Shane Osborn’s Arcane
Shane Osborn has been making a name for himself ever since he became the first-ever Australian head chef to propel a restaurant to Michelin-starred status. It was at London’s renowned Pied à Terre, and that was at the tender young age of 29. He then managed to gain a second star before leaving to travel the globe and resurface on Hong Kong’s shores, taking the helm at now-closed St Betty at ifc mall. A few years later, he opened his own restaurant, Arcane, which has gained a following of loyal guests who come for the refined modern European cuisine and stay for the relaxed and friendly environment combined with top service.
Netflix’s The Final Table then came to call, and Chef Osborn wowed the crowds with both his skills and that of his show partner, Mark Best, and their feel-good rapport had viewers rooting for them until the bitter end.
Now, the chef has opened his second Hong Kong restaurant, Cornerstone, just this month. We had a chat with Chef Osborn to discover why he’s opened a second eatery and how Netflix has affected his business.
Tell us about Cornerstone. What’s the idea behind it?
I’ve always wanted to do something like this. When I was in London, Pied à Terre was a very high-end, haute- cuisine, fine-dining type of restaurant. Arcane isn’t – well, I don’t see it as fine dining. It sits below that bracket of fine dining; we’re still doing high-quality food, but in a relaxed environment. I like casual restaurants. I like going out and just having really good produce, cooked very simply, and I think there’s room in the market for that style of restaurant in Hong Kong. You’ve seen a big boom in the past three or four years of very affordable, good-quality restaurants. Cornerstone is going to be one of those where you can go in and have a bowl of pasta or a really nice salad and some charcuterie. We have a wine-by-the-glass programme starting at $70 a glass, filtered water – there’s no bottled water in the restaurant – and it’s just going to be a really casual feel. It’s not a place you go for a three- or four-course tasting menu. You’ll pop in and have a plate of pasta and a nice slice of cheese; it’s really stripped back, very simple, produce-led cuisine. Vegetarian will feature quite heavily, and vegan as well. People just want honest food that they can identify with.
Why have you gone for no reservations with Cornerstone?
Because it’s casual. Where it is on Hollywood Road, it’s a high-traffic area, and you know, one of the problems with running a restaurant is customers not showing up. It’s a problem we all face. We’re 35 seats in Arcane, and sometimes on a Friday night, we’ll get six or eight people not showing up – that’s 25 to 30 per cent of our sales, and it makes a huge difference as you’re operating on very small profit margins. So, Cornerstone being ground floor, it’s only 24 seats, and we just think it’s fairer to have a drop-in system, and that seems to be quite popular at the moment.
How’d you land on Hollywood Road?
We’ve been looking for sites for a year and a half. Finding sites is easy, but finding sites and the right landlord is more difficult. And we’ve got a really good landlord who has been very supportive. It’s a perfect site, and I like small restaurants, a small team in the kitchen, a small team front of house. It’s manageable, it’s very personable, the fit-out is very clean. There are some similarities with Arcane. It’s going to have a nice, casual feel to it.
How has your culinary philosophy evolved?
I’ve just got bored of the fuss and the smoke and mirrors. You know, a lot of the cooking that happens these days, it’s simplicity. Cornerstone is going to be the epitome of simplicity in that we’re sourcing amazing smoked salmon – there is a supplier we use in London called Forman’s, and they smoke this incredible salmon, so we’re just going to do a plate of that with capers and a little bit of salad, and that’s it. We’re using Coeur de Boeuf ox-heart tomatoes – they’ve just come into season – and that will be with pesto, olive oil, salt and pepper. Just simple. Consistency is one thing we’re really hitting for. The chef who’s running it is called Neal Ledesma, and he’s worked with me for five years, since I came to Hong Kong, pretty much. Then front of house is run by Didier Yang. He’s a trained sommelier and an incredible force on the floor. He’s got brilliant knowledge, very enthusiastic, so these two will maintain the running of the business. I’m going to be a presence at Cornerstone, but my face is always at Arcane, and I’ll be there 90 per cent of the time. It’s something new, and it’s nice for the team – it’s an exciting time.
What did you learn from your time at St Betty?
I learned one thing – never go back into a mall, I’ll tell you that much. I would never do anything in a shopping mall ever again in my life. Customers don’t go to malls to eat. It’s a byproduct of being in a shopping mall – they’re shopping, they’ve realised they’re hungry. It’s too diverse a clientele base, the rents are astronomical, they’re very demanding, you don’t have total control over what you do. St Betty was a good learning curve. I deliberately went to St Betty to learn something because my whole career in London was based on fine dining and a 50/60-seat restaurant. At St Betty, we did 400 covers in a day with 15 chefs in the kitchen, so it taught me a lot about organisation, and I got to understand the market here in Hong Kong, the likes and dislikes of the paying guests – it taught me a lot. Some of that knowledge will transfer to Cornerstone as we plan to do brunch or breakfast at the weekends once the business settles down.
What’s the stress level like in the kitchen these days?
I became very sick in 2003 because of stress. I was working way too many hours – it was ridiculous hours. We’d [Pied à Terre] just gotten two stars, so I was pushing the team very hard – not to go for three stars, but just to maintain that standard. Because we were a contemporary restaurant, the menu was changing quite frequently, so we were always trying to do something new and innovative, and with that progression, you’ve got to put the hours in. We’re talking 17 hours, and to go at that pace really took its toll on me.
Are you getting recognised from your time on TV?
People recognise me, in the restaurant, out of the restaurant. I’m pleasantly surprised the effect Netflix has had in Hong Kong. I didn’t think it would have that much of an impact on business or me personally in terms of recognition. But it seems to be quite popular in Hong Kong. I still haven’t watched the whole show. I work six days a week in the kitchen very intensively, so when I’m off, I don’t want to watch a show about cooking. I want to watch something else like a travel show or a great movie. At some point, in a couple of years, I will sit down and watch. It’s also painful to watch yourself on television, hearing your own voice – really, did I say that? But I’ve had a lot of positive feedback, and every day people are wanting to have photographs and talk to me about my experience on the show and what they thought of me and my performance and who should have won. People seem to have invested in the programme quite a lot.
Has the Netflix attention turned into increased bookings?
Business has gone up. Business has been steadily picking up since we opened, and we’re pretty well established now, but the show has had an effect. People who haven’t been here before who have watched the show – I’m standing at the front of the open kitchen, people walk in, and I say, “Hi there, how are you?” and you see this shock on their face, and they jump back and say, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t expect to see you here in the kitchen.” And then we’re having a chat and a photograph, chatting about the show and which episodes they enjoyed. It’s nice.
Is that why you like being in front of people so much now? You were hidden away for so many years in fine-dining kitchens.
It’s just nice having a connection with the customers. At Pied à Terre, I’d come out to see the customers at the end of a meal, but it’s different – you’re in the basement, you’re very sweaty – here it’s a different environment. People see you. We have a lot of regular customers and clientele who have become friends – almost family, really.
Is there a possibility you and Mark might reunite to work together?
Yeah, I mean, Mark and I had an amazing time together. We would meet over the past decade, several times at different award ceremonies, and always click, so when they approached me and asked me if I had a partner in mind, Mark was the only person I wanted to work with. And we met in LA for the screen test and just clicked straight away again – it was great. We just really enjoy each other’s company and respect each other. And I just think, from what I understand, the chemistry comes across really well on camera. So if there is an opportunity for us to do something, we’d jump on it.
What was it like being on set?
The whole Hollywood experience is quite surreal. You know, you’re filming in Sony Studios, which used to be Columbia Pictures. So it’s a big studio lot in Culver City. And, you know, lots of great movies were shot there. And then they have a studio audience there, and they’re cheering you on.
I found it very fascinating to see the behind-the-scenes side of it. My dad was a mechanic, so I like to see all the moving parts. There was over 200 people working on the show. So there’s 24 in the culinary team who looked after all the produce for each episode, and then all the sound technicians. It was just phenomenal to see. The stage was enormous. I still can’t quite believe we did that. It was an amazing experience.
I wouldn’t say nerve-racking, but overwhelming, like sensory overload. Cameras everywhere. And it was also the first series that was ever shot, so it was exhausting because they were still working on fine-tuning everything and how things work in trial runs and stuff like that. So it was a bit of a weird place to cook. It took until about show four or five before we started feeling kind of settled in our work area. There’s no rehearsal time beforehand, you know – it’s just straight in, go for it. I’m very happy I did it, but I wouldn’t do that kind of competition ever again. It was taxing.
And for the finale, you know, you get to work as a team all the way through, and then you have to split off. You get there together, but then I have to try to beat you. I didn’t like that feeling. I would have preferred to go into the final as a team.
As a previous Foodie Forks Food Hero award winner, you champion clean eating and vegan and vegetarian options. Do you think a new wave is approaching for the way things are done within the food industry?
Yeah, I mean, people are pleasantly surprised. If we do tasting menus, which we don’t normally do, but people will ask for the tasting menu a lot of the time, I’ll give them the first three courses vegetarian, and they always come in with, “Wow, I didn’t expect the vegetables to be the highlight of the meal.” You know, they expect it’ll be the Wagyu or the lamb. The perception is always that the meat is going to be the grand finale.
I’m not going to cut out meat completely because I love beef. But I think we need to reduce the amount of meat that we’re consuming. It’s become too accessible. We’re not having bottled water; we’re having a filtration system. For takeaways, we’re looking at eco takeaway containers. There’s a lot for us to do. We’re looking at reducing our carbon footprint, recycling all the bottles and glassware. Unfortunately, I don’t think the government takes it seriously enough here. You know, I lived in Scandinavia in the early 90s, and Scandinavia, even then, they had the most amazing system set up for recycling bottles, plastic, cardboard, and I just can’t understand why rich countries like Hong Kong can’t do that.
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