Digital Solutions: Rethinking The Fine Dining Experience

Image Source: Chef Izu
Image Source: Chef Izu

A "slow" approach to fast food.

Chef Izu Ani has carved his name out in the UAE with his fine dining outlets Carine and Gaia, formed after his time at La Petite Maison and La Serre. Since then, Ani has taken his brand across the Middle East and Europe, with the USA soon to follow. Through his F&B creative consulting and management agency YSeventy7, Chef Izu has launched more casual concepts including Fika, The Lighthouse, Izu Brasserie & Bakery, Sum+things and Il Passaggio, among others, in what is arguably a regional culinary empire. Inspired by his time in the South of France and extensive travels, Chef Izu is known for his signature style of simple, elegant food marked by relaxed, shared dining and the warm ambiance this creates.

Following the global shifts and evolutions in dining incited by Covid-19, where online sales in the UAE’s food and beverage market jumped 255% year-over-year in 2020—making it the second-largest market for online food delivery in the region with an annual market size of $834 million—Chef Izu is diving in. As more restaurants begin to explore virtual brands, Katrina Kufer finds out how Chef Izu is reframing  the debate of fine dining vs take-away by embracing digital solutions and cloud kitchens with two new concepts, Izu Burger and Kitch-In.

1. How did COVID affect the way you approach dining? 

I saw it as an opportunity to be creative and try something new. This is an amazing time to look around, be more aware and learn things that we may not have seen otherwise. The pandemic forced us to rethink how we look at things, to go back to basics and realize what is most important. Throughout the crisis and until now our priority is to take care of our team, create beautiful concepts and dishes and make sure that the quality of our work is at its best.

2. How important were digital solutions for dining prior to the pandemic?

We have been exploring the digital and delivery space for a few years and I find it really interesting. It has seen such a vast growth in a short period of time, and there has been a level of experience that people accept because they enjoy the ease and accessibility of a home delivery. Why can’t we order a meal at home and it be of the same quality as a restaurant? The pandemic gave us an opportunity to learn more about delivery, assess what works and what doesn’t, and use that knowledge and understanding to enhance our own platform. We wanted to take our time with the project, instead of rushing to launch, to ensure we could provide consistent cuisine and incredible quality.

Digital advancements, food technology and delivery concepts are here to stay, in every country. In the fast-paced nature of today’s world, we all need the convenience of a takeaway and the ease of a home-delivery. Our aim is to do things differently, I feel like we have a responsibility to prioritize nutrition and give people the tools to make better choices. 

We want to improve the understanding of takeaways with a “slow” approach to fast food. We have taken the time to perfect the recipe, consider the nutritional value and reduce wastage, to give our consumers the best possible version of each dish.

3. During lockdown you initiated Instagram tutorials, allowing us to have simplified fine dining experiences at home. Did this play into your ensuing launch of more accessible fine dining outlets and concepts?

The lockdown was the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on the essentials in life, the things that truly make us happy. I created the Chef Izu Challenge to encourage people to eat well and understand the health benefits of their food. I wanted to educate everyone on the ingredients and contents of each dish, so that they are eating for their wellbeing, energy and happiness. A healthy lifestyle is at the heart of all of my concepts, dishes, restaurants and delivery brands. 

To eat well is an essential function for every human being, it is what gives us the nutrients to strengthen our immune systems and helps us build a healthy and happy lifestyle. Convenient food doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Through Kitch-In, we can provide a conscious and sustainable approach to delivered cuisine. The beauty of the project lies in its ability to improve the lives of so many, through a simple, effective approach. 

"Everything we eat is a reflection of who we are and how we are feeling."

Image source: Chef Izu
Image source: Chef Izu

4. Your menus are concise, focused on quality ingredients where you’ve got the dirty/naughty balanced with the healthy/clean. What was the thinking behind Izu Burger—especially as a non-physical restaurant—in the relative sea of burger options available here in Dubai? 

With Izu Burger, I wanted to make juicy, tasty burgers, with clean, conscious ingredients so that we can trust in what we are putting into our bodies. I want people to know that they can enjoy a dirty burger, but choose one made with pure intentions and carefully sourced flavors for a balanced lifestyle. 

Izu burgers are filled with layers of tender meat stacked with melted cheese and signature sauce for a succulent flavour, rather than a traditional patty. The menu has only 5 menu items at the moment, including a Potato Bun Burger, made with a choice of an exquisite cut of Australian Wagyu Beef or 150-day grain fed Canadian Beef, topped with melted Emmental Swiss Cheese, signature sauce and a pillowy Potato Bun that soaks up all of the juices. Our Trio of Sliders are also made with a Potato Bun, alongside Izu Fries, thick wedges of potato with a crisp skin and fluffy consistency, drizzled with a spicy sauce, shavings of fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano and mixed spices. 

We also have a Milk Baguette Burger made with soft, fluffy, classic French-shaped bread, filled with a choice of Australian Wagyu Beef or 150-day grain fed Canadian Beef, Emmental Swiss Cheese and signature sauce, for an addictive flavour. The sauces took us some time to perfect and I loved the process. I wanted them to have their own personality, Rich & Smokin’ or Young & Punchy, to add a unique character to the burgers and fries.

A signature Passionfruit Cheesecake completes the menu for now, and we have some exciting new additions coming in the next few months.

Burgers are such a dynamic dish, they can be enjoyed on the go, at home and when entertaining friends and loved ones. We wanted to create a burger brand that can become immersed in your everyday lifestyle. Beautiful quality, fast delivery times and a really good burger, at any time of the day. We aim to open an Izu Burger Joint in New York and Dubai next year, and I’m really looking forward to bringing those to life.

5. Kitch-In is an umbrella for diverse culinary concepts produced in the kitchens of Accor properties. How does that embody your culinary ethos and why is this the optimal format for housing separate cuisines to avoid being misunderstood as fusion?

I think it is important to remember that food belongs to the culture it comes from. By understanding the culture, we have the privilege of knowing how to extract the experience and tell each story from the source. My travels and experiences continue to shape my understanding of cuisine and have enabled me to translate this through the menus I work on.

All of our brands have their own story, a personality that the menu is based on. Jimoto is the Japanese word for “street food”, and we have included popular dishes that you can pick-up on the go in Japan, made with the same respect that they have for their ingredients and surroundings. Seoul Sister serves dishes that are essential to the Korean heart and soul. Ap’Ola translates to “everything” in Greek, and it’s the type of menu makes that you want to order one of everything and share with friends and family at home. Gigi serves Italian cuisine inspired by Sicily, with conscious cooking methods and 72-hour fermented dough, that feels light and tastes amazing. Wok’ed serves incredible stir-fried Asian cuisine, and Poke-Mon serves colourful and fresh Poke bowls.

We serve freshly baked breads, pastries and desserts from Bella’s Bakery, our very own boulangerie, as well as Arabic sweets from Ayana, and creative breakfast options Toasty and On Crepe.

Most recently, we launched Su’Chill Sushi, which I am really excited about. We noticed a gap in the delivery market for high-grade, restaurant quality sushi and came up with a really beautiful and fun concept. It really is unlike anything else in the region. 

We have launched Shanghai Me, and are set to launch our legacy brands Gaia and Scalini in the next few weeks, to provide a luxurious experience at home, for diners to treat themselves or entertain guests and loved ones.

We focus on honesty and simplicity, in our food and in our philosophy. We source the best ingredients, take our time to work on the cooking methods so that they are as clean as possible and easier for us to digest, so that people can order quickly, and have it delivered straight to them. 

The digital format of Kitch-In allows diners and consumers to order anytime, anywhere, with ease and accessibility, but the strategy, time and effort that goes into each brand remains the same as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. We use this approach with all of our concepts, from menu creation to characteristics and personality. 

Image Source: Chef Izu
Image Source: Chef Izu

6. How does the dynamic of centralized kitchen/virtual restaurant differ from a traditional restaurant kitchen within a buzzy outlet?

The kitchen is the beating heart of every concept, the energy is so important. When we work together, and work with passion, we can enjoy the art of dedication and practice. We are a team, and happy teams work better together, happy Chefs make tastier food. 

With Kitch-In, the buzz is different outside of the kitchen, but it is still there. We have noticed with a digital concept; the excitement and interaction has come in a digital form too. We receive so many messages of encouragement on social media. I love seeing all of the pictures, stories, tags and reshares, it really motivates us and keeps us all going.

7. Will delivery-based concepts and the food alone ever be able to compensate enough to be on even playing grounds with the experience of dining in a restaurant? 

Restaurants provide us with beautiful memories and experiences. We are social beings, we need to interact, to meet, talk, laugh and spend time with each other. Dining together is a ritual and sharing food with loved ones is something we have enjoyed since the beginning of time. Nothing can replace the feeling of dining with friends and family. The rise of delivery concepts gives people more choice and much better options for eating at home, and restaurants will continue to create new gastronomical entertainment, cuisine and entertainment.

Everything we eat is a reflection of who we are and how we are feeling. When we order at home, we aren’t in the mood to go out and socialize, it is often when we are feeling tired or relaxed. Our choice of meal and cuisine day to day is often impacted by our moods and emotions; if you are feeling tired or had a long day, then a home delivery can provide comfort, relaxation and make you feel looked after. 

Brands and concepts are constantly evolving to improve quality, dishes and flavors, which gives us more appreciation for the food we eat – we enjoy it. When we enjoy our food, we want to share it with others and spread the happiness it made us feel. I believe that delivery concepts and the restaurant industry will continue to flourish and grow alongside each other, creativity and culinary trends will be reflected and mirrored within the home and at a restaurant.

Image Source: Chef Izu

About The Editor

Katrina – arts, culture and lifestyle writer and editor (BFA Fine Arts, Parsons the New School for Design; MA Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s Institute of Art) – has lived in 16 countries and written for a multitude of prestigious publications in the MENA region. Based in Dubai, Kufer is interested in observing new environments and exploring cross and inter-cultural connections.