Travel and Lifestyle Journalist

A Fare of the Heart

Originally published in SCMP, Jan 2012.


A Fare of the Heart

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, Jan 26 2012

Gifted local chefs are breaking free from the restraints of large, well-established restaurants to open their own modest eateries, writes Pavan Shamdasani

Chefs brave enough to follow their dreams and start up their own restaurants need to convince sceptical investors and diners that they have the intelligence and skills to carry it off.

Before former chef Anthony Bourdain become a television personality, he wrote about “owner’s syndrome” in his tell-all book, Kitchen Confidential.

“To want to own a restaurant can be a strange and terrible affliction,” Bourdain writes, adding the odds of success in the business are about one in five.

But those who beat the odds did so with “a simple, straightforward concept: a bar with decent food, or a simple country Italian restaurant or a bistro loved for its lack of pretension.”

We can all name a restaurant in Hong Kong that fits the bill: the little corner kitchen you go to a couple times a week; that weekend spot where your friends meet for a chat and a bite.

And for five Hong Kong-based chefs who’ve previously worked for some of the biggest names in the world, that’s exactly what they have been hoping to achieve.

Some of them might be familiar to you: Yardbird in Sheung Wan is the hottest table in town, its Japanese izakaya/yakitori blend garnering endless praise for former Zuma chef Matt Abergel; Madam Sixty Ate on Wan Chai’s burgeoning Johnston Road allows chef Chris Woodyard (previously of Hong Kong’s W Hotel) to indulge in modern European cuisine; and Jeremy Biasiol’s decade-long stint at Alain Ducasse’s restaurants has practically given him a licence to serve contemporary French dishes at The Mirror.

Others might be new to you: the owners at ABC Kitchen in the Queen’s Street Cooked Food Centre mimic menus from the defunct M at the Fringe, and at the newly opened ChomChom on Wellington Street, former Caprice chef Peter Cuong Franklin serves traditional pho with a modern twist.

These restaurants have some things in common: there are no formal dress codes or turning tables to restrict patrons from the entire experience; the menus constantly change according to the chef’s interests and inspirations; and most importantly, they’re all run by highly experienced restaurateurs who are putting their strong personalities into the atmosphere and the cuisine.

The exodus of chefs from the anonymous kitchens of larger restaurants to the cramped-but-creative confines of smaller eateries might seem strange to those in different fields. But for a true chef, there’s no other way.

“When I was an apprentice at M at the Fringe, I saw chefs restricted from creating their own dishes because of the risks involved for the restaurant,” says Jack Yau at ABC Kitchen. “Now that I have my own restaurant, I can do what I like. Money is only part of owning a restaurant; the diners are the most important aspect.”

Abergel says: “Chefs are independent and creative people by nature who, no matter their profile, all dream of opening their own restaurants. I have all the freedom in the world because no one is looking over my shoulder. And fortunately, people are starting to seek out more honest dining experiences.”

Most chefs who have gone it alone agree that this trend stems from a wider global interest in great cuisine that does away with all the extras. It’s created an environment where chefs can open modest restaurants and offer food that is high-quality and reasonably priced.

“Over the past seven to 10 years, diners have become more interested in the food and less with the frills that go with it. This has allowed many chefs to concentrate on what they do best – cook,” says Woodyard. “Customers do not come to Madam Sixty Ate with expectations of marble pillars, waiters in white gloves or food that has been prepared in the same French way for the past 25 years. They expect a more interesting approach.”

However, it isn’t easy for aspiring restaurateurs to strike out on their own in an extremely expensive city like Hong Kong, where space is at a premium. Most ventures will require financial backers, who are naturally wary of the risks given the high rate of failure.

“Hong Kong is one of the most vibrant and exciting culinary cities in the world. But the restaurant scene here in dominated by profit-driven restaurant groups turning out solid but uninteresting food,” says Franklin. “A true chef is creative by nature and more humble eateries have relatively less financial constraints that allow them to take risks in creating their vision.”

Franklin’s ChomChom has tackled the problem with a small space on the second floor of a building in Central, while Yardbird opened on a sleepy street in Sheung Wan. ABC Kitchen took the most original approach by opening in a cooked food centre.

“I believe ABC is Hong Kong’s first fine dining restaurant in a food stall,” Yau says.

For others that are suffering the exorbitant rents and limited leases, Hong Kong does offer benefits that other cities don’t. Biasiol marks the arrival of the Michelin Guide in 2008 as a turning point as it gave chefs the opportunity to raise their personal profiles. Also, local markets sell delicacies such as frogs’ legs and pigeon at a fraction of their imported price.

But culinary freedom also has its drawbacks. Pandering to Hong Kong’s Michelin critics often scares them away (think of all the French restaurants without stars, and the Chinese dai pai dongs with), while overloading menus with creative cuisine might have the same effect on diners. Handled the wrong way, it can be a recipe for disaster – which is where experience comes in.

Each of the five chefs has spent a decade toiling away in large kitchens. They have learned the intricacies of certain cuisines, and about finding a balance between simple and extravagant, clientele and critic and, most importantly, between chef and businessman.

“We were told many times before we opened that Hong Kong diners are not interested in change and we have to keep things very simple or the clientele will not get it,” says Woodyard. “If you are making profit and are putting bums on seats, you can cook whatever you want. However, as a business person you need to show restraint. You must connect with the customer; once they trust you, they will eat anything you suggest.”

Franklin understands this better than anyone: an investment banker for decades, he left his finance career to train at Le Cordon Bleu before working at half a dozen of the world’s finest restaurants.

“To maintain Michelin-star standards of quality, a chef must not overstretch, otherwise the team cannot execute properly,” he says. “I have seen high-end restaurants where chefs attempt a menu beyond the capability of the kitchen, and the food fails to meet expectations”

But if the positive reviews and full weekend bookings are to be trusted, each restaurant is beginning to find that balance, with the chefs confident about going it alone. They hope their risks and achievements will be an inspiration to others in the industry.

“I was a culinary teacher for two years and I opened The Mirror to give a chance to young chefs who no one really believed in,” says Biasiol. “I’ve tried to show them that cooking is a question of passion, devotion and love, and that when you want something, you can do it. I feel many will open their own little restaurant some day.”

Woodyard says young chefs in Hong Kong aren’t encouraged to express their creativity, and that it’s exciting to see their personal growth when you give them opportunities.

“But you’re more likely to see established mature chefs going it alone than the youth,” he says. “A seasoned chef has often held esteemed positions and knows more of what they are giving up. It is the love that is still driving them, not the financial desire or fame.”

In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes “the most dangerous species of owner … is the one who gets into the business for love.” Each of these chefs has opened a restaurant based on their love of food – but despite the freedoms, it’s still a volatile industry of finicky diners, expensive rents, small spaces and overblown restaurant groups.

For their sake – and the sake of all of us who appreciate great food – here’s hoping the cynics are wrong.