Kitchen Inquisition: Chef Rainer Becker

The German-born chef brings Japanese cuisine to Downtown Miami

By Elena Schmidt
|  Sunday, May 30, 2010  |  Updated 7:52 AM EDT
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Kitchen Inquisition: Chef Rainer Becker

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Already known for its fine dining, beautiful people, and unique tropical backdrop, the Magic City is now the first in North America chosen to showcase the award-winning Japanese cuisine of Zuma. German-born co-founder and chef Rainer Becker created the authentic Japanese-style menu with his own modern twist after years of study in Tokyo, and following Zuma's unexpected uber-success in London he opened locations in international hotspots like Hong Kong, Instanbul, and Dubai. Now, Becker has set up shop in Downtown Miami's Epic Hotel.

Here the chef talks Japanese cooking culture, Miami's dining scene, and the plan his father had for him that totally backfired.

What is it about Japanese food/culture that drew you away from German cuisine?

I had already left Germany a long time before my first visit to Japan; I had traveled as a chef, experiencing all different kinds of cooking styles and approaches to cooking. Nothing, however, prepares you for that first hit of Japanese food culture and the different ingredients. For a chef there is nothing more exciting than discovering new tastes and flavors, new ingredients and cooking practices. I was fascinated by the contrast of the dishes. Initially they appear to be so simple, but then when you begin to cook the food you unearth the complexity behind.

What five ingredients must every Japanese chef have in his/her cabinets?
Yuzu, shiso, katsuboshi, kombu, and fresh wasabi; you will also need obvious things like soy sauce, mirin, sake and rice wine vinegar.

What five utensils?
There are so many types of knifes that I will just say it as one category but I need about 10 different types as essentials; a wooden shaver for katsuboshi; sharpening stone; oroshii, which is a grater for daikon; and a sharkskin board for fresh wasabi.

What is your vision for Zuma?

When we opened ZUMA in London I never expected it to be so popular, let alone in so many different countries. I think that I would like to open perhaps another one or two in the U.S., but slowly. Let's just see how Miami works out first….. fingers crossed.

At what point did you realize you were destined to be a chef?  Who gave you your start?

When I was a kid I used to come home from school and loved watching my mum prepare our food, the smells excited me. Then she allowed me to cook with her and I loved it. My father, however, wasn’t so keen on my interest in kitchen work and one summer holiday sent me for a month to his friend's restaurant to work in a professional kitchen. Unfortunately for him I loved it even more. It was a good exercise though, as it proved to him I was serious and he of course supported me.

Why bring Zuma to Miami?
ZUMA has been well received now in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, so Miami is our first try at the US. It is such a vibrant, multicultural city, and from my previous visits I always felt Miami had its own unique energy. They are fun people who want to enjoy and have a good time, however there is certainly a high expectation of quality with Miamians and I think that’s what ZUMA is all about.

What is the most valuable cooking advice you have ever received?
Eat your own food before you serve it to guests, so many chefs forget to eat a dish themselves before putting it on the menu. It sounds such a simple thing but you would be surprised.

What's your favorite sake/dish combination?

My favorite is when you have a dish that is rich in umami, like dashi or mackerel, and have a sake with it that you really get the full umami hit. I love that whole mouth feel.

What was the first dish you learned how to make?

In a Japanese kitchen it was how to fillet bonito and also how to make dashi.

What don't people know about the life of a chef?

This is unlike any other job, if you don’t love doing it – you can’t do it.

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