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Cooking up success from scratch

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Aug 25, 2013

For two years running, a Singaporean chef – the son of a former nasi padang seller – has helped to put a Japanese eatery in Dubai on the list of the world’s 100 best restaurants.

Under executive chef Ahmad Refaie Othman, Zuma has been placed 87th in Restaurant magazine’s annual world rankings for this year. Last year it was No. 83 on the British trade magazine’s exalted list.

The plaudits make Mr Ahmad – or Reif as he prefers to be known – extremely chuffed.

Zuma, which serves contemporary Japanese cuisine, is a high-end international chain with restaurants in London, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Miami. But Zuma Dubai is the only one to make the global rankings, not once but twice.

What pleases Mr Reif more is the fact that he is only one of two Singapore- born and bred chefs on the roll call. The other is Mr Akmal Anuar, who helms Iggy’s which came in at No. 68. The two remaining Singapore establishments in the Top 100 this year – Restaurant Andre (No. 38) and Waku Ghin (No. 65) – are helmed by foreign chefs.

Mr Reif, 35, says: “I’m very happy with my life right now. I worked very hard to be where I am now and I’m in a very good place.”

Indeed he is.

Zuma is one the finest restaurants in Dubai. Designed by Japanese architect Noriyoshi Muramatsu, it features hand-carved granite counters, rusted-steel walls and an arresting bamboo sculpture fashioned from 450 wires and 350 bamboos. The 14,000 sq ft restaurant – which also has a bar and sake lounge – does 1,000 covers daily, with patrons spending an average of $600 on each meal with drinks.

As its executive chef, he oversees a team of nearly 100 international kitchen staff including master sushi chefs. Besides ensuring the quality of its food, he also plans and creates dishes and menus, orders supplies and looks after the financial numbers.

It is an amazing achievement for someone who quit formal studies at Secondary 2, never went to culinary school and started out peeling 30kg of potatoes and onions a day at his mother’s nasi padang stall in Bukit Timah Plaza. He acquired his skills the old-fashioned way – starting from the bottom, slogging tirelessly and grabbing all opportunities that came his way.

He grew up the younger of two children of a driver and a stallholder in a three-room Housing Board flat in West Coast.

“I was a naughty kid, I hated studies and always played truant although I was not that bad a student,” says the former pupil of Jin Tai Primary School.

Although he had the good sense not to touch drugs, he hung out with some unsavoury sorts, including druggies and ruffians who often got into fights. He ended up in a police lock-up once for loitering and was also hauled up for fighting.

“My father had to come and get me out,” says Mr Reif.

At 14, he decided to quit Shuqun Secondary School. “I really was not interested and I didn’t want to waste my parents’ money,” he says.

He found himself a part-time job at an Italian restaurant, La Forketta, in South Buona Vista. The Italian owner taught him how to make pizza; his wife taught him tiramisu.

“I was working evenings on weekdays, and the whole day on weekends, earning $5.50 an hour. It was pretty good money then,” says Mr Reif, who used the money to buy himself a Piaggio Skipper and later, a scrambler bike which he would take into the forest for frenzied spins.

Other part-time gigs in F&B outlets followed, including a stint as a bartender for Movenpick in Boat Quay.

“I didn’t like it. I guess I didn’t have the personality. It’s more than just shaking drinks in a mixer; you need to have personality and a smile,” he quips.

After two years, he decided to sit hisOlevels at a private school in Orchard Road. “It dawned on me that I needed a school certificate,” he says.

Friends told him there were easier ways to make money than slaving in a kitchen.

“It’s not easy work. It’s hot, you stand on your feet all day and you have to concentrate. People told me it’s not a good way to earn an income but I didn’t think too much. I just wanted to learn things and improve myself.”

At 16, Mr Reif landed his first full-time job as a cook with food consultant Violet Oon who then had a restaurant in Bukit Pasoh.

“She took me on and taught me how to do things, how to cut vegetables, prepare rempah, make buah keluak,” he says.

Within one year, he was made assistant chef and was helping Ms Oon run the restaurant and handle catering events.

Ms Oon – who now has an eatery in Bukit Timah – has fond memories of the teenager she hired.

“He was just a little boy but he was very outstanding for his precision. He wanted things perfect. It was unusual to get someone so young who was so responsive and so upbeat,” she recalls.

National service beckoned not long after. His parents got divorced during this period, one of the more difficult times in his life.

“It was rough. My sister and I moved out with our mother into a one-room rental flat in Bendemeer. Luckily, my sister was working as a stewardess and we managed,” says Mr Reif, adding that he would help his mother at her nasi padang stall whenever he could.

He entertained the idea of enrolling in hospitality and culinary school Shatec but finally decided against it.

“I hated studying and would rather learn through hands-on experience.”

He became a trainee at upmarket French restaurant Les Amis instead and the four years he spent there were formative.

“I didn’t know anything about European or French cooking. I learnt to respect and understand ingredients and products. Everything is about freshness. French cooking is not about short cuts; you have to start from scratch,” he says.

Around this time, he started beefing up his knowledge by reading cookbooks by the likes of Marco Pierre White and Alain Ducasse.

“I also read up on kitchen tools and what they’re designed for, as well as technical terms. What is julienne, brunoise, mirepoix,” he says, tossing off French culinary terms. Julienne is a culinary knife cut in which the food item is cut into long thin strips; brunoise is a precision cut where the food is first julienned, then turned a quarter and diced again; mirepoix is a mixture of chopped aromatics such as celery, onions and carrots.

Four years later, he upped and left to join California Pizza Kitchen as a team leader.

Friends and colleagues thought he was foolish to go from fine dining to casual dining but he had his reasons.

“It’s an American concept and I heard they were good in kitchen management. They have recipes, which makes things consistent. In French kitchens, there are no recipes. Everybody specialises in something and everyone’s hand is different so there is no consistency even though everyone knows the techniques,” says Mr Reif, who went on to help the chain open an outlet in Kuala Lumpur.

Two years later, he joined Raffles Grill as a chef de partie, taking charge of a particular area of production. During his two-year stint, he had the opportunity to work with famous visiting chefs such as Ducasse, Jacques Pourcel and Sergi Arola.

In 2003, when he was 25, he decided to wing it alone to London.

“I just wanted to see what was out there, what I could learn, how far I could go,” he says.

Upon arriving, he knocked on the door of British chef Gordon Ramsay’s flagship restaurant in Chelsea.

He told them he was keen on a stage, an unpaid internship to learn new techniques and cuisines.

“The head chef told me to put on an apron and start work immediately. I got makan, slept in the quarters with their staff,” he says, adding that he saw Ramsay – whom he describes as extremely aggressive in the kitchen – a couple of times.

Through a former colleague at Raffles Grill, he also staged at the three-Michelin star Le Jardin des Sens in Lyon.

He came home eight months later and, not long after, was offered a position with the Al Mahara seafood restaurant in the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai.

Besides its food, the luxe restaurant is famous for its apartment- size aquarium in the dining room.

The two years he spent there were eye-opening.

“There were no food costs. Everything you wanted, you bought,” he says. He met celebrities galore and recalls an experience with American rapper 50 Cent.

“He hadn’t even touched down and he asked for Kentucky Fried Chicken. We had to search on the Internet for the recipe so that we could cook it for him,” he says.

He decided to come home after two years because “there was nothing much in Dubai in 2004”.

Mr Reif helped to start up a small bistro, Zuko, in Siglap. A regular patron then got him on board as a partner to open Reif & James in Robertson Quay.

Although the restaurant – which served modern European food – was successful, he decided to call it quits after a year because of differences with his partner.

“I learnt a lot, being both chef and owner, but I also learnt that you really need to go into business with someone you know really well and who shares the same vision.”

By then he was married to former air stewardess Jasmine Mohd Ismail. The couple have two children, aged five and seven.

His next stop was One Rochester where he helped to revamp the kitchen operations as executive chef. He also helped to set up TwentySix and 1Caramel.

The two-year stint here helped him hone his kitchen management skills. Among other things, he hired and trained 25 cooks, planned menus and managed costs and the inventory.

But just when life was settling onto an even keel, a chef he knew from his Al Mahara days asked him to join Zuma.

“I did not have a background in Japanese cuisine but they were not looking for people who were good at filleting fish or making sushi.”

He flew up to London to meet Zuma founder Rainer Becker.

“I spent a month there to understand the Zuma concept, the flavours and textures they were after.”

His work, he says, was cut out for him.

“I have been there for four years now. In the first year, I got the kitchen and staff in order. After that, I set up the recipes, streamlined the kitchen and made things consistent. In the third year, I started sourcing for suppliers and introduced a lot of new things from Japan, and created new dishes according to the seasons in Japan,” says Mr Reif, who was named Best Chef of the Year in 2011 by BBC Good Food Magazine.

Today, he sources for his own caviar and truffles, and even has specially aged grass-fed beef supplied exclusively to him by a farmer in Ireland.

He may not have an MBA but he explains his art in managing staff eloquently.

“I know I work hard. I started hard, I learnt hard so I’m always in the kitchen cooking with my boys even though my job really doesn’t require me to do that,” says Mr Reif who also oversees Zuma in Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi which opens in December.

“But I believe my contact with them helps me understand my staff. When I know them, I can handle them. I used to yell but I now know talking to them straight from the heart works a lot better.”

Since he took over, the restaurant has won a slew of awards, from Best Japanese Restaurant by Time Out Magazine to Best Restaurant of the Year by BBC Good Food Magazine.

Life, he says, is good. Mr Reif – who hopes to own his own chain of restaurants one day – lives with his family in a villa with a swimming pool.

“But we don’t have servants. We must remember our roots,” he says.

kimhoh@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Sunday Times on Aug 25, 2013

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