Debonair steps into the kitchen with the chef behind Michelin-starred Junoon, as he opens Kinara in Dubai
Having built a following consulting and with Zuma, Play and The Experience, Singaporean chef Reif Othman takes to the streets with his homegrown concept Reif Japanese Kushiyaki
Eduan R. Maggo
Even if you’re just a casual Instagrammer, chances are you’ve come across Reif Othman’s latest project. In the few weeks since Reif Japanese Kushiyaki opened, Dubai hasn’t been able to get enough of the Singaporean chef’s take on Japanese street food.
“It’s always been a dream to open on my own,” Othman says of the modest venue that’s worlds away from the big hotels and brands that introduced him to us.
“The days of the high rollers are a thing of the past. We’re in a moment of change, and I see a homegrown concept having more legs.”
Othman says he literally put his money where his mouth is. “I don’t care if it’s unlicensed; all I care about is that we serve good food.”
And that he does. He describes his concept as “unconventional affordable Japanese street food”, infused with the French and Italian techniques he’s acquired over the past 12 years. “Kushiyaki is Japanese for skewers, and I put everything on bamboo skewers. My ramen comes with skewers of chicken on it. Tempura? On skewers.
“I guess there are a few skewers places around here, offering kushiyaki-style cuisine. But none of them come up to my level. I wanted to offer something elevated but with authentic flavours, tastes and textures. And I play around with sauces in a way others don’t.”
Sustainability is one of his chief concerns, and Othman uses the whole chicken carcass in different ways to eliminate wastage — from the skin to the heart to the bones, he extracts flavour from every available source. “I don’t see this as a trend, but I want to educate people that you can eat quality food and reduce wastage if you’re smart enough. Every element adds something different to the flavour profile,” he explains.
It informs standout dishes such as his take on Singaporean chicken rice, which when pressed is the dish that brings him the most joy. In it, chicken skin infuses the rice with a bold flavour it just wouldn’t be the same without. “It showcases where I come from,” he says. “It’s a classic take on something I grew up with. I didn’t want to deconstruct it or over-complicate it. It’s pure and simple.”
Other highlights include stuffed rice chicken wings, and dumplings with a sauce that begs to be soaked up with bread. Another wonderfully simplistic dish is his Wagyu sandwich — rich and satisfying, it’s understandably one of the most popular dishes on the menu that invites you to tick off your choices when ordering.
And yes, you’d have to travel for these delicacies because the restaurant doesn’t deliver. “Not now, and not in the future. It’s too difficult to control the quality. I’d rather have people come here and enjoy proper food the way it’s supposed to be had.”
Anyone who’s eaten at Othman’s table at the likes of Zuma, Play, The Experience and Sumosan knows his cheerful demeanour and sense of humour translates to his food and beyond. Chef-owned and operated, he helms the kitchen while simultaneously leading the commercial operations and front-of-house too. I ask about the restaurant’s small footprint in Jumeirah’s Dar Wasl Mall, with a capacity for 29 inside — including unrestricted views of the hive of activity behind the stoves — and 30 on the terrace.
“That’s how it is in Japan too, so it fits,” he explains. “Your street food vendors and small restaurants have tiny kitchens; you have to use your space efficiently and effectively. A small space gives you a different perspective, and you learn to manage your ordering better.
“And, as you can see, we’re all skinny,” he jokes. “That’s the first thing I ask new hires: What’s your weight, what’s your height, what’s your size.”
Incidentally, Othman’s philanthropic activities just saw the launch of a primary school in Zanzibar that he hopes to augment with a secondary institution in future and eventually even a hospitality school, a venture that could feed back into his own business while also equipping that community with saleable skills.
But for now, he says he’s happy with Reif Japanese Kushiyaki and always intended to open an unlicensed venue. “I’ve had offers from investors to open a licensed restaurant, but the market is tough at the moment. And my core audience here won’t miss the alcohol.”
That said, I ask what he misses about running a licensed operation. “Nothing really,” he replies. “Maybe having a glass of wine at the end of the night? But then, I’d rather finish work and go somewhere else for that!”
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