Rainer Becker’s leap from respected hotel chef to wildly successful restaurateur didn’t happen in the kitchen, the boardroom, or even through a fateful phone call.
“It was a particularly funny incident, really,” says the German-born former executive chef of Park Hyatt Sydney and Tokyo. “It’s all about timing. I had returned to London and was looking to open Zuma. I was looking for the perfect site and also an investor. I was getting my hair cut one morning and the [hairdresser] was asking me if I had any development or news. He was asking just in general about the concept and I didn’t think he was particularly interested, just passing time. Then he told me that a client of his had mentioned that he really wanted to open up a Japanese restaurant as he loved the food – and so the reason Arjun [Waney] and I met was through the hairdresser.”
Ten years later, the partnership between Becker and entrepreneur Waney – who is said to have backed Zuma after becoming fed up with the two-month-long waiting list at Nobu – is going strong with outposts in London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai, Miami and Bangkok, and robatayaki-style Roka restaurants in London and Hong Kong.
Becker, who started his career in Germany and spent six years at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, was inspired to create Zuma through his appreciation of the discipline and pursuit of excellence that defines Japanese cuisine. That attention to detail also extends to the importance of timing in creating the perfect meal.
“It’s essential, in both preparation and execution,” he says. “Without taking the time to prepare properly, the service would fall apart, but also taking too long on one section can cause hold-ups and chaos. The balance of time is as important as the balance of flavour.” After launching Zuma to great acclaim in London, Becker and Waney branched out to Hong Kong, which the chef describes as “one of the foodie capitals of the world”.
“There is an amazing energy here and a huge diversity in customers. Every nationality is represented in the dining scene in Hong Kong, however, it is a particularly demanding clientele and excellence is expected,” he says.
Becker now spends much of his time travelling among the different restaurants and working on new concepts, such as a soon-to-open rotisserie/grill on the 32nd floor of London’s The Shard skyscraper.
“When you travel as much as I do ... it eats up a lot of time and therefore personal time becomes a luxury,” he says. “I don’t actually spend so much time in the kitchen any more. I don’t ‘do service’ in that way, I have an incredible team worldwide, so it would actually be a foolish waste of time.” What little personal time Becker does have is easily filled by other hobbies. “I’m not particularly good at doing nothing,” he says. “I get bored easily, so I love to race.”
That includes sailing, and driving his 1968 Porsche 910 in classic car races such as the Silverstone Classic in Britain and Le Mans in France.