F&B Focus: Playing with Fire

On a mission to showcase the diversity of Japanese cuisine, Ross Shonhan launched Netsu, at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira Dubai, just over a year ago

Ross Shonhan
Ross Shonhan

In Dubai ahead of Netsu’s first anniversary, the former Zuma and Nobu head chef spoke to HotelierMiddle East about about the venue’s unusual claim to fame, the local talent he’d like to collaborate with and the key
to standing out in crowded market place.

How did you first get into hospitality?
I grew up in the countryside in regional Australia where was no such thing as a restaurant. My family and I never went to restaurants but I do remember going to the coast to visit my grandmother where we would sometimes go to a Chinese buffet restaurant. That was the first and only restaurant I remember going to – hospitality was never a career choice in my village.

When I was 15 I started washing dishes in a local butchers after school. This was my first exposure to the industry and professional food. It was a stark difference from growing up where we would have our own eggs, milk our own cows, killed our own cattle.

Following this I moved to a larger city to go to university and quickly realised it wasn’t for me. It was then
where I remembered I used to help my family cook and my grandmother had always said I should be a chef. Those words stuck in my mind suddenly and I decided to pursue the idea. I called local the F&B venues asking how to get into the industry and they all said to get an apprenticeship.

Entering the industry at age 17 was more of an excuse to get out of university rather than an innate passion from the start. In hindsight, there was far more food throughout my life than I remembered, it was just never romanticised.

Within the first decade of my career, I imagined I’d move onto something else but fast-forward 25 years and I’m still in F&B and I can’t possibly imagine shifting
gears now.

Netsu is home to the largest warayaki outside of Japan

Why do you think you’ve been successful in your career?
I am always hesitant to use the word ‘successful’, in my mind arrogance is the cancer of hospitality. It’s fundamental that you remain grounded in what you do and we are always appreciative of our team and customers. I’ve had fun in this field and I work hard.

What sets your restaurant apart from the competition?
We didn’t start with the formula of ‘let’s try to copy the bigger brands’, we started with asking ourselves what we can do different and what would make us unique. I’ve been working through those sorts of questions in my head for the last 10 years and working to make a venue.

Our USP is firstly focusing on warayaki — our straw-fired grill which is the largest of its kind outside of Japan. Secondly we push quite hard into using meats and fish, which isn’t too common in Japan.

We offer a plethora of beef dishes, which is again uncommon in Japan, as eating beef was illegal until quite recently, 120 years ago approximately. We represent all the beef dishes that Japan gradually started to develop such as sukiyaki and yakiniku, we also try to incorporate some Western influences with our steak sandwiches, our galbi ribs and our sukiyaki.

Bo ssam style beef

All of the meats we prepare, we start them on charcoal and finish them in our On a mission to showcase the diversity of the country’s cuisine, Ross Shonhan launched Netsu, at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira Dubai, just over a year ago By Claudia de Brito In Dubai ahead of Netsu’s first anniversary, the former Zuma and Nobu head chef spoke to Hotelier Middle East about about the venue’s unusual claim to fame, the local talent he’d like to collaborate with and the key to standing out in crowded market place.

How did you first get into hospitality?
I grew up in the countryside in regional Australia where was no such thing as a restaurant. My family and I never went to restaurants but I do remember going to the coast to visit my grandmother where we would sometimes go to a Chinese buffet restaurant. That was the first and only restaurant I remember going to – hospitality was never a career choice in my village.

When I was 15 I started washing dishes in a local butchers after school. This was my first exposure to the industry and professional food. It was a stark difference from growing up where we would have our own eggs, milk our own cows, killed our own cattle.

Following this I moved to a larger city to go to university and quickly realised it wasn’t for me. It was then
where I remembered I used to help my family cook and my grandmother had always said I should be a chef. Those words stuck in my mind suddenly and I decided to pursue the idea. I called local the F&B venues asking how to get into the industry and they all said to get an apprenticeship.

Entering the industry at age 17 was more of an excuse to get out of university rather than an innate passion from the start. In hindsight, there was far more food throughout my life than I remembered, it was just never romanticised. Within the first decade of my career, I imagined I’d move onto something else but fast-forward 25 years and I’m still in F&B and I can’t possibly imagine shifting gears now.

Why do you think you’ve been successful in your career?
I am always hesitant to use the word ‘successful’, in my mind arrogance is the cancer of hospitality. It’s fundamental Playing with Fire “A stellar front-ofhouse team can make or break a restaurant...” warayaki, it’s a cooking concept in the centre of our restaurant which is very theatrical. It’s fun to watch and fun to cook on. It adds a real burst of flavour to our dishes, it gives them a nostalgic flare, tones of straw and smoke. That sense of excitement before plating up is important to us.

Hot stone rice

No one else outside of Japan has a warayaki of our size, there’s a small one in Canada and warayaki cooking as a whole is quite rare in Japan. It’s typical on the island of Shikoku but even moving to Tokyo, most would be unfamiliar with the concept. The handful that do use warayaki in Japan, they opt for simple dishes, we however try to push the boundaries of the cooking style and create something more creative.

What do you feel an F&B venues’ role is in bringing customers into a hotel?
Dubai is the epicentre of the idea, if you’ve got great restaurants in a hotel with lovely rooms, ideally the guests shouldn’t want to leave. It’s a complete package experience if you’ve got a fabulous hotel with equally fabulous culinary experiences.

What are your thoughts on Dubai’s F&B scene?
It’s got everything! However it is a, saturated scene, forcing F&B venues to invest in marketing and high-quality food. It’s undeniably a tough market, the toughest it’s ever been. There’s a lot of blood of the floor when it comes to the success of a lot of these ventures. We just keep our head down and try to execute quality. Quality at the end of the day in most cities seems to shine through. So far, we’ve developed a small loyal following but we are aware a lot of those in Dubai don’t know about us. We’ve still got a lot of people
in Dubai to bring in to explore our food and concepts. Netsu is home to the largest warayaki outside of Japan
Netsu's dessert platter Ross Shonhan

Netsu's dessert platter

Do you think service is as important as the food?
The world is moving that way more and more. On a global scale, good food is not enough. A stellar front-of-house team, can make or break a restaurant more than the food. Most people would like to be greeted at the door and made to feel welcome. Somewhere like London, you can have great food and okay service and do well still, but in Dubai I believe it’s the opposite.

What are some emerging trends?
There’s clearly a massive push for sustainability, veganism and vegetarianism. Any chef worth their salt should be able to challenge themselves to come up with vegetarian dishes that can rival their usual dishes. People are still eager to explore under-represented cuisines, parts of Asia, South America or Africa are all cuisines that allow chefs to get excited and explore different avenues. Also more and more restaurants
are cropping up which focus on inexpensive, handmade pasta dishes. The lower cost gives chefs a chance to
experiment and build up a larger menu without having to spend too much.

Are there any homegrown chefs that come to mind who you admire?
I worked with Alex Stumpf from BB Social Dining for 11 years. I’ve been to his venue and he’s a great cook. If there were ever an opportunity to collaborate with Stumpf, that would be fun.

What are some of your greatest professional achievements?
Opening Netsu was a great moment because this idea has been percolating in my head since 2011. Opening the fist ramen noodle bar in London in 2012 was also a highlight. I didn’t realise how hard it was. I did it with no money, while being the project manager, chef, designer, interior designer, there were many hats I had to wear all at once to open that place. Bringing a place to life takes a huge amount of effort from everyone. I
remember vividly every restaurant I’ve opened, even as an apprentice. The excitement of bringing something to fruition and standing there on opening night, it’s incredibly special.

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