From courtroom to a la carte
David Yeo, founder and managing director of Aqua Restaurant Group, was a highly successful lawyer before bringing his talents to the food and beverage sector in 2000. A self-taught designer and chef, Yeo has masterminded Aqua's launch of more than 20 restaurants in different parts of the world, including the Michelin-starred Hutong in Hong Kong, and two restaurants and a bar in London. With an exceptional taste in and love of food, Yeo has made Aqua one of the most successful F&B groups in Hong Kong.
Why leave your career in law and move to F&B?
I am very grateful to have been a lawyer but I also wanted to follow my two passions - design and food.
I always liked mucking about with food. I was always doing dinner parties, and everyone would say, 'Your presentation's so crazy, you should open your own restaurant.'
I think I have a talent for cooking. When eating in a dai pai dong, I watched how the chef cooked and so learned to do it myself. I think it is a talent - I watch and I am able to learn.
What's the story behind 'Aqua'?
Food and drink are a basic need. From my point of view, dining should not become such an art form that it becomes inaccessible and irrelevant. We named our group Aqua because we wanted to explore the elements that are basic to cooking - fire and water.
We opted for water because my business partner and I are both mad about the sea and diving.
A trip to Cairo introduced us to the ankh symbol, which is an Egyptian symbol for life. We thought: 'Where there's water, there's life!' And that is how the ankh became the 'q' in our logo. It is a constant reminder to us not to get ahead of ourselves.
What makes a great restaurant?
A great restaurant is all about serving great food and providing outstanding service. You cannot cook good food without decent produce and ingredients. I have total respect for the provenance of the produce.
I believe in letting the natural texture, taste and flavours of ingredients speak for themselves. My job is to tease out the best from them, not make them into something they are not.
Along with fantastic food, attentive but not intrusive service and a great ambience are also key elements. This is the recipe for the success of Aqua Restaurant Group.
What makes your food outstanding?
I want customers to feel that my restaurants are extensions of my home's kitchen. I am very hands-on when it comes to what dishes are going to be served.
What are the challenges of the restaurant business in Hong Kong?
I have spent the past 20 years here, so it makes sense for me to want to operate my restaurants here.
But renting an affordable place is a big problem. It is a shame to see restaurants being pushed out of shopping malls because of unbearably high rents. I have begun exploring the idea of opening restaurants inside office buildings.