Following his win as ‘Chef of the Year’ at the FACT Dining Awards Dubai 2022, we caught up with the homegrown talent.
For over a decade, FACT has been awarding restaurants, bars and nightlife venues across the Gulf for their contribution to the food and beverage industry. But at the FACT Dining Awards Dubai 2022, our editorial team broke the mould and recognised people (in addition to places) with our first-ever ‘Chef of the Year’ awarded to homegrown talent, Reif Othman.
The award was designed to recognise individual excellence, and a culinary talent in Dubai that embodies this is Reif. He is the city’s first self-funded chef come restaurateur. Today, he operates successful outlets of Reif Japanese Kushiyaki in Dubai and Cairo – with hush-hush openings further afield – and is well on his way to building a global restaurant empire.
From Singapore to Dubai
After the FACT Awards, we sat down with the forty-something Reif at his flagship restaurant in Dar Wasl, Dubai. Dressed in his signature snapback and sneakers, he is relaxed and unphased, even amidst the busy lunchtime service. Plus, in a culture where chefs have egos bigger than the Burj, it’s refreshing to meet someone in the industry who is so talented, but so down to earth.
He reminisces: “I never started as a chef, but I was driven by kitchen life. My mum used to have a small shop in Singapore selling Malay dishes, and she would take me to the market to buy groceries. I would look at a potato and imagine how many dishes I could make. I became obsessed with turning raw goods into beautiful dishes. It was different to my job as a broker. I was a broker until 6pm, then I would go home, shower and work in an Italian restaurant as a pizza maker.”
Unexpectedly, the career change paid off. The transition from Singapore to Dubai wasn’t easy, but an offer to work at Burj Al Arab was enough to pique his interest. He recalls: “It was 2006. Back then, there was no Burj Khalifa, only BurJuman Centre. Dubai wasn’t busy, and there wasn’t a lot to do, but I was single, and thought I’d make money. It was great timing – Burj Al Arab was in the limelight and all eyes were on Dubai.”
The chef returned to Singapore to get married before an offer from Zuma drew him back to the Emirates. He worked his way up to Regional Executive Chef before taking on roles as Chief Culinary Officer for Play Restaurant and Executive Chef for Flavio Briatore’s SumoSan Group. Then, in 2019, he opened his magnum opus: Reif Japanese Kushiyaki, in Dar Wasl.
The secret ingredients
What sets Reif Japanese Kushiyaki apart is its unconventional take on Japanese street food. As a Singaporean, cooking Japanese food rather than Malay cuisine, is not the norm. Plus, in a city famous for restaurants opened by celebrity chefs (who put their name on the door, but rarely live or visit here), and Insta-worthy dishes (that look good, but may taste bad), Reif is the real deal.
He reveals: “I think the word unconventional is key. We are Japanese-inspired and draw from Japanese techniques when it comes to the ingredients. But for the flavours, I focus on the European palate, which favours umami. I want people to enjoy affordable, high-quality comfort food. This was missing in Dubai.”
He shares: “The kimchi melon is truly unique. And while everyone has their own gyoza, my beef gyoza has an explosion of liquid and a touch of jelly inside. Nobody else does that. And, of course, you shouldn’t miss the Sando, clay pot dishes or ramen.”
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – how do you trademark a dish? – and some of his dishes have been copied across the city. Reif, however, is unfazed: “It’s nice to see someone do what I do. But sometimes I wish they would make it different or at least say that I inspired them.”
The next course
Today, Reif Japanese Kushiyaki has picked up numerous awards, from a MICHELIN Bib Gourmand, to a place on the inaugural MENA 50 Best list. Oh, and, of course, that FACT ‘Chef of the Year’ Award.
In true Reif-style, he is remarkably humble when we bring up his title. He smiles: “It’s an awesome feeling. I feel like all my efforts paid off. You guys at FACT never had that category before, so, I was like, ‘wow’. The whole game has changed. I’ve been doing this for ten years, and it feels as though my mission has been accomplished.
“It feels great to have awards coming in globally. But it’s important to support local publications, as they created us. But, of course, MICHELIN and 50 Best is the cherry on top. However, we still need more foodies visiting, as Dubai has never really been considered a foodie destination. Dubai’s restaurant scene has always been seen as a lifestyle.”
So, what’s next? He answers: “Now it’s time to give back. I’m trying to create the next Reif, my number two. They are the next generation. I encourage and support the young ones, and give them all 100% trust. When you give someone that, they give you more in return.
“This first quarter of 2023 will be interesting. I will open two restaurants in Dubai Hills. First up, the 120-cover fully licensed Reif Japanese Kushiyaki will bring back “The Experience.” And Hoe Lee Kow is an unconventional Korean barbecue restaurant. It’s going to be a new thing for me. It will be very fun, very K-pop and very licensed.”
Reif has no plans to leave the city. “Dubai is always my home. I established myself here and I’m at the age where I don’t want to move somewhere else and start all over again. Dubai still has a lot of things to offer,” he concludes.
It seems like an inevitable answer from a man who has a symbiotic relationship with the city: it built him up, and he built it up. There’s no denying, this local talent put the city on the global map. Congratulations, Reif.