CEO interview: Sunjeh Raja
ICCA Dubai has opened a new facility in Knowledge Village
International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA) Dubai director and CEO Sunjeh Raja sits down with Louise Oakley at the launch of its new facility in Dubai Knowledge Village and reveals why its students are sought after all over the world
ICCA has been in existence for a long time now; why was this the right time to move its location?
We have been in this business since 2005 in Dubai, and we were in Satwa before this. We had grown in size and had to go to a much bigger place. Knowledge Village was a sensible choice.
Tell us more about your background and why you’re passionate about education?
I’m just an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur you look for opportunities. It was a great opportunity when we had come here around 2004; there were so many hotels booming. We saw there was definitely scope for education and that’s how it started. It’s a great product and we took it very seriously to make a difference. We didn’t want to be yet another school. We are application-focused; we try and see how to relate to and support the industry.
Why did you choose to partner with City & Guild, London, for the certifications?
It’s very simple: when you want to provide a quality education, you need to have some international standards to benchmark with. Earlier, we had brought this concept from Australia, and we were part of the New South Wales Vocational Education Training and Accreditation Board. But it was too difficult to govern us from Australia. When we spoke to City & Guild, it was easy for us to partner with them.
How many students pass through ICCA’s programmes?
We are a very niche outlet. We take about 20 students in every batch, and we have an intake every six weeks. We run a three-month programme for vocational training where we simulate an actual industry work environment. We work at all the hotels; name the brand and we work with them. We produce smart people for the industry. Our USP is that we have a serious strategic partnership with many world-leading brands for equipment manufacturers like Electrolux, Franke, Diversey and so forth. So we have access to the highest quality and technology, and as a school we have been able to provide more than most schools can provide at this point of time.
How much was invested in the venue?
This will be close to an AED 11 million [US $2.99 million] project.
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Tell us more about the diploma and what students get out of it?
The diploma is a three month course. We have two batches at any point of time. When the first batch is in the middle of the course at one-and-a-half months, the next junior batch joins in. If we had to do this course in England or anywhere, we could do it in 8-9 months where we do four hours every day. With five days a week, you do 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month. But in Dubai you technically cannot work. So we simulate the work environment.
We take a 60-hour week, like boot camp training, and on weekends they work with hotels. That’s a great opportunity for us to showcase these kids. Upon completion of three months we are much better than most schools even at two years. We have had people from Australia and the US who have tried our students, and have been absolutely astonished, and acknowledged their standards.
So much so that we recruit for Norwegian Cruises; they come all the way from Florida to pick up students from here.Around 25 students from here are with Jebel Ali Resorts. With Atmosphere, Okku, Qbara — you name the brand, we service them all through our students.
What level do you need to be to do the diploma?
Ideally you need to be in your 20s, read, write, and speak English well, and be at least a Grade 12 pass. We get students from there to degrees and Bachelors. We even get people looking at a second innings in life. Food has become a big statement, a fashion statement. We are a ‘zero to hero’ programme, we make miracles happen.
What about the advanced diploma — the Chef Entrepreneur programme?
The chef entrepreneur programme is how to manage a kitchen, whereas the diploma runs around the operations. Once you finish the diploma programme you have the opportunity to go through the managing level. One thing that takes Dubai and makes it happen is food — there are so many restaurants, so many concepts running. It’s not only established brands that are coming, there are local entrepreneurs. This is the right place where they can get access to quality training, and learn all the ropes of the business.
What’s next for ICCA?
The earlier facility in Satwa was shipped to Nigeria, as we have ICCA there as well. The future lies in the Middle East and Africa. We will also be establishing in Abu Dhabi at the Al Raha Beach Hotel. That will not be as big as Dubai, but Abu Dhabi is a different market altogether. We are now in our 10th year; we are market leaders in our own sense and we would like to consolidate our position.