Chef John Buenaventura's Cuisinero Uno Is Making A Mark On Dubai's Culinary Scene
Located in the Steigenberger Hotel, Business Bay, Dubai, Cuisinero Uno, a bar and restaurant offering tapas-style dishes which launched in mid-2017, is a lifelong dream for CEO and Culinary Director of the enterprise, Chef John Buenaventura. Straight out of high school, at 17 years old, Buenaventura took up culinary studies at the Center for Culinary Arts in Manila, Philippines, an affiliate school of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, followed by a Master's in Entrepreneurship in the Food Industry from Asian Institute of Management. Shortly afterwards, he opened his first restaurant but it didn't pan out as he hoped it would. The business failed, and with candor, Buenaventura admits his arrogance and lack of experience as being the reasons for it: "I thought that I knew everything, but apparently, I didn't. [However], it was a good lesson for me."
When he arrived in Dubai in 2007, Buenaventura worked as a commis chef and was part of the pre-opening team at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, and worked his way up to eventually becoming a chef de partie. From there, he continued to the Four Seasons Resort in Maldives as the head chef, followed by stints at the Fire & Ice Steakhouse in Raffles Dubai, Monte Carlo Beach Club in Abu Dhabi, Fairmont The Palm in Dubai, and Seafire Steakhouse in Atlantis The Palm, where Buenaventura was awarded as TimeOut Dubai's Young Chef of the Year in 2015.
It was during his work with Atlantis when Buenaventura found himself faced with a new entrepreneurial opportunity- an investment company approached him to open his own restaurant. "I was really scared, because I knew how much money it cost [to run a restaurant]," Buenaventura remembers. But he went ahead with it anyway- Buenaventura resigned from his job and signed all of the relevant contracts. However, once again, he was faced with a setback: he learned that the capital wasn't available anymore for his enterprise.
"I was stuck with a contract with the owners of the building and the hotel operators, with zero money in the company bank account." With his reputation at stake, Buenaventura was determined to continue pursuing the venture with the mindset of "charging through the fear." And that's when the chef decided to crowdfund capital from his friends, family and supporters around him- and, with their help, Buenaventura was able to raise almost AED8-9 million to launch Cuisinero Uno.
It is this comradery that Buenaventura credits Cuisinero Uno's beginnings to, and during our conversation, he made sure to thank a number of people for supporting him in his venture, be it as mentors or partners- these include Sacha Triemer, Vice President of F&B Atlantis, Matthew Goodlet, Executive Chef at One&Only Resorts, Adeeb Ahamed, Managing Director of LuLu Financial Group, Twenty14 Holdings, and others. "They have been really backing [me] up since day one, and I really want to reiterate this, because without them, I would have not been able to open this restaurant and put up this place," Buenaventura says. "They [Lulu Financial Group] themselves are also entrepreneurs, [so] they understand the struggle I'm facing. If they were [merely] businessmen, they would only think about money, but no, they are [also] really, really good entrepreneurs, and I really look up to them."
He also highlights the support of his team, most of whom he has worked with for years in previous roles, and in fact, points them out during our discussion. "My team has been with me, beside me, all the time. I am nothing if my team was not with me." He goes on to say that, besides the food and beverage being the main foundation of the restaurant, it is his team that makes for Cuisinero Uno's USP. "It's not just about me; it's about Omar, my operations director; it's about Jackie, my sous chef- because if you actually talk to these individuals, they will tell you exactly how we struggled and how we built this restaurant."
Buenaventura asserts that besides himself, others take ownership and accountability for the brand, as they too, in part, own the restaurant. An indication of how much Buenaventura values his staff members can be seen in the fact that each of them gets 5% of the net income, which, in turn, makes all of them stakeholders in the brand: "All of them are a genuine part of this place, that's why everybody is so engaged and concerned about the well-being of the place as well. More than that, I think it's the faith and belief that we know that we can make it. We have been -all of [us], including medeprived of doing what we can do, but now we have the tools to do what we do best."
As someone who's this passionate about his team (and vice versa), I ask Buenaventura how he went about selecting the people he works with. "I hire character, and I train skill," he replies. "Skill can be taught by anyone, but character will always be there. Choose the people who will stick by you through thick and thin, no questions asked. It's not all about the money. Every successful business venture was born and developed from passion and people. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Virgin: it's all about passion, it's all about how people treat people. I'm pretty much following the same business model- my team comes first, because they are a direct reflection (and the face) of me."
At Cuisinero Uno, the menu has a theme: Buenaventura calls it "Dubai cuisine," which is a mix of Emirati, Mediterranean, Spanish and Asian flavors, influenced by the city's diverse mix of cultural background. (In fact, the Cuisinero Uno name itself is derived from two words: cuisine and kusinero, which, in Tagalog, means chef- "We are the chef of our cuisine," Buenaventura says.) The chef adds that though some items on the Cuisinero Uno menu stay the same all the while, he and his team aim to alter their menus every month depending on what's in season to keep offering customers something new every time they visit.
According to Buenaventura, an advantage they have with a flexible menu is that they are open to people's cravings and suggestions. Plus, with this approach, they source ingredients locally, keep imported ingredients low, and in turn, keep their price points affordable. "We go to the market, we go to Carrefour, we go to Deira fish market, we go to Al Ain or Abu Dhabi- let's see what's in season, then we make something out of that." Another factor that the chef asserts is how they adjust with current market trends- for example, with a number of vegetarians and vegans coming to the restaurant, they make it a priority to ensure there are dishes available to their liking.
"Even if you're not a vegan or vegetarian, I make sure that you have it, because, trust me, it's something different," says Buenaventura. "I even have meat lovers eating my fake carpaccio, and it's 100% vegetarian, so I'm trying to change mentalities, and trying to educate the public with it." It's worth noting that the restaurant is also trying its hand at the farm-to-table concept by having their own aquaponics and hydroponics greenhouse set up too. With the help of UAE-based company Studpac Aquatic Solutions, they've been able to grow their own lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, and strawberries. It's even used for cooking classes they host, which is one of their business verticals, alongside the restaurant, as well as the hosting of private events.
So how is the business doing? The CEO replies that when compared to restaurants around the Business Bay area, Cuisinero Uno is doing rather well when you consider its cash flow and the feedback it's getting. In the days since the restaurant's launch, Buenaventura says that they have been looking at "around 35-40% growth in sales every month," while also sustaining steady, organic growth on their ratings from Zomato and TripAdvisor. While it's great to see Cuisinero Uno receiving its fair share of traction today, Buenaventura admits that they had a lot of hurdles getting it to open in the first place.
"Thinking back, it was really a struggle," he says. "This place is very special because when we built it, we built it with a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally. There were days where we had no money in the company bank account. We were the ones lifting the cement, building the floor, we were the ones [buying] the bags of cement, bags of sand, painting the walls, and everything. And it's not a joke, it's true- because we didn't know otherwise what to do, we just had to adapt to the situation. Eventually, out of sheer hard work, faith, lots of prayer and belief, it [all just] happened."
It must be noted here that making a mark as a homegrown concept in Dubai's hospitality scene is an arduous task, but Buenaventura notes that Cuisinero Uno's goal isn't to imitate and compete with other restaurants, but rather, to focus on its signature style. "I want to take you out of the "sophistication' of Dubai, and bring you somewhere where you can be yourself, have really good food and beverages, without ripping you off," Buenaventura explains. According to the chef, Cuisinero Uno's focus is to deliver an outstanding experience for customers- not one where you just try once and pay a hefty price for, but instead one that you keep coming back to.
Cuisinero Uno certainly aims for an inviting atmosphere: hip and retro colors, lofty ceilings, lively beats, LED lights illuminating the bar, plus a counter where one can see the chefs preparing the dishes, an al fresco area, and a Jack Daniel's lounge for private gatherings. They're also considering venturing into merchandising, be it with their own brand of spices and sauces for customers to use at home, or with shirts and knives branded with the Cuisinero Uno logo and the chef's signature.
As for the long-term, Buenaventura has big plans in mind- he reveals that Cuisinero Uno is actually the start of a three-restaurant project. While Cuisinero Uno is an urban fusion with Mediterranean Spanish influences, the chef also wants to open a Cuisinero Dos to focus on the Pan-Asian market, followed by a Cuisinero Tres on Indian street food. An F&B consultancy firm is also in the works- but Buenaventura isn't going to be hasty with respect to realizing these dreams. He has assured his investors that to avoid any conflict of interest, he won't be opening anything new, until he hits the targets for his first venture. With Buenaventura's single-minded focus driving the enterprise, Cuisinero Uno looks all set to be a center of attraction on Dubai's F&B scene- foodies, mark this place for your next culinary outing!
John Buenaventura, CEO and Culinary Director, Cuisinero Uno
What lessons have you learned in running a business?
"Don't relax, every day is always an opportunity to make something better. Don't be rattled by problems; problems are created because they have solutions and keep believing in yourself. Get advice from different parties of different areas, but at the end of the day, it's based on your judgement on what you need to do. Wisdom is key. Take care of your team, save money, plan accordingly, and pray a lot."
Why do you feel it's important to support homegrown F&B concepts?
"I think there's going to be a lot of iconic restaurants coming up [in the next few years]; Michelinstarred restaurant franchises coming up. But I think, in my opinion, homegrown concepts are going to really start to emerge and pop up. And if this will be a message for everybody, I would really ask the Dubai community to really support homegrown concepts; not that they [shouldn't] support franchises, but [support] homegrown concepts [more so] because these are the people who know Dubai, who've been in Dubai and who are catering to the Dubai market, and it's not easy to set up an F&B, let alone, a restaurant in Dubai. Franchises, they have lots of financial backing and everything; but homegrown concepts, we are the small players who really want to make a mark and I don't know if you can write this, but we don't do BS. We just literally give you what good food is and good service, and that's about it. I think that's what Dubai is missing, a lot of homegrown concepts, not copy cats. There are a lot of big names, but I think homegrown concepts- we are starting to have our grip in [the market], and starting to really roll with the big boys."