Chef Oliver Lange of Zuma on Creativity, Excellence, and Perfection
A sophisticated twist on the traditional Japanese Izakaya style of informal eating and drinking, Zuma has 11 venues globally and 3 pop up locations. Chef Lange has been with Zuma since January 2015, when he joined the award-winning, flagship London location as Head Chef. He then took over as Executive Chef of Zuma New York in September 2015. Now leading all three US locations including New York, Miami and Las Vegas as the Corporate Executive Chef, Oliver is spearheading Zuma’s newest location coming to Boston this spring.
When you started your culinary journey, looking back, was there a moment or experience that triggered your interest in the profession?
Yes absolutely. Sushi Chefs inspired me then and do so to this day. Their dedication, precision, and respect for detail and produce triggered my interest in specializing in Japanese cuisine.
Throughout your culinary career, at what point did you realize that you truly excelled as a chef?
Since childhood, I loved being in the kitchen with my mother making food. I thought I was an excellent helper even at that age—burning my hands on the stove and eating the leftover cake mix! In all seriousness, I have always felt comfortable in the kitchen. When my family and friends come together around the dining table it makes my day. I love what I do, which is the most important thing for me. I need to put my soul into my work.
How would you describe your philosophy or approach to food?
Respect, passion, and dedication. I love to use seasonal ingredients and try to handle food with consideration—with as little wastage as possible. Fundamentally, I like to see the joy that good hospitality and food brings.
Where do you draw your inspiration from to constantly create and innovate?
I think about food all the time. I even associate seemingly unrelated items to food and take them as inspiration for dishes or recipes. My wife Megan inspires my cooking as she is an incredible baker and has a wonderful way of putting flavors together. I also research a lot and try to keep up with best practices and trends in the industry. I try to evolve our kitchens without changing the ethos or identity of the Zuma brand.
Walk me through the process of when you have a new idea or an inspiration for a new dish. How do you go about taking that idea from your mind to the plate?
I start with a key ingredient or technique that I would like to showcase. I try to think back to the dishes we have produced in the past to see if I can draw inspiration from them. We encourage our teams to work together on new ideas and recipes. The process is very collaborative. Sometimes the development of a dish can take a month, or it can take six months. The most important thing to remember is to never give up as there are always failures along the way.
How do you maintain such a high bar of consistency, excellence, and precision?
We have great training programs and team development across all Zuma restaurants both in the US and globally. We have upwards of 50 chefs in each of our restaurants and we have to ensure that those individuals are given the opportunity to grow and learn on a daily basis. This has always been the ethos of our founder, Rainer Becker.
Is there such a thing as the perfect dish?
Everyone has a different palate, but for me, perfection comes from the quality of the product, not how it looks or how it’s plated. Upon visiting Japan for the first time, the taste of strawberry and my initial dalliance with sea urchin were the definition of perfection. Simplicity is perfection.
Rahim B. Kanani is the author of A WEALTH OF INSIGHT: The World’s Best Chefs on Creativity, Leadership, and Perfection (April 2019, Black Truffle Press).