Working as a nightclub bartender in his hometown of Heidelberg, Germany, did the 18-year-old Benjamin Zahn see himself ending up as a hotelier managing five-star catering operations in far-off cities like Dubai and Beijing? Go along any Sunday to the Westin Chaoyang’s Bubbalicious champagne brunch and ask Zahn – now a few years older and wiser – in person. agenda asked Zahn a few questions recently about his experiences in Dubai and what goes into running one of Beijing’s most popular brunches.
Was there anything in particular that brought you to China?
My interest in Asia started with Dubai, where I worked with a lot of people from the Philippines. They shared a lot of their culture with me, inviting me to dinners and so on. That was what got me into Asian culture. When I got this opportunity to come to China, I grabbed it!
I was always interested to work in Asia. One of the reasons I chose to work in hospitality was my passion for people. It’s what our business is all about – guests, employees and the teams around you – and obviously working in hotels gives you a great opportunity to explore all kinds of cultures and work wherever you want to.
How is the dining scene in Beijing different to Dubai?
When I was there, Dubai was – in terms of hospitality, at least – the fastest developing, most vibrant scene in the world. Things have changed a little now, but at that time there was a lot of money going around, and because of the way alcohol licenses are regulated in Dubai, everyone goes out to eat in hotels. It’s not like Beijing, where people are more in the habit of going to standalone restaurants – in Dubai everyone goes to hotels.
In Beijing, you have a great variety of restaurants, but in Dubai at that time the number of new restaurants that were opening up was just amazing. Every day you had two or three new bars or restaurants opening, so there was a lot of competition and pressure to keep coming up with new ideas.
What makes Bubbalicious different from all the other brunches out there?
When we set out, we didn’t want to create “just another brunch.” Our objective was really to create a brand, something unique. Bubbalicious is not only about champagne and good food. It’s about the whole experience, from the moment you step into the hotel. I think we’ve done that pretty well with Bubbalicious.
On top of everything else, there’s the variety we offer. From caviar and lobster to our great Indian chefs cooking fantastic curries, we cover all kinds of wishes.
Our Treats shop becomes a “candy store” for Bubbalicious. With that, we wanted to create a concept where you just load your plate with desserts, like filling your basket in a supermarket! We’ve had a lot of positive guest feedback for the candy store – people just love it.
How many people attend each week?
We have easily over 200 guests every week, and there’s a constant increase. It’s also great to see that we have regulars. We’ve done as many as 320 covers in one session, so it’s been very successful.
How long does it usually take to set the brunch up?
Most of the time, hotel brunches are offered in the same restaurant where you serve breakfast. On the weekends, people often arrive late for breakfast, so the biggest challenge you have is to turn the whole place around within an hour and set everything up. But we have a great team, led by our executive chef Neal and restaurant manager Martin. They’re very passionate about it, and if you’re passionate about something, you get things done.
What other entertainment do you have for kids?
Sometimes we have face painters, and at the moment we’re looking for people to make little sculptures for kids. In the past we’ve had clowns and acrobats. We try to avoid making it boring for kids, because we know there’s nothing better for parents than having a relaxed brunch, knowing that the kids are entertained and well taken care of.
We transform our lounge, Touch, into a kids’ paradise during brunch. We have Playstations and Nintendos, which children can play on big screens. For younger kids, we have lots of toys and other activities. There are separate buffets and drinks for kids, as well as the candy store. Our staff is on hand to supervise children as they play.
Is there anything in particular you’d recommend trying at Bubbalicious?
There are a lot of things that Neal and his team have done a fantastic job on, experimenting and creating something different from other brunches. Something that’s getting a positive response is our shooters – they’re basically a combination of cocktails with food, arranged in little shot glasses and served on ice. For example, we do a “tequila sunrise salmon.” We’re mixing and experimenting a lot, as we’re a young team – we love to be innovative and crazy.
Any new dishes to look out for in the coming months?
We want to deliver changes for our regulars. We work a lot with seasonal products, so as the seasons change, we change. We’re also looking into a couple of new experiments, but these will be surprises for the future, so I don’t want to talk about them right now!
It’s the same with the drinks. We’ve just extended our wine selection, and we’re looking at doing the same with beers. Every month we have different offers on beverages.
Any tips on how to get the most enjoyment out of the brunch?
Bring a good appetite and be ready for a lot of fun and great food with friends and family!
Has working on Bubbalicious every week put you off going to brunches yourself?
(Laughs) For sure, it does. Actually, I’m here almost every Sunday. I see my job as similar to hosting a dinner at home for your friends – I like to walk around and say hello to my regulars. I’m a very passionate person when it comes to that. On the other hand, I like to see what our colleagues in other hotels are doing, so sometimes I enjoy a nice brunch in Beijing.
How do you feel once brunch is finished?
Well, the work continues once the guests leave, as there’s lots of cleaning up to do. The team has to get everything back to “normal” and set up for dinner, so it’s hard work.
Personally, I feel really good at the end, because I see a lot of smiley guests leaving the restaurant happy and relaxed. If you’re passionate about what you do, that’s a great gift.
For more information on Bubbalicious, see our list of Beijing’s best brunches.