Industry Insiders: Shimon Bokovza, Samba Savvy

As a 21-year-old Russian beach bum, he started Israel’s first and only ski resort, followed by an open-air Amazon village complete with volleyball court and golf driving range on the Hudson River. He went on to open the Kit Kat Club that featured Cabaret off-Broadway, and finally Sushi Samba. His Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill will also open in coming months in Miami, just in time for New Year’s. While celebrating Sushi Samba’s 10 Year Anniversary this month, Shimon Bokovza is just warming up.

What’s your job description? I’m trying to be like the Kennedys now! In charge of all of the operations of Sushi Samba, worldwide. I basically am into the operation of the places and reinventing how to keep Sushi Samba relevant, how to keep it going — from the menu to sprucing up the places. We’ve been in operation for ten years, and some locations need capital improvement to update them, so there’s a lot to do, plus bringing in a new management to the places. Above all, we’re looking into expansion, to see exactly where we’re going next. We’d like to do it where we get the most for our efforts. We just opened in Vegas, and it takes a lot of “push” to keep it going. Then, there are meetings with managers, tastings, meetings with the corporate chiefs, the managing partners. It’s a big schedule and requires a lot of traveling on a weekly basis. When I don’t travel, I’m really happy.

How’d you get your start? As a kid I was walking with my father in the market, shopping with him, so I learned from him how to pick up the right foods. In the Mediterranean, shopping is done on a daily basis. Knowing how to buy foods is really important, so when you eat it, you’re really happy with it. Then I went to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, and then to the hospitality industry.

But you did that after you’d already opened a ski resort when you were only 21. Yes, but that was in 1979. I had a lot to learn before I opened Harvest, Apropos, then the first Amazon Club in Philadelphia before we came to Manhattan and Sag Harbor.

What are your go-to places? Because of my travel, I really don’t eat much outside of Sushi Samba, except when I’m home. I have two little ones, so I cook a lot at home to spend time with them. If I go out, one of my favorite places is the Bar Room in The Modern at the MoMA. My son is the chef de cuisine there, so obviously I go there more often than most places. When I go to Miami, I like Michy’s by Michelle Bernstein. I also like Senora Martinez, a fresh tapas place. Other than that, in Vegas, if I don’t eat at my restaurant, I like Robuchon.

Who are your mentors? I really like somebody who came to speak at Cornell, Joe Baum, who has unfortunately passed away. He really influence me quite a bit, besides being my wife’s ex-boss. I really respected him. I admire my wife and my mother for whatever they do, and after all, my wife is in the business!

What’s going on in hospitality? I think a lot of good things are happening: the industry is becoming more sophisticated, more computerized. What we do today with OpenTable is amazing, you’d never have thought that something we did for ten years would now be industry wide. Most of our reservations are coming through the web. There’s another company that’s dealing with intelligent programs: Avero. I don’t now what we’d do without them, and ten years ago they didn’t exist. I think we were their second or third contract. In addition to that, the industry is more green friendly than before. Food is going to become more and more local; you need to be in a certain radius of the food range to get really good, locally grown, organic food. Slowly, slowly it’s moving through the industry. Thirty years ago, this was the most primitive part of the industry.

Things that annoy you about owning a restaurant? I’m not sure if it’s negative or not: it’s the regulations by different cities, by different codes. We’re a business that consists of thousands of little things that need to be put together to become a restaurant. If you stop it with regulations, it becomes really difficult, probably one of the toughest things in this business. Like everything else, you overcome it make it happen, move on.

Something that people might not know about you? I like to eat fish heads! Probably, if I would say that I love Guns N’ Roses and that I play guitar, people wouldn’t believe me.

Favorite guitarist? I really like Paco de Lucía because he’s the best guitar player on this planet. I’m a guitar player, but I’m so bad. Once I heard him play, I stopped.

Who are your favorite artists? I like Piet Mondrian, and am very much influenced by him at Sushi Samba. That takes me into the most recent love: graffiti art. We’ve started working with it and it’s become fashionable in the past three years. We exhibit at Art Basel every year, graffiti artists from Brazil and Japan at the restaurant in Miami Beach, and we design the restaurants with artists in mind. Our Graffiti Gone Global initiative is the city’s largest international street art fair. We’ll also publish a corresponding book with GGG curators James and Karla Murray. A lot of our food is based on street food, so other street elements, like graffiti make Sushi Samba a complete experience in a great place to eat.

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