Profile: Alan Wong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 10:05am

High-powered Italian motorcycles are a rarity on the car-clogged roads of Beijing - so when a Ducati roars down the road, the chances are the rider is restaurateur Alan Wong.

The California-born Wong operates at a fast pace in every area of his life: when not opening restaurants at the rate of one a year, whizzing around city streets, or blasting around a racetrack on one of his nine superbikes, Wong can be found snowboarding down mountains at breakneck speed.

Yet the 37-year-old has no swagger or smugness about him. The way he tells it, success with his chain of Japanese-style restaurants was a happy accident: had it not been for a chance visit to Beijing, where his father was working, he would still be working as a professional sports photographer, taking pictures of snowboarders and skateboarders.

He says: "I would say it is 95 per cent luck, I am the least ambitious guy I know and the least ambitious guy most of my friends know, even though I have been successful.

"I did not set out to have 10 restaurants, I just wanted one, and for it to be small. It was a fun project. When we did well, and the cash began to flow, there were a lot of other ideas that I wanted to try, a hotpot restaurant, a teppanyaki restaurant. The staff started growing and getting really good, and I had a full restaurant of keen staff and they wanted to open more and the market was ready for it."

The first restaurant, Hatsune, which opened more than 10 years ago, did away with the starchy formality and traditional decor associated with Japanese restaurants. Instead of staff dressed in kimonos, bowing and scraping, Hatsune featured servers dressed in pink, green and yellow T-shirts greeting customers with a friendly ni hao or a Californian "hi".

The open-plan decor at that, and subsequent restaurants, has the air of a trendy city bistro, a world away from the standard faux-Japanese lacquer screens, cherry blossom murals and bamboo-screened private spaces. All interiors are personally designed by Wong, who took a Japanese gangster theme, including yakuza-style tattoos on the wall, for his flagship restaurant, in the capital's business district.

The dishes are Californian style with the star dish, the sushi roll, available in scores of different combinations at the two main Hatsune restaurants and other outlets. Two of the most popular are the classic tuna roll, with added spice, and the local Peking duck roll, in addition to the Sake-2-me roll, which contains deluxe salmon skin roll with onions, fresh salmon and unagi sauce.

Wong's stable includes five restaurants in Beijing and five in Shanghai, the majority offering variations of sushi, teppanyaki and hotpot. One Beijing restaurant serves the spicy food of Hunan province and a recently opened outlet in Shanghai offers Singapore mud crabs.

"We were the first [on the mainland] to start the California-style sushi craze that is going on right now," says Wong. "Now there is not a single Japanese restaurant opened up here that does not have Californian-style sushi on its menu … and most of them have an iteration of one of my rolls. People are falling over themselves to steal my staff and my ideas, but every time you copy it is never as good as the original, a copy of a copy deteriorates and people are smart in this city, they know that."

Imitating the quirky, Wong-supervised design of the restaurants would be far trickier than ripping off the recipes. At the hugely popular Hatsune branch in the nightlife zone of Sanlitun, an aquatic theme prevails, with wavy lines drawn on the floor to represent the ocean bed, art on the walls in the shape of giant sea anemones and hanging wooden planks that are meant to evoke waves.

The entrepreneur's eye for composition and colour was finessed during his earlier career as a skateboard and snowboard photographer. It also gave Wong a passion for speed, whether it is snowboarding down the mountains outside Beijing in the winter months, or zooming around the city on his nippy Ducati, BMW, or Triumph motorcycles.

Some of Wong's ideas for restaurant themes come from two-wheeled jaunts in the mountains outside Beijing with pals. The ease of access to glorious nearby countryside - and golf courses - is a major reason why the father of two young children bases himself in the capital, rather than Shanghai.

"Every time I open a restaurant I have a new theme and my latest, in Shanghai, came from motorcycling out in the mountains," he says. "The idea is that people walk down a mountainside, down, down, down into a sushi bar cave. There are two trees and rocks everywhere. I wanted to give it a bit of a cold feeling."

Until the Beijing opening of Nobu last year, Wong had the field to himself with funky, Japanese-style restaurants. The debut of the upmarket chain, he says, is a sure sign of Beijing's arrival as a major world gourmet capital, where people know their cuisine and are not afraid to splurge on quality.

Adds Wong: "Local Chinese now have spending power that is equal or above any first-tier city in the world - definitely. People spend more on food here than anywhere. You look at the most expensive restaurant in Paris, London, New York or Napa Valley, it does not even come close to the meals that people are paying for to treat government officials or whatever. The spending power right now is unreal."