Hong Kong gets a taste of Indonesian design and flavours with a twist

A joint venture between Indonesian entrepreneur Ronald Akili and Hong Kong restaurateur Yenn Wong, quirky Potato Head project in Sai Ying Pun combines retailing, dining and a music room

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 6:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 5:54pm

With so many new restaurants opening across Hong Kong, it takes something special to stand out from the crowd. But Indonesian entrepreneur Ronald Akili, 34, is used to pushing the envelope, and his latest venture, an 8,000 sq ft restaurant-bar-music room project in Sai Ying Pun, doesn’t disappoint.

“A great restaurant is more than just food,” he says. “For us, it starts with finding a good location … and it is very important to deliver authenticity.”

The ground floor of the building – which has been overhauled with a design by award-winning Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto – has a retail space selling a collection of handcrafted local and Indonesian artisanal products; a modern Indonesian dining space called Kaum (meaning “tribe” in Bahasa Indonesia) with chef Antoine Audran and gastronomy activist Lisa Virgiano at the helm; an all-day café and bar; and the company’s branded “I Love You So” coffee counter.

Newly opened Kaum at Potato Head in Sai Ying Pun – authentic Indonesian cuisine

Tucked away at the rear of the building is a listening area called The Music Room, which the owners hope will become a destination for vinyl collectors and audiophiles.

The venture, a partnership between PTT Family (which Akili founded in 2010 with long-time friend Jason Gunawan) and local restaurateur Yenn Wong of JIA Group, features Potato Head’s idiosyncratic take on Indonesian style: a glass façade etched with the pattern of a classic Hong Kong window frame to blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor street life; along with a quirky blend of vintage and local Indonesian-designed chairs, suspended steel cubes overflowing with miniature gardens; and a striking ceiling of panels embellished with hand-painted decorations by villagers in South Sulawesi.

Favourite restaurants of Yenn Wong, Hong Kong hotelier, restaurateur and entrepreneur

Akili says the company’s distinctive Indonesian design aesthetic is the result of years spent dreaming about the hospitality business, spurred on by his globetrotting family and father, the founder of Smailing Tour whose by-appointment-only Akili Museum of Art showcases contemporary art within a Balinese-style residential compound in Jakarta.

Aikili recalls being obsessed with the idea of owning a hotel as far back as fourth grade when, at his school’s talent competition, he produced a sketch of house that he envisaged as a hotel.

“I wish I still had it,” he says. “Everyone else wanted to be a pilot or doctor, but I was always interested in the hotel business.”

The first chance to put his creative stamp on a development project came after attending entrepreneurial studies in Hawaii and undertaking an internship at a property development company in Jakarta.

“Jakarta is such a hectic, vibrant city; it can get quite intense because there are not many green spaces, so I decided to build something that would be a sanctuary.”

From the start he eschewed the usual way of doing things, deciding instead to employ a group of 10 local architects to help define a new vision of modern Indonesian architecture at his Tanah Teduh residential complex in south Jakarta, using locally made materials and infusing the traditional vernacular with a fresh contemporary aesthetic.

His foray into the restaurant world came about as he prepared to marry Sandra Budiman, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. The first Potato Head restaurant opened in Jakarta’s Pacific Place mall in 2009, with quirky interiors by Indonesian architect Andra Matin. Think Dutch-colonial shutters, farm tractor seats as bar stools, and striking wall murals by artist Eko Nugroho.

Several iterations followed its huge success, reflecting the company’s quintessential studied unstudiedness.

“We have had to change the structure from a mom-and-pop store and that is why, when we made a holding company, I wanted family on the end of the name as a reminder that however big we are, we will be a family project,” says Akili, a father of three young children.

Earlier this year in Bali, the company unveiled its first hotel, Katamama, designed by Andra Matin and Singapore-based interior designer Takenouchi Webb, to showcase Indonesia’s artisanal expertise with Balinese bricks and handmade Javanese tiles.

A second hotel project, designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA, is due to be completed in 2018, while Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan has been enlisted to design a third (scheduled for 2019).

“We chose them not because they are celebrated architects,” Akili says. “We want good design because we like it not because of a name.”

Akili believes that the collaborative partnership between experienced architects and PTTs in-house creative team has helped to retain the company’s ethos of heritage, contemporary architecture and whimsical storytelling moments.

“It also means we do things that we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. That is our secret ingredient: ‘soul’. For example, I had no idea of how difficult it would be to commission 1.7 million handmade bricks for the hotel,” he says, laughing. “But I wanted to challenge the whole idea of five-star hotel ratings by looking at it in a fresh way.”

The beautifully turned out 58-suite hotel is decorated with pieces from his personal art collection, while amenities in the rooms were inspired by things Akili had noted were missing during his globetrotting travels.

“I want to instil the family values that we have from housekeeping to the highest level,” he says. “We treat everyone like family members, take care of every project and treat it like our own home.”

As the PTT empire has grown, Akili says he has become more confident about his own understanding of design. When the successful Potato Head Beach Club launched in 2010, he was undaunted by professional Indonesian architects who said that the use of traditional 18th-century teak shutters sourced from all over the Indonesian archipelago would create a “Disneyland”.

At Katamama, he says, he learned not to take comments on the hotel’s mock-up room to heart.

“They gave us so many points and we constantly changed it but at the end of the day we went back to the original design. My project manager wanted to kill me, but you have to break the mould,” he says.

Another key to their success, he says, has been to select unconventional architects willing to work alongside the company’s in-house creative team to come up with original designs that reflect a modern take on Indonesian lifestyle while staying clear of cliché.

“We don’t copy other designs. It is critical to bring DNA, a common line to show who we are,” he says. “Even with Kogan, he spent one week with us in Bali and said he wasn’t going to show us what he had already prepared [for the new hotel] because he had decided to change it after getting to know us better.”

When the Mexican architect returned with the new concept, Akili says he immediately saw that their organic handmade aesthetic had been combined with Kogan’s modernist geometrical elements.

“I don’t believe in trends,” he explains. “You just know when it feels right. We believe there are enough people out there who feel the same and like our spaces.”

Akili was already in discussion with Sou Fujimoto about a possible hotel in Bali when he discovered that the Japanese architect was already familiar with the Sai Ying Pun location, having been involved in an earlier (abandoned) plan by another developer to renovate it as a retail space. "I'd always wanted a chance to work with him so it seemed as though the writing was on the wall," says Akili.

The main objective with the Hong Kong space – Fujimoto’s first project in the city – was to showcase Indonesian cuisine, “putting it on the gastronomic map.”

The team took two years researching different cuisines and cooking techniques of the almost 600 ethnic groups in Indonesia, so it was essential that the food element was reflected in the overall aesthetic mood – with a thread of presenting Indonesia in a modern way while also highlighting the country’s extraordinary artisanal heritage.

“Even the ceramics were commissioned by us,” says Akili, leaping to his feet and disappearing into the kitchen to retrieve a selection of beautifully glazed bowls.

It is how such craftsmanship transcends fashion that intrigues Akili who, a keen collector of art, ceramics and textiles, hopes to introduce a series of creative cultural programmes and develop collaborations with local artists in Hong Kong.

‘That is the key to this place,” he says, looking around the new restaurant. “We want to work with people so that it becomes a creative space and part of the neighbourhood. Part of our family.”

Potato Head, 100 Third Street, Sai Ying Pun, tel: 2858 3036; www.ptthead.com

Potato Head’s restaurant, Kaum, is not the only one to have opened this year in Sai Ying Pun. Here are five more we tried:

Restaurant review: LN Fortunate Coffee in Sai Ying Pun – a haven for the vegan grazer

Restaurant review: Okra Hong Kong, Sai Ying Pun – casual Japanese dining with great music

Centre Street Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun – local favourites

Newly opened Flying Pig Bistro, Sai Ying Pun - meat and more

Newly reopened Va Bene - quality food in Sai Ying Pun ... at Central prices