Hatched in the plotting shed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am


Restaurateurs Todd Darling and Robert Spina have been playing by their own rules since they were five years old. 'We always schemed in one way or another, in some shape or form,' grins Spina. Fast-forward to present day and not much has changed. The pair are still plotting except this time instead of taking to the playgrounds of New York, they are shaking things up in the Hong Kong dining scene.

Masterminds behind the hugely successful Italian restaurant Posto Pubblico in Central, the childhood friends have embarked on two new ventures. Earlier this year they opened Linguini Fini, another Italian eatery and Cantopop, also in Central, a modernised cha chaan teng. At first glance the three appear to be ordinary establishments but the difference lies in the kitchen. Each restaurant uses handpicked organic ingredients, 95 per cent of which are sourced from local farms. In a city where the vast majority of food is imported, theirs is a refreshingly unorthodox approach.

'The industry here needs to grow and mature,' says Darling. 'And we very much believe in disruptive ideas.' Although the sustainable-food movement swept across the United States and Europe years ago, the concept of locally grown foods has yet to take hold in Hong Kong. According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, a mere 2.5 per cent of fresh vegetables consumed in the city came from local farms last year.

To date there is only a small pocket of locavore restaurants in the city's culinary landscape. Low- to mid-priced eateries in Hong Kong tend to rely on mass-imported food from China and the United States. 'The majority of it comes from blind sourcing - a supplier walks into your store with a piece of paper and what is typical here is you don't ask anything beyond that,' explains Darling.

Unwilling to participate in the conventional food system, he went in search of local produce. When Darling discovered there was no infrastructure connecting farmers to consumers, he drove to the farmland of the New Territories himself. Initially he faced language barriers and struggled to gain the trust of farmers. 'It was really hard to convince them that indeed I would come back next Tuesday to buy 20 kilos of eggplant and they shouldn't sell it on Sunday,' he says. 'But nothing we do is easy. From a competitive standpoint that's what builds uniqueness.' In 2009, when their first restaurant Posto Pubblico opened, Darling would drive to the farms at 7am several times a week to gather ingredients. By early afternoon, he would pull up in front of the restaurant with produce spilling out from the seats of his convertible. 'He was filling his car with vegetables and it was a nice car,' laughs Spina.

The restaurant enjoyed overnight success and the pair decided to form a company, Integrated Hospitality Management (IHM). With Linguini Fini and Cantopop in the pipeline, it became clear that they needed to hire a truck and driver. Equipped with more staff, it seemed only logical to explore other opportunities in the market. By 2010 they formed Homegrown Foods, the city's first online home delivery service for locally farmed vegetables. Darling describes the produce as 'clean', meaning that no synthetic pesticides or chemicals are used in the fields.

Inside the warm brick interior of Posto Pubblico, baskets of these vegetables rest on the bar revealing their farm-to-table approach. Darling explains, 'The further away you get from the produce's ripening stage, the less flavour it has.' Yet the pair avoid branding their restaurants as part of the sustainable food movement. 'You won't see it necessarily flashed on the menus. We don't stick it in people's faces that we use local organic ingredients,' he says. At heart, Spina and Darling are two friends who sought to bring the culinary traditions of their childhood to Hong Kong.

Coming from a large Italian family, Spina had 25 cousins and Darling was automatically counted as one of them. They both did stints as waiters in Spinas' grandparents' restaurants, established in the forties. When their shifts finished, the pair would spend hours in similar neighbourhood joints or osterias. Posto Pubblico literally translates to public place, as they wanted their restaurant to share the communal atmosphere of old-school osterias.

Although new to Hong Kong, the concept hit the ground running. Posto Pubblico became one of the city's most talked about restaurants and places to be seen. Meanwhile, Darling and Spina were thrilled to be reviving memories of their youth: 'We could play 90s hip hop music which is what we grew up listening to when we went around the city just being typically misbehaved - veal meatballs with Biggie Smalls playing in the background was a big part of growing up,' says Darling.

'That's what keeps it special to this day, that we can go in there and instil that in our staff,' adds Spina who describes their approach as counter-culture. While many of their peers in the industry impose a 10 per cent service charge, Spina and Darling decided to buck the trend. Their restaurants have no add-on service charge, which they believe fosters hospitality. By allowing waiters to earn their own tips, they are motivated to provide better service. Although many presume that Hongkongers are reluctant to tip, the numbers prove otherwise. The waiters in Posto Pubblico earn an average of HK$30,000 per month, approaching double the salary of some managers.

Between Darling's prior experience at the Pure Group and Wagyu Restaurant and Spinas' knowledge of Italian heritage cuisine, the pair know their territory. A keen eye on the market led them to come up with Linguini Fini, Posto Pubblico's cheaper cousin. Their customer base was so strong that they were able to dispense with a formal reservation system and implement a first come, first served policy. What they term a 'premium casual' restaurant, it offers freshly made pasta and quality ingredients at a low price. Added innovations included pastas inspired by local ingredients such as dried shrimp or Chinese olive.

While they admit that the cost of land in Hong Kong puts a premium on their organic produce, Spina and Darling keep costs down by managing portions and wastage.

'If you look at the economics of that business compared to a lot of other similar concepts, you'll find pound for pound its up there on the top,' says Darling. 'We have a higher food cost than competitors but we believe in investing in our customers today in order to see return tomorrow.'