Michelin man

Former head of Nobu Europe and founder of dim sum chain Ping Pong, Kurt Zdesar was one of the biggest players in London’s restaurant scene. Until, that was, he moved to Bahrain. Murray Garrard catches up with the man planning to transform cuisine in the kingdom Discuss this article

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What enticed you to come to Bahrain?
To launch a restaurant in the UK is really tough. You might have a great restaurant and a great product, but there is some other aspect that drives people to come along, a secret ingredient. A lot of it is to do with how well connected you are, and whether the press likes you. And it is really tough and you have to fight and fight. London, right now, is the world’s gastronomic centre, more than New York and more than anywhere else – they have some of the top rated restaurants. When I came to Bahrain it felt like I was jumping back in time a bit. There is a lot of opportunity here.

You started your career in McDonald’s and rose to be Operations Manager of Nobu Europe before founding the hugely successful dim sum chain Ping Pong. What’s the most useful thing you learned in the trade, and where did you learn it?
I was thinking of buying a Jaguar some years ago at it was £30,000. And then I saw it advertised in an American magazine for $30,000. It is made in the UK, is shipped to America and so there is much more expense to get it there, and yet it is much cheaper. It didn’t make sense. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that people [in the UK] are prepared to pay this much. Proof of this is when Ikea came to the UK. They put their pricing plan together and they said this is what we want to charge, and their UK advisers said, no, people won’t buy it if it’s that cheap – they won’t think it is good enough. So they put their prices up and Ikea was more expensive in the UK than anywhere else in the world. And the truth is, when a restaurant is not making enough money the obvious solution is to charge more. Rather than providing a better product for less; and that is my motto.

What is the key to success in this industry?
It is one word, and I learned this from my mentor, Nobu himself: consistency. Good food always and good service always. If you can do that, people will always come back. I don’t know which is worse – sometimes you can go somewhere and have an OK meal and if the service is great then you’ll go back. Flip that around, and if the food is great but the service is appalling, you won’t go back. The other thing is to constantly make it better, so each time someone comes to eat, it is a little bit better, so it is constantly evolving and doesn’t stay stagnant – that’s quite hard to do.

The most important thing you’ve learned in this industry?
You can have a bad idea, but if you have a great team behind you, then it will be a success. If you have a great idea but a terrible team, then forget it, don’t invest.

What’s your opinion of the local dining scene?
When you are in such a competitive environment, like you are in the UK and in New York, and when I compare it to the market here, there is just not that level, that competitive edge. It is a small market, and there is no competition, so that standard is not really being driven. What I hope with my being here is that the standard will rise. What I hope is that people will start to realise they have to set a higher benchmark than currently exists.

What do you think will be your greatest challenge here?
The greatest challenge for me will be getting the staff. Because it doesn’t matter what we do in terms of decor, it doesn’t matter what we put on the menu, if you don’t have the right staff. The other challenge is getting the products. The chef that I’m bringing over is famous in the UK, is the chef of Zuma in London. His biggest problem is finding ingredients. We want to start bringing in the best oils from Italy, chicken and geese from France. What we have to do is create a menu dependant on what we can get into the country rather that write a menu and then see if we can find ingredients for it.

What, to you, is great food?
For me cooking is about great quality products cooked with as few ingredients as possible. If you look back in history, all of these sauces and all of these strong flavours were always used to disguise the fact that the meat didn’t have flavour or wasn’t a good quality product. The French were creaming it, and buttering it and fattening it up and flavouring it because they didn’t have good products. The British were too. And then you go to Italy and they pick the tomato from the vine an hour before it is served with salt, pepper and olive oil and that is the best tomato you have ever eaten. And that to me is a good restaurant, where a chef is not playing so much with the food that you don’t see what’s there anymore, so that it doesn’t even look like food.

Explain the concept behind Block 338.
L’Cave used to be a small little villa serving Lebanese cuisine with seating for about 20 people. Then they decided to extend it, and they knocked down some walls and popped some dodgy buildings onto the side of it. It was bought by our company with the intention of knocking it down and building something on it. So I went to see the site with my designer, Jonathan Amar, and we realised the place was a goldmine. We really wanted to do something with the place, so decided to transform it into Block 338.

[Restaurants in Bahrain] tend to use the same designers, and their designs are all very masculine, it is often design for the sake of design. We wanted to make the place unique – you won’t find this anywhere else in the world. We are going to have a live barbecue, we will have a live DJ, a band playing, the interior is going to pieces from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. The furniture is coming from Paris and Denmark. Tracking down the furniture has been one massive job. We wanted it to be furniture that you won’t find anywhere else in Bahrain; it is coming from galleries in Paris and is hugely expensive.

What I wanted to concentrate on is product, and I felt that there wasn’t a strong Mediterranean concept here – one that draws on Greek, Portuguese and Spanish as well as Italian and French. It is a Mediterranean tapas restaurant, somewhere you can come and have a drink, have a bit to eat and have fun. And in the evening, it will turn into a bar.

By Murray Garrard
Time Out Bahrain,

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