Interview: John Buenaventura
John Buenaventura is ready to shake up the city's culinary scene with what he calls 'Dubai cuisine'
It’s no secret that the barriers to entry for independent restaurateurs in the UAE include, but aren’t limited to — rents, sizes of spaces available for lease, and of course, finances. So when a chef/restaurateur strikes it out alone in the market, there’s always a story to tell. John Buenaventura is the chef and owner of Cuisinero Uno, a concept that has leased a space on the second floor of the Steigenberger Hotel, Business Bay.
The cuisine is hard to pin down, and Buenaventura calls it “Dubai cuisine” with a mix of Emirati, Mediterranean, Spanish and Asian flavours, using as much as organic, locally sourced and seasonal produce as possible. The space is industrial, with graffiti on some walls of the space — created by Buenaventura himself. It has a high ceiling, with LED and pin lights illuminating one of three bars, with 14 chef counters. The restaurant leads out to a terrace where the outdoor bar and a shisha corner is located. It’s also home to an aquaponics greenhouse, which Buenaventura installed very recently. The young chef comments: “I’m trying to do a farm-to-table experience; it’s not going to be enough to sustain the restaurant but at least you’re teaching something to the public about sustainability, and about respecting the ingredients.” The final bar is a certified Jack Daniel’s Room — a multi-functional space for private gatherings and special occasions.
The journey to getting the restaurant open has been fraught and filled with obstacles. Yet, Buenaventura keeps smiling. He started his career when he was 17 years old, and went to culinary school in the Philippines. Soon after, he opened his first restaurant, and failed. He says honestly: “I was too young, I was too naïve. I was fresh out of culinary school, I took up a master’s degree in entrepreneurship in the food industry so I thought I could do it. One-and-a-half year afterwards it closed, just because I didn’t have enough experience. So I went back to basics.”
Buenaventura kept at it, and then arrived in the UAE in 2007 as a commis in InterContinental Dubai Festival City, after which he moved to the Four Seasons Explorer in the Maldives. One year later, the young chef moved to Raffles Dubai and then the Monte Carlo Group. After a brief stint at Fairmont the Palm, he moved to Seafire Steakhouse and Bar at Atlantis, The Palm. Drawing on these memories, he cites John Cordeaux and Sascha Triemer — both well known in the regional F&B industry — as great influences and mentors in his path.
But he was still restless, and in July 2016, resigned. He told Triemer that he wanted to open his own restaurant, which the Atlantis veteran encouraged him to do. It took Buenaventura six months to work on a solid business plan, and as part of the process carried out an extensive study on Business Bay and DIFC, and also the Marina and JLT. He also had to worry about recruitment, but all of Buenaventura’s team members are ex-colleagues from different jobs. He tells Caterer that when he told them about his plan, they decided they wanted to join him.
While Buenaventura reveals more off-the-record, he does commit to saying that he had a difficult time pre-opening, with the first investment vehicle disappearing soon from the scene. After he got new investors, Buenaventura also committed to supporting his team with the venture, with team members getting 5% of the total net income, “so everyone is a stakeholder”, he says.
Buenaventura admits: “The one year to build this was a struggle. It was hand to mouth. It was not continuous build. There were days where there was zero in the bank account. But it’s a good thing, because I think if I didn’t struggle that hard, I’d be the most arrogant guy in the world. It kept me grounded.” The main challenge, he notes, are the finances. Buenaventura loves the location, and says that initial scouting led him to DIFC but nothing ever worked out. He stumbled on this space by chance, and it all clicked. “They [the hotel] weren’t looking for a franchise, they were looking for something quirky, something new,” he says happily.
And so after a year of uncertainties, the restaurant soft opened on July 14, with the grand opening taking place on September 29. Buenaventura says that while it’s a food-driven establishment, there will be a 60/40 split for beverage and food.
Talking about the food, Buenaventura says: “It’s a place where you go for personalised cuisine. I call it Dubai cuisine because we don’t have a specific cuisine to work from. We mix a lot of Emirati cuisine and ingredients, a lot of Spanish and Mediterranean cuisine.” Here, chefs themselves, Buenaventura included, serve the guests.
He calls the kitchen set-up a theatre kitchen, and he says: “We set up like this because we want to have direct interaction with people. Dubai is great, the food and beverage scene is great but sometimes people become so stiff, sometimes when you enter a restaurant, you feel like you’re not comfortable.” His aim with the set-up is to promote as much of a casual vibe as possible.
The price points on the menu are also affordable; as an example, the DXB short ribs are AED 48 (US$13), the quail pastilla AED 38 ($10), and the Palamos octopus AED 54 ($15). Buenaventura says this was deliberate. He explains: “Our price points are very good because we have good relations with our suppliers, but we also get local ingredients. We try not to import stuff. I try not to import my fish from France or Australia — I get it from the fish market. Tomatoes are from Al Ain, buratta is from Al Ain. I’m also using a lot of local Emirati ingredients which not many people are doing, such as mashawa — it’s like a fish sauce.”
He does hope to change the menu regularly, as often as every month if possible. I ask what challenges that poses not just with the team, but also costs. Buenaventura comments: “Some items will stay the same. The reason why I want to do it often because as a tapas bar you need to do that — and we get bored easily, so it keeps everybody motivated. Suppliers also work well with us, because sometimes they have a smaller inventory that works for me, rather than bulk for hotels. So it’s cheaper for me to buy. I also don’t use primary cuts of meat.”
But the restaurant is slowly building its customer base, organically. Buenaventura adds: “Since we soft opened, week by week we have been getting a 60% increase in gross sales, which is very good. Our challenge is to bring the people in the first time. After they come in, they come back. We have a return rate of 80-85%, which is very good.”
The restaurant, initially opened only for dinner, and now it serves guests for lunch with plans to soon offer breakfast. He’s also signed up for Deliveroo with the restaurant, hoping to grow the delivery base. He adds: “For now, I don’t think we’re going to get into discounts. Now we’re going to go with organic growth.”
He has future plans as well, which involve growing the brand. He expands on his thought process: “We have a lot of things planned, once we get capital investment. The reason why the name of the restaurant is Cuisinero Uno is that it’s a three restaurant project.”
He continues: “Cuisinero Dos will be similar style, but Pan-Asian. Cuisinero Tres, I want to do Indian street food. All the restaurants will have a greenhouse, and depending on what the cuisine is, I will plant seeds accordingly. And every one will have a Jack Daniel’s room.”
Buenaventura says, however, that he wants to achieve return on investment on this project first, which he estimates will take 1.5 years. Other plans on his cards include launching a cookbook with recipes from the signature menu, along with merchandise around sauces and spices used in the cooking.
And then, who knows? “My end goal when I’m older is to get a Michelin star. There’s no Filipino Michelin-starred chef yet. So you never know, right?” he says cheekily.