Back in 2012, Alicia Walker interviewed four key players in the F&B industry in Hong Kong. Two were brand new that year, and all have prevailed as heavy hitters who’ve helped frame Asia’s dining scene. We resume the conversation now, six years later, to get a feel for the waves of change and how these pioneers have ridden them.
Bonnae Gokson has just celebrated 10 years since opening her revered restaurant SEVVA. She also founded Ms B’s CAKERY and C’est La B, both known for their show-stopping confections.
What she said six years ago: “I've always remained true to my philosophy of using the best-quality produce, which is already halfway to creating a good dish. I also source from around the world to bring in the best from small farms and places that respect and honour organic farming.
Even for a simple bowl of wontons, we prepare everything the ‘slow food’ way with a great deal of effort, making the stock and taking care in every step to make it good, wholesome and delicious. It’s not just dining; it’s about the whole experience of a great lifestyle savoured with all the senses.
But in Hong Kong’s future, I foresee foods that are less fussy and heavy. Also, good classics revisited and more ways to present small plates to share other than Spanish tapas. And I can see a more relaxed plate with different textures to the bite, with the Americanisation and Asianisatian of sauces.”
Now, in 2018, Gokson has seen many food trends come and go. She says, “The cycle of trends has always been a fickle business. I see more mindfulness in people’s diets, eating much more vegetables, grains and pulses. More biodynamically grown, if possible. Asian flavour inspirations will be even bigger. Food is too much handled for prettying up as art these days; it will go back to more wholesome basics. Perhaps in a dish that normally has 80 per cent meat or protein in it with 20 per cent vegetables, it will go the reverse for a healthier way of eating. Vegetables will be higher. In fact, this is the way Koreans, Japanese and rural Chinese in different provinces have eaten for decades. Eating healthy and wealthy will be trendy too.”
SEVVA remains as prominent and relevant as ever, a remarkable achievement after a decade in business. Gokson says that her lasting appeal has nothing to do with being the latest thing, explaining, “I do not follow trends. The most important thing is having the passion for the biz and being hands on at every level. I have led my team and steered the brand around countless pitfalls. I’ve remained very responsible and accountable with everything at the same time throughout these years, managing to inspire, encourage and motivate my team. I think these are some of the reasons for our success, as we are like a family.”
Yardbird exploded onto the dining scene in 2012 with a cool factor that included a no-reservations policy, no service charge and a focus on friendly, welcoming servers. It remains one of the best restaurants in the city and a trusted favourite of Hong Kongers, thanks to founder Lindsay Jang and her team.
What she said six years ago: “I think food trends are interesting, because I feel like they stem from people in the industry being inspired by each other. In the future, I see F&B spots being opened and run by the owners. And I hope to see more mom-and-pop shops in Hong Kong, rather than large restaurant groups. I see customers becoming more discerning and, in turn, demanding better products and better service.“
Fast-forward six years and Jang says she’s seen a transformation in the dining scene here. “I've seen a shift to a more casual, Western-style way of dining. It seems a lot more social. It changes so fast. The cost of doing business here is very high, so you see a lot of turnover in spaces. The world is just getting smaller and smaller because of social media. Global is local and vice versa. Everyone is being inspired by each other; it’s cool to watch. I think we’re reaching a point of market saturation, so it will be interesting to see who lasts in the game. We definitely take care of the people in our industry and in our neighbourhood. Having mutual respect and admiration for others in the F&B scene automatically makes you part of the community.”
Jang’s advice to budding restaurateurs? “The most important thing I’ve learned over the past seven years is to be prepared. Don’t rush into it. Make sure you’ve actually worked in the industry for 10+ years. Do your homework, have a plan, understand the risks.”
Michelle Garnaut opened M at the Fringe back in 1989, where it operated within HK’s iconic Fringe Club for 20 years before she shut up shop and focused on her restaurants in Shanghai (M on the Bund, M Glam) and Beijing (Capital M, which is in the process of moving). Garnaut paved the way for independent fine dining in Hong Kong that fuses Western and Chinese cuisine and continues to pioneer a movement of community-focused restaurants in China. She has founded a literacy and music festival in Shanghai and is the co-founder of the Village People Project, which improves the lives and health of villagers and promotes educating girls in rural China. She also spearheads Mentor Walks, which also operates in Hong Kong, where up-and-coming professional women can seek advice from experienced mentors.
What she said six years ago: “We had M at the Fringe for 20 years when they began renovating and we lost the lease. It was hard closing and so emotional. We weren't just a restaurant; we were a very big part of the community. We are always looking for a new location in Hong Kong, but we’ve almost built ourselves into a corner. Our Beijing location overlooks Tiananmen Square, and of course we’re on the Bund in Shanghai, so we have a reputation for being in remarkable positions and doing outstanding things. Being a part of the community is part of the business; it’s in our DNA. One of the disappointing things for me is that many restaurants around the world are being taken over by a few restaurant groups and it’s a brand. There aren’t even any people who are connected with the place. I’m distressed about this trend taking over. In the future, I think the small plates and the sharing that’s better value for money will come back at some point. I think there will be a bit of a backlash to good, old-fashioned food. I've been through that a few times in more than one city. We just want good cooking and straightforward food. Food is one part of a restaurant, but not the only part. A restaurant is entertainment, fun, a good atmosphere and good food.”
Now, celebrating 20 years with M On the Bund, Garnaut says the evolution of the dining scene in Shanghai has been similar to that of Hong Kong. “There was no independent dining scene when we opened. There were half a dozen that you could classify as a restaurant and not a cafeteria and nothing outside local cuisine of dumplings and noodles. There were perhaps 40 or 50 free-standing restaurants, and now there are 250,000. So the growth has been astronomical. There was nothing else on the Bund, so everyone thought we were crazy. People now say it was a no-brainer, but it wasn’t then.
The other restaurants started to open around us after about five years – I couldn’t believe it took so long. I started going in 1995 when Hong Kong was still booming, but I felt it was only smart to go into China, which had the potential to be a really big deal if it did work, and it did work. It’s not an easy business. It’s long, demanding hours and the public constantly criticising you. It also has an element of fashion to it. Every food trend in the world is happening in China. It’s very progressive. You can get any cuisine in Shanghai, any international and all the regions too, from Yunnan and Hunan to the Uyghur community of Xinjiang. I always hated the term, but now I think most food is fusion. It’s the availability of the produce. It was so thin on the ground back then. The change is just beyond imagination.”
When asked whether she is doing things differently than six years ago, Garnaut explains, “Yes, of course. Restaurants are not static things. It might look similar, but we tweak, change things, change attitudes. We’ve kept the name and consistency and a style of food, and our food has grown, respecting areas and traditional cuisines. Always progressing. The job of restaurants in the modern world is to be a place of goodwill, a meeting of minds and bodies that are fed well, but also feeding minds as well. We do an enormous amount of community work and engagement.
Restaurants are the modern temple. I know from closing two restaurants that it’s such an emotional thing. For many people, it’s memories. Closing M at the Fringe was so hard. There’s an emotional connection that people have with the space. I wouldn’t close off the idea [of opening again in Hong Kong], but now it’s the time for young people. I was arrogant with my ideas then – I didn’t care if you didn't like it. And you have to have that. You can’t please everybody.”
We first met founder Malcolm Wood in 2012 following the opening of three concepts: nightclub PLAY, obscurely set up in a nondescript terrace in LKF, Blue, a restaurant that was then thought too far down Hollywood Road for diners to venture, and Brickhouse, hidden down an LKF alleyway. Maximal Concepts have since become synonymous with making difficult locations work to their advantage.
Talking to Wood now, he reflects, “PLAY was one of the first things that we did, and then Blue Butcher and Brickhouse. So it was those three things at the same time and there was no one to judge us by, really, six years ago. But, today, there are hundreds of people to judge us by. So the learning curve is we need to keep doing something different, and we have to break the trail to stay relevant. One thing we do differently as a group than others, I think, is we have confidence in our concepts, and therefore we’ve always taken hard spaces.”
What he said six years ago: “I believe in farm-to-table eating. You can’t beat fresh ingredients and well-treated livestock. Our farm-to-table ethics and simple but great food make Blue Butcher stand out. We believe that each ingredient should be well sourced, full of flavour and allowed to speak for itself. We incorporate a few molecular techniques with the food we like to eat, week in and week out. I think Hong Kong lacks good produce that can be found in cities like London, Paris and New York, in farmers’ markets. Hong Kong locals are starting to realise this, and we are seeing more people trying to get this message across. I like to eat at restaurants where the ingredients are fresh and not messed around with too much. I hope we see more restaurants like this down the road, and I think we are ready for it here. I think that molecular dining has been the rage in Hong Kong recently, and rightly so. It’s an art form, but sometimes this food is just not what we crave. Appetite is all about fulﬁlling what you crave, and this is, more often than not, home cooking.”
Today, his portfolio has grown to include Limewood, Stockton and international branches of Mott 32, as well as more off-piste undertakings like the gourmet hot dogs and cocktails at Roomsbar within LKF’s Emperor Cinema, the upmarket Flawless spa, also in LKF, the cars-and-cuisine concept of Mercedes me Store and the eclectic food-court offerings at Macau’s Studio City. Wood says, “We’ve seen a huge amount of restaurants open up over the past six years, of many different types of concepts, many different people giving it a go. And a lot of people learning from each other. I still think it’s incredibly difficult to get really good farmed and grown products in Hong Kong. I think, just the nature of what we are, as a city in the tropics, it’s not that we can’t get them – it’s that they are extremely expensive.
It’s quite difficult to run a good restaurant in the city. And with property prices and rentals moving in a constant upward direction, it’s still a very difficult industry to get correct. I think we’ve definitely seen an explosion over the past six years. I think it’s probably one of the biggest restaurant booms I’ve ever seen in a city. I think what we’re going to see is sort of a destabilisation of these larger, older groups that haven’t been able to keep up with this wave of smaller, more bespoke, creative restaurants that have come up. But I also think we’re going to see a new wave of luxury restaurants. As we are seeing this boom with F&B, we are seeing a boom with hospitality, and we are seeing that across the spectrum, so I think there’s going to be a high demand for luxury as well as bespoke in the future.”
A risk-taker by nature, Wood is also co-founder of an adventure paragliding equipment company, but has kept a prudent portfolio during the restaurant recession of the past two years, saying, “Fundamentally, we’re doing the same thing; we’re opening up restaurants we like. We’re being extremely cautious where we go and what we do. We’ve not closed anything down except Double D in Hong Kong. We have a very good understanding of the locations we are in, the demographic of customers we have; we’re very cautious. We just fundamentally do the same thing that we’ve been doing from day one, with the same beliefs. We haven’t strayed far from that, and I attribute that to our success.”
Wood’s advice to up-and-coming restaurateurs? “You have to be as creative with your spreadsheet as with your ideas. I don’t care what the idea is – you’ve got to come up with the numbers first.”
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