“People travel a lot more and they want to learn about new cultures,” says Gert F. Kopera, Executive Vice President, Restaurants Global for Hakkasan Group. “Trying new food is as big a part of that desire as looking at art, going to concerts and shows, enjoying beautiful scenery and exploring great buildings.” Chris Hanrahan reports.
The restaurant scene has changed so much over the last 10 years or more that it’s easy to forget how much better and more diverse it is today than it was before. People eat out more often than they used to and they’re far more knowledgeable and adventurous about food than before – in good part thanks to the surfeit of cooking shows on television and the Web, helmed by an ever-growing army of celebrity chefs and foodies.
We’ve all witnessed the flamboyant rise of molecular gastronomy, and of “deconstructivist” cooking, nose-to-tail eating and the foraging and locavore movements. Open-concept kitchens have become the norm. We all want to eat healthier food with simpler ingredients, while also minimising our carbon footprint. Increasingly, we choose restaurants that follow socially responsible policies and practices, such as sustainable sourcing and waste reduction.
The Net and social media have had a huge impact on restaurants and restaurateurs. “Professional (food) critics are no longer the end-all for new restaurants; their opinions are important, but sites like Yelp mean that the opinions of the everyday guests can make or break a restaurant’s reputation,” notes the lightspeedhq website.
“Bloggers with enormous followings create sites devoted to their love of food and dining, leaving restaurants even more open to criticism and reviews. Things are changing fast, and restaurants have to work hard to stay competitive and relevant to an extremely fickle customer base.”
The way people behave in restaurants has changed. The businessinsider website has published a long article about a Midtown East, New York City restaurant that carefully monitored how smartphones were affecting the actions of its customers.
In 2004, diners took an average of eight minutes to decide what to eat. By 2014, they took more than twice as long – 21 – minutes to
place their orders. Much of the delay was caused by customers checking messages and surfing websites on their phones – not to mention taking selfies with their friends. And as their plates arrived, they photographed their food as well.
How will restaurants change in the next five to 10 years? One of the most qualified people in the world to answer this question is Gert F. Kopera, Executive Vice President, Restaurants Global for Hakkasan Group. During a recent visit to Jakarta, the 56-year-old hospitality industry veteran, cancer survivor and latter-day fitness fanatic (he walks 16 km a day, takes the stairs up eight flights to his office, ignores the temptations of airport lounges in favour of strolling around the terminals and even reads while walking) sat down with Prestige (we suspect he would have preferred to do the interview standing up!) at Hakkasan, his company’s glamorous new gourmet Cantonese restaurant, which sits on top of the Alila SCBD hotel on Sudirman.
Brand authenticity, Kopera said after leading us on a whirlwind “back of house” tour (a rare opportunity for a journalist), is something today’s consumers desire more than ever. “They are looking for the real deal – genuine experiences and brands that stand for something,” he added. “Millennials, especially, are interested in discovering cool/hip dining experiences.
“People travel a lot more,” went on the top executive, who has over 30 years of global experience in hospitality and oversees his group’s collection of edgy restaurants from Las Vegas to Mayfair in London and Uluwatu, Bali. “Look at what’s happening in China. Up to 10 years ago, very few Chinese could travel overseas. Now, millions of them do and they all want to learn about new cultures. Trying new food is as big a part of that desire as looking at art, going to concerts and shows, enjoying beautiful scenery and exploring great buildings.
“People really want to try the local flavours they’ve read about or seen on TV or their smartphone screens. I think that that aspiration holds true in every price category, from fine dining down to coffee shops and food courts. So I would say that those global brands that have opened thousands of outlets – all of them looking alike and operating in more or less the same way – will not be the consumer’s first choice in future. What I call the blanket brands will diminish in importance as time goes on. In fact, I see that happening already – everywhere I go.”
Kopera, who lived here from 2003 to 2005 when he was Managing Director Indonesia of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, has a handsome residence in Las Vegas filled with art he has collected over the years, including more than a few Hanafi abstracts that he picked up for a song during his time here. But he doesn’t see very much of his residence or family owing to his extreme – some would say insane! – travel schedule. He was on the road for no fewer than 260 days in 2018.
It was a desire to see the world that propelled Kopera, who was born in the Netherlands and is an Austrian national, into the international hospitality industry in the 1980s. His first job was as a commis waiter at the Vienna Hilton. In search of more colourful challenges, he later moved on to the Middle East, becoming Hotel Manager at Al Faisaliah, A Rosewood Hotel, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2000. He went on to manage Rosewood properties in Tokyo and St. Moritz, before moving to Indonesia.
Kopera subsequently relocated to Dallas, Texas, completing his nine-year career stint with Rosewood as Vice President of Food & Beverage in 2012. He was Senior Vice President, Food & Beverage at Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts in Dubai and Chief Operating Officer of D.ream (Doğuş Restaurant Entertainment and Management) in Istanbul, Turkey before joining Hakkasan Group in Las Vegas in February 2017.
“To really learn about a culture when you’re travelling, you must try the local food and restaurants,” Kopera pointed out. “I have lived in 17 countries and I’ve always eaten local. I tell everyone: “You should go to the warungs and the food stalls. This is life, this is heritage.’ Aside from family, culinary experiences are the most important things in life.”
For a while, he waxed lyrical about the Malagasy cuisine he sampled while living in Madagascar, including mofo gasy, a breakfast food, and foza sy hena-kisoa, a seafood platter. “Many visitors are afraid to eat this food, but they love it when they try it,” Kopera said. “You can’t understand the French unless you sample oysters and cream. You can’t appreciate Austria without eating Wiener schnitzel. If you go to Hong Kong you’ve got to eat jelly fish. In Shanghai, you must go to a snake hot pot restaurant. Keep an open mind and just try!
During the back-of-house tour, Kopera proudly pointed to the spotless cleanliness and spick-and-span tidiness of the Hakkasan kitchens and storage rooms. Photographs of every dish on the menu are taped to the walls for the guidance of chefs and staff.
“Running a portfolio of top restaurants is all about having good systems in place,” Kopera said. “Everybody has to know what they’re doing. I don’t have a culinary background, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be a doctor to run a hospital, but you do have to be able to manage people and systems.
“Above all, what you need to succeed in the food business is passion and creativity. It has to be a calling, and a lifestyle. Nobody should go into this industry if they’re just looking for a job. The workload is tremendous, the hours are long and the stress can be immense. But I think that if you really love what you do, then you can say that you don’t work – and I can honestly say that I have never worked an hour in my life!”