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As the sister to Zuma, this Business Bay hotspot Roka has taken the challenge of being the new contender head-on and has become an instant hit amongst the Dubai restaurant crowd.
Situated in The Opus, a building designed by Zaha Hadid, Roka has brought its unique style of contemporary Japanese Robatayaki cuisine to Dubai and it’s an absolute must-try. Like its elder sibling Zuma, Roka’s flagship restaurant is located in London, but it’s undoubtedly already carved its place in the F&B space in the emirate under the leadership of executive head chef Libor Dobis.
Emirates Woman sat down with the critically-acclaimed chef to find out what it has been like opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, how he believes the Dubai restaurant scene sets itself apart from other places, Roka’s hero dishes and the future of the establishment in Dubai.
Can you talk us through your career history?
My career really kick-started in London in 2004 when I started working at I Sapori by Stefano Cavallini, an Italian restaurant. My passion for food always stemmed from South-East Asian flavours and cooking techniques so I developed to work for the likes of Nobu, Nahm, a famed Thai restaurant at the time, and Naamyaa by Alan Yau. Finally, I landed at ROKA and worked both in the Mayfair and Canary Wharf locations where I worked my way up to Head Chef before moving to Dubai.
What eventually brought you to Dubai?
From a career perspective, I was ready for the next step and a new opportunity but there was no way I was leaving the ROKA family so when the project in Dubai presented itself, I jumped at it. From a family perspective, we were also looking for a new adventure and Dubai seemed like the ideal place at this stage in our life.
How does the food and beverage industry here differ from other places around the world?
Dubai is a new and different world. It is relatively young from an industry perspective with lots of new restaurant opening all the time, it’s booming! There are obviously cultural diversities in every country, which need to be adapted to whether this is from a customer or business perspective.
ROKA opened just before the pandemic and then closed. What was that like for you as a chef?
It was tough, I won’t lie, having just arrived in the country and then virtually going straight into lockdown. However, you must take the positive experiences out of difficult situations, I learnt a lot during this time.
How was ROKA affected during lockdown? How did you adapt?
I believe all restaurants were affected similarly. We started takeaway relatively quickly and when we were able to reopen, we adapted the restaurant swiftly in-line with the government’s regulations. During the time we were closed we took advantage of it and used it to plan and strategise new menus etc.
ROKA really has found its own niche in the Business Bay area. Would you agree?
I definitely agree, YES! We are fortunate to have a fantastic location; the terrace views are to die for. To top it off we are in a building which I believe is becoming an icon of the Dubai skyline – really it could not be better.
What are the hero dishes at ROKA?
We have a large amount of ROKA signature dishes from London on our menu that have been firm favourites here as well. The likes of the Kampachi Salad, Lamb Cutlets and Mushroom Hotpot. In addition, there are dishes that are unique to the Dubai menu which I would consider are hero dishes now, such as the Bone Marrow & the Baked Potato.
What do you think sets ROKA apart from other eateries in Dubai?
ROKA has heart, warmth and energy, which is a unique feeling I believe, it hits you when you walk through the doors. It is driven by the passion to deliver consistently high levels of food, service, drinks; every element. The ROKA culture is a “thing” that exists throughout all the locations and I am yet to see this replicated elsewhere.
Who would you say your chef inspiration is?
Honestly, it is difficult to say as there are so many great chefs, and I have had many mentors but if I had to choose I would name David Thompson, who I worked for at Nahm, and the ROKA Group Executive Chef Hamish Brown, he has a unique passion and incredible pallet.
What are the hurdles you’ve experienced during your career as a chef?
I would say the lockdown was probably the most stressful time, the business is forced to close, and you have no idea what the next day will bring…
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what are the milestones?
Moving to Dubai was a milestone for sure. It started a new chapter in my life personally and professionally and has opened many doors that I never thought of when I was back in London.
What future do you see for ROKA in this region?
I see ROKA having a very bright future internationally and within the region but ultimately the expansion is not within my control so I would simply say, watch this space!