The catering business requiring strategic thinking and genuine love for people to provide a memorable culinary experience, filled with good food, ambience, and flair, far from everyone can be a restaurateur. To succeed in this sphere, you must know how to stand out in the crowd and have a unique restaurant concept as well as the cultural awareness of your place in the history of catering and human civilisation in general. Having all that and a burning desire to move on, Diana Rysbaeva, owner of SHI and Jixiang Dim Sum Dubai, is fully confident of her strength, success, and strong foothold in the market. In her exclusive interview with Lara Palmer, she gives her perspective of Chinese restaurants in the UAE and shares her plans for the future.
Lara Palmer: Diana, how did you become a restaurateur? Could you share the story of your success?
Diana Rysbaeva: At the age of 20, I felt like focusing my skills within the catering industry, specifically for those in the mood for Asian food. I was an enthusiastic university student at the time, and it was during my summer holidays that I opened a full-servicing café in an excellent place on the shore of Issyk-Kul Lake. The cool thing about it was the Uzbek cuisine that we served, provided by 30 male cooks — all expats from Uzbekistan — who had come to work for me, a young girl with zero experience both in catering and team management. Nonetheless, I was determined to make things work, and the project proved very interesting. Even though it did not become my most profitable endevour, it did teach me a lot. That’s how it all began for me — starting business young taught me that you can accomplish anything you put all your mind and heart to. Since then, creating new jobs has also been a source of my continuous inspiration. From falling in love with the catering industry in my formative years to becoming the business woman I am today, it always goes back to how I can keep consciously developing.
In 2018, after a number of successful educational business projects, I launched my first full-service Chinese restaurant — ‘Chinatown’ — which I am proud to say is still in business and one of the best restaurants in Kyrgyzstan.
L.P.: What’s different about the restaurant business in Kyrgyzstan and Dubai?
D. R.: Running a catering business anywhere is pretty much the same. Having now worked out my own management style and foundations, I apply these to all venues I invest in. Since my basic principles have proved effective, I will continue to learn, develop, and grow these skills.
Comparing bureaucratic red tape in my home country and in the UAE, I can say the UAE is a good example to follow. Here, entrepreneurs can rely on precision, fairness, and support. There’s nothing too complicated, but you must follow the rules and familiarise yourself with the legal norms in due time. Everything is done in an honest, transparent, and legal manner so you have nothing to fear or worry about. Just follow the rules, and everything will work out well for you.
Startuppers have two months to have their design projects approved and another 90 days to implement them. So, you have three months to get your restaurant built from scratch. In the meantime, the second stage is actually easier, as your design project presentation must meet certain criteria and contain technical drawings as well as high quality images. Everything in Dubai is done according to strict and precise procedures, starting with getting your construction plans approved, and I think this is the best way to be.
L.P.: Is there a ready-made formula of or recipe for a successful restaurant business in Dubai? What are the main criteria of success?
D. R.: Making your restaurant a success in Dubai is anything but easy. Every catering project here is unique in its own special way. It stands to reason that all restaurateurs use all means at their disposal, such as, their best experiences, available investments, and well-built teams. As far as I’m concerned, the three basic essentials of a successful catering project are the food, service, and the atmosphere you provide. That’s what wins customers and makes them come again and again. A novelty may attract a one-time visitor, but returning visits speak volumes in our industry and particularly in this market where a new venue opens every week. Some of our regular guests even come with their luggage straight from the airport, which we are extremely happy and proud about.
Hospitality is a key factor of success in catering. Each guest must always feel welcome, at home, and surrounded by friends. Having superb quality of everything is also an absolute must-have, and a good location is also a key point on the priority list. Meanwhile, the starting point is the idea, conceived by your heart — you must literally live through your project prior to its realisation, otherwise how will other people believe in your idea? There must be a story behind your brand concept — a story of its creation and your own confidence of its absolute uniqueness.
L.P.: SHI is already a successful restaurant, well-known in Dubai. How did you manage to win the status? What is so special about SHI, compared to other projects, offering Asian cuisine?
D. R.: Launching SHI was a carefully thought out plan — in the end the decision was made by our family council. There are some historic figures that my family and I often talk about, so the name of the restaurant has a very interesting historical background.
Once, the first Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty, decided to order a mausoleum built for himself as well as his entire army, harem, favourite luxury items, and household utensils to be buried with him after his death. That’s the kind of ‘luggage’ he wanted to accompany him in the afterlife.
However, his privy councilors let him know that such a decision of his was highly likely to cause waves of protests, leading to an overwhelming uprising across the country, entailing countless casualties and endless troubles. They gave him a very wise piece of advice — to have all that mausoleum population and equipment made of clay andmetal. And Emperor Qin Shi Huang had enough sense to take heed of the counsel.
In 1974, the Emperor’s Tomb and his terracotta warriors — a wonder of the world, hidden from human eyes for two millennia in a northern province of China — were discovered by archeologists near Xi’an, the old capital of the Celestial Empire. All these artifacts having survived to this day, we can still see Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army. Now, the first Chinese Emperor’s Mausoleum, one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting millions of tourists from all over the world.
We borrowed the middle syllable of the great Emperor’s name to designate our restaurant. Multiple meanings common in Chinese, the word ‘SHI’ can be translated both as ‘generation’ and ‘infinity’ — just what a successful project needs.
L.P.: Are there any tricks of the trade you could share with beginners in the food business?
D. R.: I am sure that no matter how good you are as a manager or restaurateur, your business success depends not only on your own knowledge and skills but also on your team, of which you yourself must be a member too. So, it’s team building that beginners should focus on first and foremost as well as on learning to delegate authority and responsibility.
L.P.: My mentor Gor Nakhapetyan once said, ‘It does not matter where. What does is why and with whom’. What is a restaurateur’s major mission or, simply put, main purpose? What does your restaurant business give you besides profits?
D. R.: A restaurant with a name, charged with the idea of ‘generation’ cannot do without a mission. Being a great connoisseur of delicious food — a foodie of sorts — I consider my restaurant to be an interactive theatre, every worker being an actor, the kitchen —an orchestra, and the chef — the conductor in charge of playing this wonderful symphony while our guests are the audience — their applause and feedback being the assessment of our performance. Running a restaurant is a hard yet very captivating, creative process, allowing me to be a magician in full measure, realising my most imaginative ideas and making my dreams come true.
According to our guests and critics, SHI rates among the top 10 best Asian and Chinese restaurants in Dubai. A number of local families have chosen our restaurant for celebrating their tradition of coming together for a weekend meal as they consider SHI to be the best place for such regular family reunions, usually featuring several generations — this is by far our best reward. By the way, eating out like this, for instance, enjoying Saturday family brunches, is very common in China. Besides, many guests choose to celebrate their birthdays and other holidays with us.
We have also developed strong relationships with local business owners and their business partners, who often have lunch or dinner meetings at SHI, knowing that our delicious and excellent-quality food facilitates positive results of their negotiations. This is, indeed, the greatest recognition imaginable. It goes without saying, we know each of our returning guests in person and by name, carefully taking note of their preferences, likes, and dislikes to make sure they always feel most welcome at SHI.
L.P.: What makes SHI different from other Asian-food restaurants?
D. R.: SHI is a lot more than just another Asian-food restaurant. We present ourselves as a Chinese restaurant with a world-wide vision both in terms of cuisine and presentation — in all forms. From our interior design, featuring an authentic Chinese style, diluted with a touch of modernity in the form of bright artworks and installations — a mixture of two trends. The same goes for our food, adapted to absolutely all tastes, so that each guest can find a good quality dish exactly to his or her preference. Our Head Chef Li Yuan Hui boasts tremendous work experience at Michelin-Starred restaurants, and we hope that SHI’s own Michelin Star is just around the corner.
L.P.: Could you list five rules of a successful Dubai restaurateur?
D. R.: There are no special rules or guidelines — it’s all individual. I can only point out some things I have learnt, that have shaped my way of doing business. Honesty in relations with your team is, indeed, the best policy. Then, comes a good reputation among the local suppliers. Strong organisational skills and the right focus are of utmost importance too as your getting distracted may entail risks for the company and team in general. Last but not least, a detailed plan of expansion, making your projects global is a must-have as well.
L.P.: Which feature of your character makes you a winner?
D. R.: No doubt, it’s better to be assessed by others. I can call myself a big dreamer with a strategic mindset, perfectionist to the core, and my most severe critic. That’s what prevents me from relaxing and getting into the state of self-satisfaction and comfort. I am always on the look out for improving something even if everything seems to be working well enough already. And most importantly, I am always honest with myself and everybody I deal with.
L.P.: Could you share something about your family? What does your husband feel about your business?
D. R.: I have a wonderful family, helping and supporting me at every step of the way. My three beloved children are my engine of progress, and my dear husband is a strong support for me in everything. He is always the first to share all my joys and sorrows as well as to advise and help me in my food business to the best of his capacity. His own business interests are in a totally different sphere, so he never interferes with my vision. Nevertheless, both he and his business partners are great fans of SHI so he has all his business meetings in my restaurant, which brings him good luck and success in his undertakings.
L.P.: Could you talk about your fast food project — fashionable dim sum outlets? How did you conceive the idea? What is unique about it?
D. R.: Oh, I love this story! From my experience, I know that a good-quality Chinese restaurant can be assessed just by its dim sum dishes — every dim sum chef having his own special culinary secrets. It’s just like bread on the table — coming to a Chinese restaurant, you are sure to order at least one basket of dim sum. So, this component can make or break everything!
Knowing that getting the right dim sum chef on board was no easy task, I was still adamant to do just that, and it took a long time. Finally, the right chef did come my way! We were already considering hiring him for SHI, when all of a sudden, my CFO insisted that we could not afford such an expensive specialist. Naturally, I had the final say, and the new chef did join our team. That’s how Jixiang Dim Sum Dubai was born, and I assure you this fast-food option is second to none in Dubai. We launched in March 2023 in the very heart of JBR – on the beach. Its idea is either to let you take your dim sum away and enjoy it on the beach or at a table inside our outlet, offering a stunning view of the local seascape.
L.P.: I hear you are planning to launch a new F & B brand. Could you talk about your plans?
D. R.: The world of business constantly changing, I’ve always been interested in taking on new challenges and projects. Launching a new brand has been on my mind for a while, and this one is super exciting — I am planning to open a high-end luxury dining venue, named MOLI, this winter in the Dubai Hills Business Park.
My vision for MOLI is that of a dining experience, combining style and substance. In today’s fast-paced world, the restaurant industry has changed significantly in terms of food, culture, and art. Therefore, I aim to be a pioneer, showcasing a modern representation of traditional China — all the luxury and culinary delightsthat exceed in that part of the world. Offering exquisite cuisine to customers with a passion for fine dining, MOLI will be unparallelled — its menu featuring traditional Chinese dishes with a modern twist — thanks to locally sourced ingredients and authentic cooking techniques, creating a unique culinary experience.
In addition to delicious Chinese food, MOLI will also showcase China’s rich cultural heritage through its art and design — the restaurant’s interior is to feature elegant Chinese elements, such as calligraphy, pottery, and fine art, creating a sophisticated and welcoming environment.
With Dubai continuously growing and developing in the background, MOLI will stand out as a premier din- ing destination, setting new standards for excellence in luxury dining. Our goal is to create a brand, providing absolutely unforgettable gastronomic experiences — from the quality of food and service to the ambiance of the place — leaving our customers coming back for more.
I am really excited about the upcoming launch of MOLI, featuring traditional Chinese cuisine, an innovative design, and a modern flair. It goes without saying, we will invite each and everybody to join us on this exciting culinary journey.
L.P.: Is there a phrase or a wise saying you consider your life credo?
D.R.: Yes — a gift my father gave me in due time: The road will be mastered by the going.