FOOD & DRINK
The superchef behind Roka, Dubai's hottest restaurant of 2020
Words by Rob Chilton
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A huge robata grill is the centrepoint of Roka, this year’s big Dubai opening from Zuma chef Rainer Becker
Rainer Becker is waving his arms about while kneeling on the floor of Zuma Dubai, one of the international outposts of his successful Japanese restaurant. The German chef is demonstrating what it’s like for a chef to cook at a robata grill.
“In Japan, chefs kneel in front of this little grill and they have all the produce in front of them,” he says excitedly. “Guests sit and point at the food and it is cooked and served. You see the energy and talk to the chefs. Amazing! I fell in love with the concept when I first saw it.”
Has he tried a stint behind the robata?
“Ha! I tried it once and lasted 15 minutes – it was agony. So I found a guy in London called Tony to make me a customised huge robata. The first night we opened Roka in Charlotte Street [in London] The first night at Roka it exploded! The whole thing went up in the air half a metre. Nobody was hurt. The granite around the grill cracked, but we kept the crack – ha!”
Becker is full of energy when EDGAR meets him. He’s clearly excited about his latest Dubai eatery, Roka that sits alongside Zuma in his restaurant empire. It can be found at the talked-about Opus building in Business Bay that was designed by Zaha Hadid, the award-winning architect who died in 2016.
“Unfortunately I never met her,” sighs Becker. “She did fantastic, unique work and made no compromises. She had a vision and was all about the details. The Opus is an amazing, complicated building which we need in Dubai because otherwise, everything would be boring.”
Does he sense some common ground with Hadid?
“Yeah, a little bit. Like Zaha Hadid, I can’t take shortcuts.”
Becker sees Roka as a neighbourhood restaurant. “It’s easygoing, unpretentious and has a feelgood factor. It’s a little more casual than Zuma.” The name, he reveals, came after a long night in Tokyo with plenty of sake. In Japanese, the ‘ro’ stands for the iron grill and ‘ka’ stands for fire and energy.
Originally due to launch in February this year, Roka was delayed due to the COVID crisis but is now open. Asked what percentage of his thought process goes into each area of a restaurant he explains, “Sixty per cent food, 20 per cent design, 20 per cent business. Do the food part well and the bottom line falls into place, if you know how the game works. If you spend too long thinking about the numbers, maybe you compromise other things, which doesn’t bring longevity. And I’m into longevity."
Zuma Dubai celebrated 10 years in 2018. In 2020 Becker had hoped to open Zuma Madrid and Zuma St Tropez. Even for someone with his stellar track record, Becker admits he still gets anxious about opening a restaurant. “Oh yeah, every time, maybe it’s my nature. We’ve done it many times and it’s worked, but occasionally it didn’t work and you have to get over it. The important thing is that you do your homework.”
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