Diner’s Diary
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Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurants in Hong Kong to focus more on local tastes and better food quality

Restaurants’ Hong Kong owners will now propose menu items they think the local market will like, with Oliver and his people in the UK testing them out before giving their seal of approval

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2018, 10:59am

William Lyon lets out an exaggerated guffaw when asked about recent rumours that Jamie’s Italian was closing its Hong Kong restaurants because business is poor.

“If I look at the churn in this building [Midtown Soundwill Plaza II in Causeway Bay], we’re the only Western restaurant that has managed to remain in this building in the same incarnation as it was in the beginning,” he says. (Penthouse is also still there, but its previous co-owner, chef Harlan Goldstein, is no longer involved after his local partnership dissolved in 2015.)

“We have a great landlord here and I like Causeway Bay,” Lyon adds.

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Lyon is the CEO of Big Cat Group, which runs Hong Kong’s two Jamie’s Italian restaurants – in Midtown Soundwill Plaza II and in Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui – and a Jamie’s Deli also in Harbour City.

He admits the “market has been tough in the last few years”, but adds: “Business is good here and we like being here.”

Still, he felt obliged last week to issue a statement on behalf of Big Cat Group following the placing into administration of Oliver’s troubled Barbecoa chain of barbecue restaurants. That followed the closure last year of 12 Jamie’s Italian restaurants in London.

In the statement, Lyon said operations of the 35 overseas outlets of Jamie’s Italian were unaffected by the closures in the UK and that Big Cat Group, as an independent Hong Kong restaurant operator, had not been affected by restructuring of the 42-year-old Oliver’s UK operations.

He told the Post that the new CEO of the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group, Jon Knight, had admitted there were internal management issues, and that Jamie’s Italian restaurants had not kept pace with the Jamie Oliver brand in terms of evolving their menus.

That is an issue Big Cat Group has taken charge of putting right in Hong Kong. Lyon said that in October last year, his group and the Jamie Oliver Restaurant Group had established what he called a “collaborative relationship” that would allow the Hong Kong restaurants to react better to the local market.

Give us a month or two and it should be much better
Felipe Lopez

He said an executive chef in Hong Kong had been appointed to take over the development of menu items. That chef is Felipe Lopez, who was most recently at Black Sheep Restaurants overseeing Carbone and Buenos Aires Polo Club, and before that with Dining Concepts looking after Mario Batali’s Carnevino. Before that, Lopez worked for Batali for several years at his Las Vegas outlet B&B Ristorante in The Venetian.

Big Cat Group now proposes new menu items that it thinks the Hong Kong market will like, and Oliver and his people in the UK test them out and give their feedback. One of the dishes they have developed, and which has received the Oliver seal of approval, is a lobster risotto, while a semi-buffet weekend brunch has also been launched.

Lyon says Jamie’s Deli in Tsim Sha Tsui is doing well because the menu of salads, sandwiches and pizzas was developed locally and approved by Oliver’s UK team. Big Cat Group is looking to open another Jamie’s Deli, on Hong Kong Island, Lyon says.

The group has also made changes to its human resources management. When Jamie’s Italian opened in 2014, Lyon recalls there was a lot of pressure to operate the restaurant according to its UK model of recruiting and training staff.

Guest expectations have been one our biggest challenges … We have to be more than an occasion dining restaurant
William Lyon

However, about a year ago Big Cat Group started its own “training academy”, as Lyon calls it. Staff career development is now reviewed every six months. As a result, a local chef who started with the first Jamie’s Italian restaurant in 2014 is now the group operations chef overseeing all its Hong Kong outlets.

Before meeting Lyon, a colleague and I visited Jamie’s Italian in Causeway Bay for lunch. The restaurant opened to mediocre reviews, but I had not eaten there in about two years. On a Thursday afternoon the restaurant was barely half full.

The food was a mixed bag. A starter of Jamie’s Burrata (HK$148) was extremely salty, and the spicy Italian meatballs (HK$128) had no flavour. The “famous prawn linguine” (HK$198) was not garlicky enough, while the rack of lamb (HK$488) was supposed to be roasted medium rare but was more on the rare side.

Lyon observes that diners in Hong Kong tend to order dishes to share, unlike in the UK, but I point out that on my recent visit the staff did not give us extra serving forks and spoons. He was flustered and insisted they should have done so, as the training manual instructs them.

When told the restaurant was only half full on a Thursday, Lyon says the lunch service was consistent for them in the past year, and weekends were good.

As for the food, Lopez explains that the kitchen staff were trained well but have only recently been instructed to add salt to season dishes, which might explain the liberal salting of some. Nevertheless, he reports that, after spending some time in the Jamie’s Italian in Harbour City, the food quality has improved a lot, and he expects the same to happen in Causeway Bay.

“Give us a month or two and it should be much better,” he says.

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Lopez will be responsible for the new à la carte menu, while a sommelier and mixologist have been brought on board to create new cocktail and wine lists – together with food pairings – that are coming soon.

“We want to elevate and improve the experience at Jamie’s Italian and now we have the freedom to do so, and take the brand to where it should sit,” Lyon says.

“Guest expectations have been one our biggest challenges … We have to be more than an occasion dining restaurant.”