2022, The Year That Was: Izu Ani, Chef And Founder, YSeventy7

"This year, more than any other, has taught me that our purpose is the most imperative part of any business, project, or plan."

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It's almost impossible to talk about the Middle East's F&B scene and not talk about Izu Ani, the Dubai-based chef behind some of the most noteworthy restaurants in this landscape, including Gaia, Carine, La Maison Ani, Alaya, Eunoia by Carine, Shanghai Me, Scalini, and Piatti. Three of these names -La Maison Ani, Alaya (and its hidden speakeasy, Ly-La), and Eunoia by Carine- opened in the UAE in Dubai in 2022, and the year has also seen work get underway for the launch of two other Ani-led concepts -Gaia and Shanghai Me- in Doha, Qatar.

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Shanghai Me, by the way, is one of three concepts -the other two being Piatti by the Beach and Scalini Dubai- that Ani, alongside Evgeny Kuzin (the restaurateur known for being the co-founder of Bulldozer Group), took charge of -in terms of their culinary directions- this year. No wonder, then, that Ani -who's also the founder of YSeventy7, a creative consulting and management agency specializing in F&B worldwide- describes 2022 as having been "a year of creative expansion and expression." "Personally, my biggest highlight, where I find the most joy, is during the evenings at our restaurants," Ani says. "It makes me so happy to see the smiles of our guests in Gaia, Carine, La Maison Ani, Alaya, Eunoia by Carine, Shanghai Me, Scalini, and Piatti. Our kitchens are an extension of our homes and hearts. I like to visit each and every outlet regularly, speak to people, listen to their feedback, learn what they like and dislike, and incorporate this as soon as possible. A lot of our clients have become close friends, and their support means a lot to me."

But given that Ani operates in the F&B space, critiques are par for the course too- how does he deal with all of that? "In any industry, we have to block out a lot of the 'noise,' and focus on our craft," Ani replies. "Keep our blinkers on, and only look at what is on our own plate; don't let yourself be distracted by other people. It takes time to work out the difference between constructive comments, and those that wish to tear us down. I see everything as a lesson, a stepping stone towards growth and development, and this mindset is what gets me through the tougher times. Sometimes, we need a little slap in the face to wake us up, and force us to learn things quickly. It is ok to be your biggest critic, as long as you are using it as fuel and motivation to keep yourself going. Fear can either take us backwards, or we can use it as firewood."

For his part, Ani seems to be only looking toward to the future. "My focus is now on the global and regional expansion of our homegrown concepts, while ensuring that the essence, quality, and ethos of the brands can be seen in every location," Ani says. "I want to embed our brands into the communities that they will be located in- it's not about recreating the exact same restaurant, and placing it in different places. We want to take the philosophy of each brand, and tailor it to fit the environment, making cultural adjustments that appeal to the people that live there. This is the challenge- we want to be a part of the cultures we go into, and build our roots there, so that we can grow."

And that's exactly what Ani has got lined up for 2023- the new year seems set to be a busy one for him and his team. "We have a significant pipeline for next year, including the launch of Gaia London; the first brick-and-mortar restaurant for Izu Burger, a dirty, clean burger with a focus on honesty; Sirene Beach by Gaia; La Plage by La Maison Ani and Le Petit Ani in DIFC, as well as the development of another homegrown concept, which I am really excited about," Ani concludes.

Related: 2022, The Year That Was: Faiza Bouguessa, Founder And Creative Director, Bouguessa

Reflections 2022: Izu Ani, Chef And Founder, YSeventy7

Know your purpose "This year, more than any other, has taught me that our purpose is the most imperative part of any business, project, or plan. We must check in with ourselves on a regular basis. Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing, and make sure that the reason is in line with your core values. We know when we are out of sync with ourselves, it's a feeling that just gets louder until we make a change. Personally, my goal is to see all of our restaurants filled with people that are genuinely happy, that feel comfortable, and love their experience. One of the biggest lessons the COVID-19 crisis taught us is the value of human connection, how much we need to share our energy with one another. It is human nature to gather, share meals, and conversations. My aim is for our concepts to become a part of people's lives, places where they can make memories, eat, laugh, and enjoy. Seeing the smiles of our guests makes all of our work worth it."

Focus on the now "It is so important to live in the now, to be present. Anxiety and anger are natural, but they are signs that we are living in the future, or holding on to the past. We have to breathe, and let things go. So often, the magic is in the timing. The same is true of cooking, of work, and of our lives. When we are passionate and excited about a project, we want to go faster, get there quicker, and go, go, go. I've learned not to rush this process. Every step is vital, especially in the beginning- this is where we learn the most, and it gives us the ability to assess and adjust before we go live."

You have to come first for yourself "Finding time for ourselves gives us the ability to see things differently, to take a step back, reflect and breathe, before going full steam ahead. I start every day with a cycle through the desert, or a run at home. It is my meditation. We have to find what we love in life, the things that make us happy, and then do them as much as we can. Pushing myself in the morning gives me the strength and motivation to handle anything that the day will bring, and it gives me the capacity to be there for others. That's the thing about focusing on yourself; it is the least selfish thing we can do. It's important to find our energy sources, where we can plug in, and refuel. I'm not a half-glass kind of guy, I need to make sure my cup is full. I've also learned a lot about acceptance- there is power in accepting the things that you cannot change, and changing the things that you can. We can't control what happens to us, but we do have control over our response to it, that's where we can focus our energy."

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