We all know Christian Mongendre from the notable restaurants he helped to found like MANA! and HOME – Eat to Live. These dining establishments made an impact with more than just their all-caps monikers; they were also completely ahead of their time. A large pocket of loyal customers honed in and became lunchtime zealots, finally finding spaces that would feed them sustainable, wholesome, natural, vegetarian ingredients that were neither boring nor preachy – just good food that’s also good for you.
Now, Mongendre’s taken the learnings from his previous enterprises and poured them into his newest restaurant, TREEHOUSE – a fast-casual, tech-heavy concept that also happens to be plant based.
We spoke to Mongendre to get the skinny on all the offerings at TREEHOUSE.
The TREEHOUSE founder hopes to create a space that imbues a feeling of nature in the middle of the city
Tell us about TREEHOUSE.
TREEHOUSE is basically where we try to re-implement all the wonderful things that we were trying to do in the past and carry forward some new things. We partnered up with a design studio to really push the boundaries of the sourcing in terms of our eco-materials. And that company really pushed to to have a lot of wonderful new textures and elements that are truly sustainable. That was part of our learning experience, because things in that space sometimes are very hard to adapt to restaurant operation use.
And the technology side, we really want to be a place that appeals to all types of consumers who want to order on their busy schedules. We really understand the Hong Kong market now and the most efficient, convenient way, while staying true to the product that we’re serving.
Do you think that customers are asking different questions now than when you first started MANA!?
Yes, over the years, things have changed exponentially. At the beginning, it was very hard to find things like kale, and now even when you’re at a steakhouse, they will have a kale salad. The supply that we can get is much, much better than before; we can get access to many more products, and there are a lot more organic farmers on the scene, all reflecting that the demand is growing.
Also people's willingness is really increasing – like, this year, zero-waste is a big kind of buzzword, so everyone's aware of the issue now, and all the hotels are changing. It seems that people are making more of a conscious effort and maybe are being more mindful about eating, not just eating anything on any given day, but maybe saying, we only eat meat on weekends or something similar to that.
Like a “flexitarian” stance. Do you view that as a positive label?
Those labels are creating separation between people, and essentially, that’s not what we want. At this stage, we want to be another restaurant option that is appealing to to everyone, not just catering to a certain niche.
In the past, maybe “vegetarian” had some negative connotations, but we need to give people more space to be 99 per cent vegetarian, but then occasionally be allowed to, you know, fuel their body with something that's required. I find that “vegan” labels come with a lot of very serious activism, and and people get turned off by this. In this day and age, we don’t need separation – we need to realise that everything we’re doing is affecting everyone. We all need to eat more plant based; there is no other real solution given to us as humans. So I think the need to go beyond labels is very important now.
I mean, if people have a burger once a week and then they switch to having an Impossible Burger once a week, it’s a good transition. But if I show you my burger, it’s different as I can describe every single one of the fresh ingredients and you can understand them. We are focused on having high-quality ingredients that taste really good and on having wonderful relationships with farmers. We tend to refer to ourselves as a quality-focused restaurant rather than vegetarian or vegan.
Hong Kong is a city that feverishly adopts new food trends – with new concepts from the same genre cropping up all over town within months of each other until you can’t remember what the city looked like before it was dotted with steak-frites eateries, bahn-mi shops, mid-range pasta places and so on. Why do you think vegetarian restaurants have been so much slower to proliferate?
Personally, I know it feels like a very risky business. Especially as we do have very high overheads because we have to pay for the premium ingredients. It’s all wholefoods, so it requires a lot more laborious processes. It’s quite difficult to make it work, make it scalable, to have a good return on this type of food without compromising the quality and integrity of the place. It’s such a competitive environment to operate a business here in Hong Kong, because of the high rents and not having too much power as a tenant. That’s a very, very difficult thing to deal with.
What have you learned from your past restaurants?
When we created the second iteration of MANA! Raw, that was not something I wanted to do per se, but being a partner and being committed to my brand, we took like six months just to kind of understand the psychology and craving and so on. And we created this really, really interesting menu. And, you know, compared to all the restaurants that were doing it around the world, we created a super product we were very proud of, but we would only get like the hardcore clients who were either from overseas and got it right away or people who dealt with health issues and had transitioned to a raw diet. So, basically, I’ve learned that you can create a great product, but the market may not be ready for it. And you have to cook for the market. Then you can just push it a little bit further.
What are you doing differently at TREEHOUSE?
We’re really trying to feel like a treehouse as you walk in, but we’re doing it really technology friendly, so the product comes out really fast. Hopefully, if you’re not busy, then you can come and hang out with us, but if not, you can just pick up at the window. The big changes are that we’re making it even more healthy than what I’ve done in the past in terms of the digestive ability. So instead of having, you know, just normal flatbreads, we’re entering the sourdough space as well, so people can have bread, but it’s much lighter on the stomach with a better use of energy as well as fermented ingredients. You can expect a lot of the same structure of a fast casual that would have burgers and different wraps. You can make your own salad bowls, your own grain bowls. We have a lot of wonderful signature desserts, and most of them are raw because, with desserts, it’s not actually a trade-off; it’s just a wonderful way to bridge the gap overall. It’s a very positive message, very uplifting. It’s a place where we hope it brings people to reconnect with nature as a whole and also kind of builds a community around us.
So there you have it. The food at TREEHOUSE is all completely unprocessed and shaped into wraps, bowls, burgers, salads and sourdough bread, all made using only wholefoods. For drinks, they have cold-pressed juices, cold-brew coffee, smoothies and kombucha, as well as wines and craft beers.
TREEHOUSE will have many of the flavours we miss from HOME, and with all that Mongendre has learned over the past two years, it might be even better.
TREEHOUSE, Shop 1, G/F, H Code, 45 Pottinger Street, Central, 3971 2277
Christian Mongendre will be speaking at the 2019 Food’s Future Summit! Get your tickets now!
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