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Gaia shouts ‘Made in Dubai’ at the world

Gaia could be a rare phenomenon: a brand native to Dubai and the Middle East that goes global

'In this business, Dubai already rivals London, New York and Paris,' says Gaia restaurant owner Evgeny Kuzin Fundamental Hospitality
'In this business, Dubai already rivals London, New York and Paris,' says Gaia restaurant owner Evgeny Kuzin

If you see yourself as a DIFC lounge-lizard (as I do) you can easily imagine an evening that begins in the Gate Village with aperitifs in Shanghai Me, dinner at Gaia, some post-prandials and dessert at Cipriani, followed by a few hours’ raving at Socialista’s private lounge.

It would be quite a strain on your anatomy, not to mention your wallet, but what fun. And you’d have one man to thank for your sybaritic soirée: Evgeny Kuzin.

The 38-year-old Russian seems to have cornered the market in luxury F&B, especially in the Dubai International Financial Centre. It is estimated his holding company, Fundamental Hospitality, occupies about 40 percent of DIFC’s prime podium-level dining space.

All the above places are his establishments, via Fundamental, as well as a clutch of other jewels in the Swarovski-studded crown of Dubai bling, like La Maison Ani and Cipriani Dolci in Dubai, and Piatti on the Palm. Scalini and the soon-to-be-opened Izu Burger in Jumeirah are also part of the Fundamental group.

That’s quite a portfolio for a man who relocated to Dubai from Novorossiysk in Russia in 2005 with little formal training in the restaurant business, although, as Kuzin told me this week, his father was in the F&B business so it was “in the family.”

“I came to Dubai to get involved in the luxury property market, but then came the global financial crisis. I noticed that lifestyle nightclubs were one industry in Dubai that did not seem to be affected by the crisis,” he said.

He opened some nightclubs that were hugely successful, including the legendary Movida, but most of his growing business then consisted of importing luxury F&B brands, like Cipriani, to Dubai, especially the booming DIFC.

In 2017 came the “turning point”, as he calls it. He approached the DIFC with the concept for what would become Gaia, the first “Made in Dubai” concept in luxury F&B.

“They asked me why they should let this unknown concept take prime space in the DIFC, and I told them ‘I’m going to take Dubai to the world.’ That’s what I’m doing now,” Kuzin said.

Fundamental Hospitality co-founder Evgeny KuzinFundamental Hospitality
Fundamental Hospitality co-founder Evgeny Kuzin

He has just announced a big international expansion plan that will see over 100 restaurants and nightclubs opened globally over the next five years. Gaia, already in Doha and Monte Carlo, will be in London’s Mayfair in November, Marbella in Spain next March and Miami in May. Other Gaias will follow in Los Angeles and elsewhere, possibly in Asia.

The expansion is being funded by a $140m “capital deployment programme”, and Kuzin said: “I don’t have any trouble raising money.” Investors include regional family offices and institutional backers, organised by his cousin and co-founder Maxim Vlasov. “He’s the money man,” Kuzin said.

He certainly seems to have caught the attention and support of local investors. The Gaia Instagram is littered with shots of senior Emiratis frequenting his establishments, attracted by the talents of super-chef Izu Ani. Better endorsement you could not buy.

Gaia could just become one of those very rare phenomena: a brand native to Dubai and the Middle East that goes global. Apart from Emirates Airline, and to a lesser degree luxury resorts group Jumeirah, very few local marques I can think of have gone on to become globally recognised brands.

“Dubai is already a global city for luxury hospitality, so I’m sure there will be more. In this business, Dubai already rivals London, New York and Paris,” said Kuzin.

Gaia is unique to Dubai in its origins and backing, but not in its cuisine, which “embodies the essence of Greek-Mediterranean cuisine and culture”, according to the official blurb. The ambience and menu are decidedly upmarket Greek – Mykonos rather than Agios Nikolaus.

Business this year has hit all-time post-Covid highs, Kuzin said, but he did not see any extraordinary presence in the restaurants from his fellow-countrymen and women who have made Dubai their home. Neither did I particularly, on my visit.

The food I had there was delicious – creamy taramasalata and a seafood Greek-style risotto that was just marvellous. I lingered a while over the long wine list, but decided against the AED60,000 bottle of Pétrus. Well, it was lunchtime.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia