of face. You achieve nothing if you scream and shout. After service you must talk to the person concerned in a professional manner. "Listening to people is very important in Japanese culture. The Japanese will sit for hours and hours and hours discussing things. Over here, you make a decision and you go for it, and sometimes it's wrong. In Japan, if you make a wrong decision, you lose face. You must never make a decision out of emotion - it will break your neck." Making sushi "The way you cut sashimi and sushi is different. And the sushi always comes with rice. When you pick up the rice in your hands it should stick together, but the moment you put it into your mouth it should fall to pieces. You need to know how to cook the rice, how to season it, but also how much pressure you give it when you make the nigiri. I tell you, to make sushi, it's 10 times more difficult than to make a terrine of foie gras." Shochu A key feature at Roka will be London's first shochu bar. It will be the first outside Japan. "Shochu has only come to Tokyo in the last 10 years as a bar trend," says Roka's designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu. "Three years ago there were suggestions that it might arrive in the US, but Rainer is the first person to bring the idea out of Japan. And it is going to be done properly." What is shochu? Unlike sake, which is fermented, shochu (originally made on Kyushu, an island in the south of Japan) is distilled, and tastes something like a soft vodka. Also unlike sake, which is nearly always made from rice, shochu can be made from rice, wheat or potato. There will be about eight different varieties to sample and each, apparently, has a medicinal value. So healthy benders are perfectly possible. The cinnamon-flavoured number, for instance, aids digestion, while the grape flavour provides antioxidants and stimulation. by Dan BignoldZuma food -Steamed edamame with rock salt - Home-made tofu served with cold condiments - Sesame-seared salmon with black bean dressing - Thinly sliced sea bass with yuzu, truffle oil and salmon roe - Crispy fried squid with green chilli sauce - Eringi mushroom skewers with garlic and butter soy - Baby chicken marinated in barley miso and oven-roasted on cedar wood - Shetland mussels with sake, ginger, shallots and coriander - Organic chargrilled pork ribs with miso jalapeño glaze - Wagyu beef with soy and wasabi in hoba leaf - Steamed organic milk pudding with ginger and lychee - Dark chocolate pudding with passion fruit centre and fèves de tonka ice-cream - Green tea and banana cake with coconut ice-cream and peanut toffee sauce Zuma's menu has extensive sashimi and sushi choices. Among the nigiri options, for instance, are horse mackerel, sweet shrimp, sea eel, yellowtail, scallop, turbot, sea urchin, squid and sea bream. Roka 37 Charlotte Street, London W1T 1RR Tel: 020 7580 6464 Seats: 24 counter seats around the robata grill, up to 64 in the dining area, plus 20 outside covers and 40 downstairs in the Shochu Lounge (see panel above) Key staff: head chef Nicholas Watt; bar operations manager, and cocktail supremo, Tony Conigliaro Design: After the success of Zuma, Becker called in his friend, its designer, Noriyoshi Muramatsu (of Japanese design house Super Potato). Whereas Zuma has enjoyed a certain exclusive reputation, Muramatsu says Roka will nurture a more democratic feel. The frontage features huge, retractable windows that will open up in summer, allowing the street and restaurant to mix. In terms of appearance, expect lots of easy, light, off-white tones, with traditional Japanese washi paper wall screens. Woods include teak and oak. Most of the materials are from Japan and China, because, as Muramatsu explains, this makes the restaurant unique: "I know this is stubborn, but that makes it special." Food: The ground-floor restaurant is centred on a robata grill. Traditionally, the robata was the central point of a home, like a hearth. These days, however, robata has developed into a type of grill cuisine in itself. Zuma has one, and it has proved popular, so Becker wanted to build on that at Roka. Dishes from the grill will include eel with sancho pepper and red onion; spiced chicken; kimchee; cod roe and hot pepper paste; and desserts such as pomegranate jelly with king lychee sorbet. Watch out for Menuwatch on Roka soon
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