The founder of Chotto Matte and Ping Pong Dim Sum speaks to MCA about his ambitious expansion drive and introducing Japanese-Peruvian cuisine to the world

Kurt Zdesar’s mission to introduce the world to nikkei cuisine was nearly a decade in the making.

The Chotto Matte founder opened the nikkei restaurant’s first site in London in 2013, but the idea to tap into Japanese-Peruvian food began before he had launched his first Ping Pong restaurant.

“I still had to open Ping Pong. I was in Shanghai reviewing dim sum chefs and looking for new ideas and eating dumplings all day long,” said Zdesar, also the founder of Ping Pong and former director of Nobu.

“I try this nikkei restaurant and immediately I was like, I want to be doing that.”

Nikkei cuisine, a blend of Peruvian ingredients and Japanese techniques, has been shaped by generations of Japanese cultural influences in Peru but remains relatively unexplored in most parts of the world. While it’s often termed a ‘fusion’ cuisine, Zdesar doesn’t think that description does it justice. To him, nikkei is more of a harmony.

He admits Ping Pong was a major influence in building Chotto Matte, but the latter is a long way from the Asian restaurant chain. The founder – who also had a hand in Nobu and Hakkasan – claims Chotto Matte was an attempt to find a middle ground between his fine dining concepts and more accessible ones, like Ping Pong.

When Zdesar noticed customers queuing for two hours to grab a table at Ping Pong – where the business served 1,200 people each day at a single day – nikkei was a no-brainer.

As the dumpling specialist began to see more and more regulars, it was clear to Zdesar that a cuisine with roots in fresh, healthy Japanese and Peruvian food would be something people ate on a regular basis.

With seven restaurants in central London and several more across Europe, the Middle East, and North America, Ping Pong’s accessibility is in stark contrast to Chotto Matte’s exclusivity.

“It was never my intention to open more than one [Chotto Matte] in any city,” Zdesar says. “Then you lose the individuality of each site.

“I think that came from my ego, because to me, giving birth to a restaurant is like giving birth to a child. I love every one of them.

“You have a restaurant that trades at 100% all the time, or two restaurants trading at 80%, or four trading at 70%, which is good, too. But I just like seeing packed restaurants.

“As a restauranteur, that’s probably the best feeling.”

Chotto Matte rebranded during the pandemic – with changes to everything from restaurant design to operations – and reopened its doors more profitable than before, he reports.

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The brand has just secured a site in Manchester to join two UK locations in Soho and Marylebone. It will soon launch in Milan, Rome, Riyadh, and Doha, with Panama, Mexico City, and Istanbul as targets further down the line.

“What we learnt was, in a competitive market where we have all the international players to compete with, we trade extremely well,” says Zdesar, referring to the brand’s Miami location.

“And when we go to a market where nobody’s ever seen anything like us before – like Toronto – we trade extremely well.

“So the business, the concept, the offering – the whole package is quite a robust model.”

And according to him, it’s also a resilient one. Chotto Matte not only came out swinging following the pandemic, but its premium offering appeals to consumers less impacted by the cost of living crisis.

“After the lockdown, people are going out in a new way, like they don’t know when this could be taken away from them.

“Accessible restaurants are the ones that are hurting more because they were depending on the office workers who had a £10, £15, £20 spend.

“But the people spending £100 per head when they go out? They seem to be spending more.”

Part of the reason the brand came out stronger post-covid was because to Zdesar, the pandemic was an opportunity.

“When we went into lockdown, that’s exactly when I went out and started looking for new locations in America,” he explains.

“I figured, this is a good time to negotiate…we got some lucrative deals.”

Despite its premium positioning, Zdesar emphasises Chotto Matte offers something for everyone and adapts to every market – even when the markets are fewer than two miles apart.

The Marylebone location, where we meet, has a different menu and targets an older, more affluent demographic as compared to a younger, edgier clientele in Soho.

“Here, we don’t have the DJs and all the loud elements of Soho…I wanted to keep it more refined, more sophisticated, more comfortable, more of a special occasion sort of feeling.

“Here, we deliberately don’t have tables seating more than six, but in Soho we take groups of 20 – and it doesn’t matter how much noise they make, because the DJ will make more.”

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Zdesar might have broken his cardinal rule of no more than one restaurant per city when it comes to London, but for him, individuality remains on top of the priority list.

Each site is carefully created and curated to suit the city it’s located in and the clientele it looks to target. Despite some common Japanese and Latin American-inspired elements, loyal customers will always be pleasantly surprised when they walk into a new location, according to Zdesar.

“It was about the children of the people I’d been serving all these years in the other brands…they don’t want to go where mum and dad go,” he says.

“I didn’t think there was a place for them, this younger crowd, and that’s where Soho started.

“Then we went to Miami and the Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces started turning up, and that really set the scene for us.”

With three company-owned restaurants in the UK and four in North America’s biggest cities, new restaurants in Italy and the Middle East will be franchised.

“Where we don’t feel we have the strength or the understanding, we would franchise…our franchised business is becoming extremely, extremely in demand.”

With franchisees courting the business across continents, Chotto Matte is gearing up for an ambitious expansion drive with one primary goal: to be known as the master of nikkei. When Zdesar first planted the seeds for the project, the cuisine was virtually unheard of.

“People have fallen in love with what we do, and it’s growing,” he says. “As I’m moving into new territories, Nikkei is starting to appear before I can get there.

“My ambition was to bring nikkei cuisine to the world, and be the owner of such a product, like how McDonald’s owns the Big Mac.

“I like to take ownership of what we do. I want to have something we can say we’re the masters of.”