Peruvian born Ricardo Riera headed up the operations team at Plata, winner of the prestigious Bocuse d’Or in Oslo, Norway, when he was only 21. He became director of operations at the legendary Botafumeiro in Barcelona, Spain at 27. In 2012 he moved to Dubai to help create home grown concept BOCA and bring a new experience to the dining scene in the city.
Ricardo Riera: This sounds a little romantic, but I have always been inspired by Tom Cruise’s “Cocktail” and “Cocktails and Dreams” was my motto. I also look up to my mum who is 72 at the moment. For the last 20 years, she has worked in the same café; six days a week, 12 hours a day. She has an endless passion for serving. I will never forget when I asked my mom once what restaurants where all about, she said: “people go out to eat because they want to be served and don’t want to clean their own plates. Everything else around is love, and people will come back to you for that.” At 20 years old, I left my home in Lima to pursue this career and worked in places from shacks in Rio de Janiero to New York, and Oslo, before finally landing in Barcelona and now Dubai.
How did you end up working as Operations Manager at BOCA?
It was actually a coincidence. At the time I had an offer from Oslo and another one from the Dominican Republic. So I was searching for chefs on a recruitment page to bring with me in case of taking one of the jobs. I clicked on the wrong button and came across several posts for jobs abroad. The first one was BOCA in Dubai. I sent my CV just in case and three months later I was here. (For sure, after a conversation with my wife who is the boss of my life.)
What’s it like competing with the other big-name restaurants in DIFC?
Well, I must say it is an honor and at the same time an advantage. BOCA never had the intention of going head-to-head with the giants in the zone, but to offer a different experience for guests of DIFC. The Gate Village is home to some of the best concepts in country, if not the region, and they are very good at what they do and deliver exceptional experiences. BOCA was created to offer a slightly more casual environment without the compromise of good quality food, beverage and service. BOCA was meant to be a welcoming place that focuses on value. I always remember a guest who called once and asked about the dress code. My answer was: “if you are comfortable then we are too.” She is now one of our regular and loyal guests. One of the advantages is the agility of our operation and the ability to adapt faster than international brands. BOCA was created locally with an international mindset, and we are constantly able to adapt to local demands and specific changes in guest preferences.
What is exactly the role of an Operations Manager?
I do not believe in titles as much as I believe in work. I can introduce you to food runners who have more knowledge of wine than sommeliers and section chefs who can cook better than sous chefs. Operations are about making sure the different small motors of the restaurant are running correctly. An operations manager is also like the wild card; always prepared to jump on everything. I believe the UAE is a great place to develop as a manager within food and beverage and hospitality, because of the different rules and regulations and specific requirements of operations. As an operations manager you are involved in human resources from recruiting to training, driving footfall to the restaurant, menu development, and of course running the show at the outlet.
What is BOCA preparing for the new season?
BOCA’s aim in the new season is to continue offering its award-winning imaginative cuisine to Dubai. Our chefs are busy creating new Mediterranean dishes that use a mix of some of the best the Mediterranean region has to offer with carefully sourced local products. We are reworking our Gastrobar area to give clients more interaction with their food. We are offering a Fish of the Day option, but we’re not charging by kilo or “market price”, as others do, allowing clients to have a fresh fish at an honest price, cooked the way they prefer (BOCA style). This winter we have also reworked our tapas menu as per BOCA regular clients demands, coming back to the Tortilla Espanola and the Baby Calamari ‘A la Andalusia’. On top of this, our multi-awarded Bar Team are introducing Gin Mare cocktails; a super premium brand that’s a key partner for us. Put all that together, add the smiles of our service team, and there you go: BOCA.
How does your background influence your managing style?
I have a mentor, Mr. Aurelio Vasquez, ex Director of Botafumeiro, who taught me almost everything I know about managing restaurants. He worked by a Goethe promise: “treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of becoming.” My father has also influenced my managing style and my view of the restaurant world. He was the kind of guy who hated if you stood up from the table when you were eating, and he taught me to appreciate what you have on the table. That has formed great respect for food and the business as a whole; something that is evident in my managing style.
How is dealing with suppliers in Dubai? Is it simple to find local ingredients and restaurant equipment?
Dubai is a sprawling city and I have to say that every year we are able to find much more products than we used to in the previous year. Is it the right product? Maybe not. We were limited by the suppliers’ product lists when we created our concept. That did not stop us from being innovative in our search. We constantly had to come up with creative ways to persuade our suppliers to import the right product. That coupled with our own hunt for local ingredients in the local Shindagha Market for fish, fruit and vegetables.
What are your personal favorite items on BOCA menu?
There are a lot of restaurants that do not allow their staff to enjoy the meals as guests. We actually encourage that. Believe me, it is totally different to see the restaurant from a seat than to see it as a waiter. I call it the “see it outside the table.” I have always tried to enjoy every restaurant that I have managed in the past at least once a week. That may sound crazy; to come back to my workplace every week on your day off, but I enjoy it a lot. Coming to favourites, I would say the BOCA Potato Chips, Pizzetta Melanzane, Zucchini Tagliatelle, Beef Cold Cuts, Grilled Squid with Mixed Greens and the Roasted Duck with Harissa sauce.
What you do in your spare time?
I like to learn and continue learning every day. The only way to survive in this market where more restaurants open daily is to stay updated. Every day I use tools such as Tripadvisor or Zomato to see what people say about their experiences in other restaurants around us. I also enjoy watching movies. I don’t pass a week without watching two, or a month without reading a book. Playstation 4 is always a must on my day off also.
How do you see the restaurant business in the region in 2020?
Dubai is quickly becoming an important destination for restaurants across the world. This means that there will be a lot of challenges and changes for operators in the region. One of the areas are investors’ expectations. There is still a majority entering the market with the hope to recover their investments in year one. No one currently is netting the figures that used to be there a few years back. We will see changes in these expectations and we also expect to see a change in the maturity of people’s tastes. We expect them to demand quality but still at a value. From a restaurant operator perspective, we also see smaller spaces with a focus on the product and service and less focus on size and the fluff surrounding the restaurant.