Wednesday 26 April 2023

Creating One of Bali’s Best Restaurants Turned into The Adventure of a Lifetime

A post by Alison Bone featuring business tips by Virginia and Kevin. 

For entrepreneurs Virginia Entizne and Kevin Cherkas, no obstacle was too great in their journey to create Cuca, which regularly tops the lists of Bali’s best restaurants.

One of Bali’s most successful and best-loved restaurants, Cuca draws foodies and gourmet travellers from around the world. Here, amidst the coconut palms, just meters from the glistening white sand of Jimbaran Bay, guests are treated to a casual yet extraordinarily unique dining experience. Cuca cuisine is described by chef and co-founder, Kevin Cherkas, as “Inventive comfort food inspired by the best things you have ever eaten,” but while the inspiration is global, all ingredients are locally sourced. “There is nothing that didn’t grow, walk or swim in Indonesia,” he says.

More than a restaurant, Cuca is the inspiring journey of Business Director, Virginia Entizne from Spain, and her husband, Canadian-born Kevin, who faced complex challenges in their quest to turn vision into reality, and against the odds, achieved enduring success. The story starts in Singapore in 2011, where Virginia, who has a master’s degree in Business Administration, was excelling in her role as the Director of a premiere international language school. Kevin, a renowned chef who had worked in Michelin starred restaurants around the world was Executive Sous Chef at Shangri-La. It was a prestigious position, but he yearned to open his own restaurant, and to spend more time with Virginia. They decided it was time to combine forces, using her extraordinary business acumen and his vast culinary talent to create their own venture.

We chose Bali because it has magic, and then we just went for it,” says Kevin. “We were also drawn to the huge bounty of amazing produce, the warmth and friendliness of the Balinese people, the intriguing Hindu culture, and the international clientele,” adds Virginia. Arriving on the island in 2012, the couple were armed with two bulging suitcases, a big dream, and an unwavering determination to succeed. “At the time Bali only had simple, inexpensive local warung food and huge luxury restaurants with extravagant clifftop settings that offered fine dining, using imported ingredients,” says Virginia. “Our vision was to build a restaurant where amazing food was affordable and served in a casual environment. We were determined to add food to the list of reasons people come to visit this beautiful island paradise.

They were yet to decide on a location or a concept and set out to explore the island in search of inspiration. Late one afternoon they came across a picturesque coconut grove. “We knew in our hearts that this was the perfect spot,” says Virginia. Better still, it was in the fishing village of Jimbaran Bay, so they could source the freshest daily catch direct from local fishermen. Venturing up the coast and into the lush volcanic hinterland, they discovered incredible ingredients packed with flavour; from organic sea salt to fragrant herbs and spices, exotic tropical fruit, and rich coffee and cacao. From this, their ‘local only’ concept was born. “We knew our customers would come from all over the world, so we really wanted to showcase the freshest local ingredients, which could be harvested in the morning and served in Cuca in the evening,” says Virginia. “We are also obsessed with green practices, supporting the local community and minimising the transportation of food, so going absolutely local was a no brainer.”

Gleeful about his new discoveries, Kevin got busy in the kitchen creating dishes that blended novelty with nostalgia. Born of heartfelt influences, each dish had a story and was, “Unlike anything you have ever tried before or would find anywhere else.”  That meant dishes like the Fish Tartare, inspired by their love of a traditional French-style steak tartare. “We decided to reimagine it – asking what if it was the Balinese who created this dish, what would that be like?” explains Virginia. Meanwhile, the Lobster Roll is a take on the classic American dish. In the Cuca version, it’s made with the freshest local lobster combined with Roti Boy – a local style Portuguese coffee bun, popular throughout Indonesia.

People always think that a restaurant is about the chef, but actually the chef’s role is just about 10%. More than anything, a restaurant is a business,” says Kevin. So, while he experimented in the kitchen, Virginia set up the business side of things, from developing the Cuca concept, through to design, branding, human resources, and arranging permits. She also blogged enthusiastically to share their journey. “We wanted Cuca to be a place to share a great dining experience, and in keeping with that decided on serving tapas, cocktails and desserts,” explains Virginia. “Tapas – because its perfect for sharing with friends, cocktails because they offer endless scope for creativity and are great in this tropical weather, and desserts because we were determined to celebrate life, food and good company – and what kind of celebration is one without dessert? Plus, people tend to forget about diets while on holidays.

The Challenges

 “We faced more challenges than we could ever have imagined,” admits Virginia. “From building, to sourcing ingredients, to learning a new language and understanding a new culture. We had employees from all over Indonesia, each with different backgrounds, beliefs and expectations. But each night we went to bed having ticked off one more task from our ever growing ‘to-do’ list, and slowly things came together.

One year after their arrival, Cuca opened its doors. “Nobody came,” says Kevin. “Our food was super opinionated, quirky and different and people didn’t understand. They asked me, why don’t you do pizza or pasta or steak? But I would prefer to fail miserably doing something we believe in, then succeed in doing something that everyone else is already doing.” With no money for advertising, they decided to embrace old school hospitality. As Virginia tells it, “Kevin would head down to the beach in his chef whites and invite tourists to the restaurant.” And when they came, they were welcomed with open arms and dazzled by the food. Many would return the following night and bring their friends, and slowly but surely Cuca’s reputation grew via word of mouth. Over the next few years, the restaurant became a favoured destination for those in the know. Accolades flowed, awards were won, and tables were filled every night with happy diners enchanted by the experience and the setting.

Having faced the challenges of opening a restaurant on a foreign island, and succeeded where so many others have failed, Cuca’s future was looking brighter than ever at the start of 2020. “Then COVID came and destroyed us,” says Kevin. As the world descended into lockdowns and Bali closed to visitors, Kevin and Virginia switched to survival mode. “We thought about closing and sending everybody home, but the team is so important to us and has been with us so long, that we decided to keep paying everyone’s salaries and hum along until the tourists came back,” says Kevin. As hard as it was to keep going, they faced the pandemic with the same determination and stamina that had driven them to create Cuca in the first place. “Our attitude was, let’s just keep doing this with integrity and giving 100%, and if the money runs out at least we can say we tried,” he adds.

Cooking brought Kevin immense comfort in the chaos that surrounded him, and he developed some fantastic new dishes, mindful that he might never get to serve them. There were many dark days filled with fear, “but I thought COVID has to fade out eventually, so until then I will find the energy to keep going, and take this time to look at everything we do, and simply become better,” he says. Eight long months later they managed to reopen, and as visitors trickled back to the island, first from Indonesia and then from the world, Cuca came back to life.  “We are busier than ever now,” says Virginia. “The risk we took and the endless effort we put into the business during the COVID years has totally paid off.

So, what’s next for Virginia and Kevin? “Unlike 99% of restaurateurs, we do not want to open any other Cucas,” says Virginia. “The magic of our business is the love and dedication we put into it, and this would not be possible if we had to split our attention. We also understand that in the hospitality business you need to stay relevant if you want to stay successful, so with only one Cuca to focus on, we, the venue, the team, the menu are always able to evolve, improve and stay with the times.

Advice for people starting a new business

Commit to what you are doing and do it with integrity,” says Kevin. “Our early days at Cuca were fuelled by adrenalin and coffee, we really put in the time and energy needed to give guests the best possible dining experience they could imagine. Ten years on we are still giving 100%. Things can get tough, there were days during COVID that we could barely face getting out of bed, but it’s important to never give up. Remind yourself that there’s always something worth fighting for whether it’s your integrity or your beliefs.

Concept clarity is imperative,” adds Virginia. “Decide on your concept and roll with it. Our concept for Cuca was inspired by our travels around the world and the incredible ingredients we discovered in Bali. This fresh nutritional produce is the foundation of everything we do, and gives us a strong point of difference, as well as truly unique cuisine that you could never find anywhere else.” And when it comes to working with your partner, she adds “It’s important to support each other, but also to clearly define your roles. In our case, Kevin does the food, I run the businesses. He is competitive while I am organised. He will jump first and I will make sure that if we fall, we get up together.

Be ethical and sustainable in whatever you do. At Cuca we hire local unskilled youngsters and train them so they have a strong future in hospitality. We buy direct from local farmers and do everything we can to support the local community. We cook from scratch, say no to plastic, and have installed a waste water management system that irrigates our herb garden,” says Virginia.

Lessons learned

While taking shortcuts might be tempting, it’s not worth it,” says Virginia. “Focus on creating fans for your brand rather than simply getting customers. You need to believe deeply in what you do, do it from your heart and win customers one by one, the numbers will come later. It is the scenic long road, but it’s the one that will get you there, and let you enjoy the journey as well.” And finally, “Don’t get distracted by the competition, use that time and energy to become better at what you are doing. It is so much more rewarding and fun to find your own way of doing things!