Dubai's restaurant scene is the best in the world, says co-founder of Gaia and Shanghai Me

Evgeny Kuzin's Fundamental Hospitality is opening six new concepts in Dubai this year and has plans for global expansion

Evgeny Kuzin believes Dubai’s restaurant brands deserve to be scaled around the world. Photo: Fundamental Hospitality
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“I can tell you one thing, no place compares to Dubai,” Fundamental Hospitality chairman Evgeny Kuzin says. “The level of restaurants in this city is one of the best in the world, for sure. And I travel everywhere.”

I meet Kuzin in one of his latest restaurants, Alaya Dubai, in the heart of the DIFC’s Gate Village. Even at 4pm on a Thursday, the restaurant is scattered with tables of friends enjoying coffee and low conversation, stretching their long lunches well into the afternoon.

In this corner of Dubai, Kuzin’s Midas touch surrounds you. Just next door is Gaia, and opposite, Shanghai Me and Cipriani, all of which belong to the Fundamental Hospitality (formerly the Bulldozer Group) family.

Kuzin’s influence on the city, however, stretches far wider. When he moved to Dubai from his native Russia in 2005, aged 20, the restaurant scene looked very different. “It felt a bit like one big construction site,” he says. “Everywhere you looked, there were new buildings coming up and a lot of ambitious projects. I remember there was one place everybody was going — Buddha-Bar at Grosvenor House, it was super-happening.”

Kuzin saw the city’s potential almost immediately, starting out by franchising London hotspot MoVida to the city, which quickly became one of Dubai’s most buzzing nightclubs when it opened in 2011, before turning his attention to restaurants. Scalini and Cipriani are among the big-name coups he attracted to the city.

Cipriani is among the big-name restaurants that restaurateur Evgeny Kuzin brought to Dubai. Photo: Cipriani Dubai

“It was a learning curve,” he says. “Initially, we focused on bringing existing concepts and international brands to Dubai. I realised that the right thing was actually not to bring international brands to Dubai, but to develop our own in Dubai and take them to the world.”

The result was Greek-Mediterranean spot Gaia, which he developed alongside renowned chef Izu Ani and which has quickly become one of Dubai’s biggest home-grown success stories since its opening in 2018. Its first international outpost followed in 2019 in Monaco to huge success and, later this year, Gaia will open in the heart of London’s Mayfair. This will be followed by openings in Miami, Monte Carlo, Marbella and Paris.

“I truly believe Dubai’s brands deserve to be scaled around the world, and that’s what we are trying to do now,” he says. “When you are developing a concept here, it’s not easy. Dubai is one of the world’s most multinational cities — if you go to New York, for example, it’s still American. Of course, there are expats, but not like in Dubai. When you develop a menu or a concept, you have to cater for all different cultures and traditions — on one big table, you can often have 10 different nationalities enjoying the same food. Basically, if it can be successful in Dubai, it can easily be plugged into any market and work very well.”

While Kuzin is on a mission to take Dubai’s restaurant scene global, Fundamental’s focus still remains very much on its home city and the wider GCC. And 2023 is set to be a huge year for the group.

In Dubai alone, there will be six new concepts opening this year. DIFC will welcome Japanese omakase venue Kygo, as well as Evie’s, a 1920s-inspired supper club with live music and entertainment.

Two iterations of La Maison Ani, chef Izu Ani's brasserie which opened at The Dubai Mall’s Fashion Avenue last year, are also set for launch. On Palm Jumeirah, Maison La Plage will take its French-Mediterranean fare beachside, while smaller boulangerie La Petit Ani will open in DIFC.

The first Izu Burger Joint will open at Box Park, Jumeirah, and then there’s Sirene Beach by Gaia, one of Kuzin’s most ambitious projects to date.

Set to launch in December, the 9,000-square-metre spot will open at the redeveloped J1 Beach at La Mer. “It’s going to be the biggest beach club in Dubai,” he says. “It’s very exciting. It will have a beautiful restaurant, lounge, a big swimming pool and cabanas. It’s one of the biggest projects I’ve ever worked on in Dubai.”

If Fundamental Hospitality restaurants’ global expansion is not a clear enough sign of the success of its concepts, one look at its customer base, which counts members of Dubai’s ruling family as regulars, should solidify it.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai, regularly dine at Gaia, Shanghai Me and Alaya, and post their outings on social media.

“It’s a great feeling to have the support of leadership,” says Kuzin. “Dubai used to be a place where people transited through, but now it’s a place people want to build homes. I truly believe Dubai is the centre of the world.”

Updated: January 29, 2023, 4:00 AM