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!

Tuesday 8 March 2022

The Wizard

Chefs get way too much credit!

I mean 20 years ago nobody cared about the people making their food. But today with the success of Master Chef and kitchen television, the title of "chef" is glamorous and important. When I told my parents 25 years ago that I wanted to be a chef it was cause for deep concern. The irony is that that same title of “chef” today is added before a cook’s name giving them the recognition of professions like a doctor. A doctor… someone who saves people’s lives whereas everything I work with is already dead. 

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the newfound prestige the job holds, but I can promise you a restaurant is not about the chef. A chef is actually a very small percentage of what makes a restaurant great. The customer does come primarily for food, but the food takes a journey and an army of talented and well-trained people to get it to them.  Products need to be hooked, harvested or farmed by professionals, found by purchasing, received, stored and served and all of this needs to be managed, paid for, marketed and organized by someone and it ain’t the chef. 

Making sure people can find the restaurant, update websites, organize events, reply emails, pay staff, sort out crises, repair all that is broken and make decisions that keep the lights on is not done by the chef. There is one secret every restaurant has, and it is the difference between open and closed. A person who makes decisions based on logic, education and understanding as opposed to chefs whose decisions are based on passion and emotion. It is the person everyone including the chef goes to when there is a problem, and no one credits for the solution. This person is rarely seen much, like the wizard of Oz making decisions from behind a curtain, and without them, no one would care about Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow or the Lion. 

So, the next time you go to a restaurant and enjoy a meal, look around at the cast of characters and try to spot The Wizard. In our restaurant, her official title is Director, we call her "boss", her name is Virginia and her mother calls her "Cuca", thus the name on the door.

By Chef Kevin

Sunday 28 February 2021

The Covid Perspective

When covid whacked the world last year, everyone was affected and everyone saw things curiously different. It is difficult to judge those who locked themselves in a bunker or criticize those wandering around mask-free desperately clinging to life as normal. Everybody had a perspective, and it is only when you understand someone’s beliefs, lifestyle and culture that you begin to see a new point of view. While hysteria and misery ooze from TV and social media, the world’s cities have lost their buzz and those picture-perfect holiday towns are left deserted and no longer scooping ice creams on cones. As far as how to react in this new fanatical, germ-free, hand washing obsessed ultra-sanitized world, well…perspective is everything.

Covid hits everyone dramatically and very differently. With lockdowns, school closures and physical distancing, kids are growing up missing the opportunity to develop social skills. Students in their final years lose the gatherings and celebrations that cement the year’s academic successes. Athletes no longer have competition and must train from home with no medals to be gained. Those in hospitality like us are simply left scratching their heads waiting for guests to return and meanwhile pivot to home delivery, which barely covers costs but somehow gives comfort within its mindless repetition. Those in the later years of life are retired and avoid the drama of frozen income with pensions flush, but sit dishearteningly within the category of high risk as their homes become confinement. Everyone has their story to tell and everyone is affected, although it is when we noticed the unusual way the Balinese dealt with Covid that we understood exactly what makes them so remarkably special.

As the material world shows its cracks and people everywhere look to find strength in timeless core values like family, friendship and compassion, we all see now how we have prioritized financial gain over happiness, success over health and career over family, but not the Balinese. This pandemic has taken away, as it has for many, their income, their jobs, their careers and their fancy mobile phone plans, and left them with nothing but themselves. Now…there lies the big difference: the Balinese are intrinsically joyful people, they only need themselves, their family and friends for happiness and it has always been like this. Covid has only had a material impact in their lives, but their core values and support system have not been affected. They look at us with pity and a sympathetic smile as we stress out trying to find meaning in our now empty days. The basic pleasures of life are easily found and somehow globally so easily misplaced for the rest of us mere mortals...

So as the world is still figuring out what to do, the Balinese have long ago started to heal! Hopefully the rest of us will eventually also learn to appreciate those special little magical moments every single day has to offer but we miss while being too busy looking the other way.