In Conversation with The Entourage Group's Yossi Eliyahoo | Supper Magazine
Published by suppermagazine.co.uk, July 2018
Yossi Eliyahoo, founder and co-owner of the Entourage Group, sheds light on the creative process underpinning trailblazing restaurant brands Izakaya, The Butcher and The Duchess.
It’s a blazing hot day on Ibiza. Naysayers may scoff at such a superfluous statement but this chunk of Balearic rock has been uncharacteristically plagued by heavy clouds of late, so cerulean skies and sunshine are welcome respite. I’m sat on the outdoor terrace of IZAKAYA - which opened in the grounds of Ibiza’s most cosmopolitan hotel, Sir Joan, back in 2017 - waiting for Yossi Eliyahoo, founder of The Entourage Group, and brains behind the Asian-inspired restaurant. When he arrives he’s clad in a baseball cap and sunglasses, totally at ease with the island’s soaring temperatures and his surroundings - he spent last summer here overseeing the opening of the venue. “Last summer in Ibiza is very blurry for me,” he admits once he’s sunk into a seat, a faint Israeli lilt detectable in his tone. It’s comforting to know that even a man as composed as him can’t escape the infamously epicurean clutches of the white isle, nevertheless, you sense he’s seldom flustered - it would probably take more than a muggy day to ruffle his feathers.
Born and raised in Tel Aviv, Eliyahoo grew up in a house he describes as a hive of activity. Even as a wide-eyed kid at knee-height to his mother and grandmother, he recalls “there were always lots of pots of food cooking”, and although he says his family didn’t play a direct role in the forging of his hospitality career, perhaps this is what sowed the initial seeds deep beneath his skin. Because by the age of 13 he was already balancing school life with working in a restaurant, and once he stepped foot over that high energy threshold, he never looked back. “It was very natural for me to get a job in restaurants as a teenager,” he muses. “I’m a sociable person so I was excited to go and meet older people and to learn from them. I worked five nights a week when I was at school.” And that’s not aggrandisement. By 16 - barely any fuzz on his face - he was running his first kitchen. “I liked the buzz; I liked the action,” he laughs. “Eventually it just took over my life.”
Needless to say, Eliyahoo went on to found what is widely considered one of the most successful food and beverage services in Europe. En route racking up a string of achievements including opening a handful of restaurants in Tel Aviv, the lucrative launch of concept restaurant Chino Latino across several cities in the UK, and earning the respected title of ‘Hospitality Entrepreneur of 2015’, arguably it’s with The Entourage Group that he really sealed his reputation for unrivalled chutzpah when it comes to calculated risk. Then again, when you’ve worked your way up through every rung of the ladder it’s less gamble and more opportunity. “In any business, you need to know everything,” he explains. “By learning every aspect of what I do it gives me more tools to succeed. I’ve been there and done it myself so I know exactly what I’m asking my team and I know what to expect.” There's little margin for error - Eliyahoo expects as close to perfection as possible, from himself and others. It’s an unrelenting attitude that’s less surprising when you consider The Entourage Group has multiple projects and venues across five cities to shelter beneath its sprawling umbrella.
The Entourage Group comprises six entirely distinct brands: MOMO - the group’s trailblazing Asian restaurant, Izakaya - an Asian fusion sensation, The Butcher - a high-end burger bar, The Duchess - luxury fine dining, Mr Porter - a swankier version of a traditional steakhouse, and Mad Fox, an underground, New York-inspired club space. All originated in Amsterdam (though some have since been wheeled out across Europe) and all are credited with inciting a dramatic shift in the Dutch capital’s dining scene. MOMO, housed within the refurbished Park Hotel, was the group’s inaugural outing: “That restaurant really changed Amsterdam,” Eliyahoo contemplates. “People didn’t know how to take it, but it was still successful from day one. Within a year we were working on the next projects - we developed many things in parallel.”
What made MOMO such a shock to the already sophisticated Dutch system? Probably Eliyahoo’s bold, brazen approach to dining. Gone were stuffy rooms, closed kitchens and stagnant bars, and in their place came stripped back space, exposed kitchens and 360-degree bars designed specifically to encourage maximum social interaction. “The 360-degree bar is in our DNA,” he explains. “We want everything to be open - everyone to see and be seen. It’s sexier and much more fun that way.” And he’s right of course, such an instinctive approach to socialising has its merits - it’s far easier to strike up a conversation with a stranger when you're not faced with a wall of bottles (they’re not known as pick-up bars for nothing). Consequently, the 360-degree bar is a feature of many of The Entourage Group’s locations, each serving as the focal point around which the coquettish action swirls.
And that’s not the only ground-breaking feature the venues spearheaded. Eliyahoo has stringent rules when it comes to design, and he’s been militant in ensuring every aspect of his visions are brought assiduously to life. “We expose everything if we can,” he says. “Why would we build a wall in front of the kitchen where all these beautiful, skilled people are working? It makes no sense. And let’s put people in the same room together, that stops everyone wondering what’s going on in the next room!” These tried and tested concepts may not sound particularly revolutionary now - we’ve all experienced the hustle they create in full flow - but a decade ago they shook up a stagnant Amsterdam landscape, and since then they’ve become the mould many have followed - further proof of Eliyahoo’s so-called risks paying off. “When you go out it should be to dress up, to eat food you don’t cook at home, and to hear music you don’t have at home,” he declares matter of factly. “These days you can order pretty much anything to your sofa but if you’re going on a night out, you put the effort in. We want people to walk out with a good feeling, and that way we make sure they’ve plenty of reasons to come back.”
And people do keep coming back, time and time again. It’s no accident that in the decade since MOMO was launched, four branches of Izakaya have opened in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Ibiza and Munich, five outlets of The Butcher followed in Amsterdam, Berlin and Ibiza, and the launches of The Duchess, Mr Porter and Mad Fox have all been wildly successful. Eliyahoo put weight behind a formula that worked, trusted his instincts and resolutely ran with it -for him there was never room for any doubt. Nevertheless, many visionaries benefit from being able to bounce ideas off those with complementary skillsets and for him, it came in the form of business partner Liran Wizman, who also heads up the Europe Hotels Private Collection, and with a range of astutely stylish hotels to his name (W Amsterdam, Park Hotel, and the SIR Hotels brand among them), sourced the ultimate locations for a flourishing partnership. “Liran comes to me with an idea as a restaurateur and his partner, and I decide if it’s something we can make work together. We’ve worked together for a long time - if I don’t see it, he doesn’t question it. He’s very good at what he does, and I have the same vision with restaurants.”
Indeed, delve beneath the cool exterior of Eliyahoo’s dynamic creations and it’s as though all the characters he’s conjured as the face of The Entourage Group brands have been running about his head for years, ready to pop onto the page fully formed. “Most of the time, I sit with a piece of blank paper in front of me,” he explains. “And then I start to describe who and what the concept is. So with MOMO for example, I knew I wanted it to be an Asian restaurant but I wanted it to be different, more fresh. So I came up with MOMO, which comes from Momoko, a Japanese ladies’ name that means blossom or peach. I used the name as a starting point and its meaning is reflected in both the restaurant’s elegant design and the menu.” He confesses he follows this process for each new culinary adventure, emphatic that having an established character plays a pivotal role in the design, which in turn affects every element of the experience. “A lot of people design places without thinking about the concept,” he says. “People don’t realise that every little detail matters.”
But Eliyahoo does, and so he chuckles when I ask if he’d ever consider a project in which the space had already been designed. “No, no, no, absolutely not,” he affirms with an definitive shake of the head. “How are you going to design the kitchen if you don’t know what you’re going to cook!? You need to know the menu before you build the kitchen. Then you have to think about the tables, the glassware, the cutlery. Everything goes hand in hand, everything has a reason.” There’s no doubt this certainty of spirit comes from experience, but there seems more to it than that. Eliyahoo’s assuredness appears intricately woven into his being - he exudes an innate perception that gives him a level of foresight not bestowed on other restaurateurs. “People think a bar is a bar, a chair is a chair, a kitchen is a kitchen - it’s not,” he continues. “I’m 45 now and I’ve been working in the industry since I was 13, I’ve learnt a lot in that time.”
You needn’t look far to find the fruits of this experience - it’s visible in the minutiae of each of his restaurants, and in the brands themselves as a whole. Big characters they may be, but each is wonderfully diverse and very much sings to its own tune. “Look at all our brands and none of them are alike,” he emphasises. “They have their own identity. Nothing on the menu is the same, the plates aren’t the same, the wine list is different. I don’t want people to have the same experience if they go to all of our properties. Absolutely everything should be distinctive.” Consider the sumptuous decadence of THE DUCHESS and the tongue-in-cheek brazenness of THE BUTCHER for evidence that all his carefully created characters offer contrasting levels of hospitality to their diners.
So with these brands alive and kicking, and their future prosperity as vivid as their spirited personalities, Eliyahoo ponders briefly on what’s next for The Entourage Group. “I learnt in life never to look too far ahead, so I take things step by step,” he says before reeling off a list of plans most people would need more than a lifetime to complete. “I'm working on Barcelona with Liran, which will open next year. And then Milan,” he explains. “We’ve worked out the layout and that’s the most crucial step, but it was already a great opportunity, venue and location.” We’ll be seeing more of The Butcher, too - he’s taking his Aberdeen Angus-loving friend international. “We plan to have 80 sites of The Butcher in the next five years,” he says earnestly. “This is one of our brands that we can easily duplicate without compromising on quality.” And there’s another character in the works as well, this time of Italian heritage. “We’ve got a pizza concept called Tony Loco launching in Amsterdam in a few months’ time,” he smiles. “Huge, 50cm-long pizzas with big, thin slices.” Whatever he decides to throw his energies into next, one thing’s for certain - he’ll keep plotting his path, refusing to kowtow to the pressures of passing trends. “I’m happy to invest in chic, modern places, but trends come and go,” he ponders. “I want to build things that have a strong base; things that stand the test of time and will still be relevant 10 years from now.” Judging by his track record, he looks well on course for that.