Ravenous rivals: Hong Kong and Shanghai an influence for good

Hong Kong and Shanghai may be competitors, but their food scenes have often influenced each other for the better, writes Robin Lynam

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 September, 2013, 10:30am

Cross-pollination between the restaurant scenes in Hong Kong and Shanghai has been going on for as long as the rivalry between the two cities. One early example is Jimmy's Kitchen, which was established in Shanghai in 1924, and opened its first Hong Kong branch - a franchise - in 1928.

Shanghai's influence on Hong Kong dining increased significantly in the late 1940s and early '50s, with a huge influx of refugees from the mainland city. A fair number of cooks were among them, and Hong Kong has entertained a reputation for Shanghainese food ever since.

We have given back, too. Shanghai's lively Western restaurant scene started with the opening of a branch of what was then a purely Hong Kong operation - M at the Fringe - with M on the Bund in 1999.

Elite Concepts' Ye Shanghai, the name notwithstanding, was also established in Hong Kong, before becoming a focal point of the then new Xintiandi entertainment district in 2002.

Other Hong Kong brands to have opened in the city include the Gaia Group's Isola, which like the M Restaurant Group, chose Shanghai for its first operation on the mainland. It also opened in Beijing earlier this month. Capital M opened in Beijing in 2009; with its emphasis on a spectacular city view, as well as a heritage location, it's perhaps based more on the Shanghai model than the Hong Kong one.

M at the Fringe closed in 2009, and there is little prospect of another M in Hong Kong. Founder Michelle Garnaut would still be interested if a good location became available at the right price, but after four years of looking, thinks that is unlikely.

Hong Kong's restaurant scene had a profound influence on Shanghai, but now some of the traffic is coming the other way. In recent years, several well-known Shanghai restaurants have opened outlets here, or authorised franchises.

Willy Trullas Moreno, who made his reputation in Shanghai with El Willy, lent his name to FoFo in Wellington Street, Central in 2010. In 2012, David Laris, who had worked in Hong Kong, but established himself as a self-styled "chef-restaurateur-entrepreneur" in Shanghai, did the same for Dining Concepts' Laris in Wyndham Street.

"Willy - chef and owner of El Willy in Shanghai - is the key reason why we started FoFo in Hong Kong," says founding partner Sheila Wong. "We just fell in love with his food and personality when we were working in Shanghai eight or nine years ago.

"We had to come back to Hong Kong in 2009. To be able to enjoy his food in Hong Kong, we decided to set up a Spanish restaurant here, with him as the mastermind for our menu."

"Jardin De Jade and Xiao Nan Guo, both Shanghai restaurant operations, have also started business in Hong Kong," notes Hong Kong celebrity food writer and chef Walter Kei.

According to Kei, although Hong Kong is now keeping a more respectful eye on Shanghai's restaurant scene than in the past, our city's influence on dining in the mainland remains greater.

"In the 1980s a lot of Hong Kong chefs went back to China to teach people cooking skills that had been lost during the Cultural Revolution. Now there is a new wave of top restaurants in Shanghai hiring consulting chefs from Hong Kong," he says.

Although Hong Kong has many Shanghainese restaurants, Kei believes there is less interest in Shanghainese food among gourmets than in the past.

"A lot of old Shanghainese restaurants have closed down, and the ones that used to have Shanghainese chefs, often don't anymore. There are problems with rent, and members of the families that own the businesses don't always want to carry them on. People here think of Shanghainese food as just being 'northern food'. That's why a lot of Shanghainese restaurants sell Beijing and Sichuan food."

However, the fact that several well-known chefs travel between the two cities shows that their restaurants continue to stimulate each other. Richard Ekkebus, for instance, clocks up frequent flyer miles between the two cities. Ekkebus is the Landmark Mandarin Oriental's director of culinary operations and food and beverage; in addition to being executive chef at Hong Kong's Amber, he acts as consulting chef for the Fifty 8º Grill at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong in Shanghai.

Amber was voted the best restaurant in China in the inaugural Restaurant Magazine "Asia's 50 Best Restaurants", and it holds two Michelin stars. Its success has made Ekkebus a brand in his own right.

Others from Hong Kong continue to head north. Opening in Shanghai in November in the Jingan Kerry Centre in West Shanghai will be another branch of the El Grande Group's Grappa's.

El Grande founder J.R. Robertson believes Hong Kong restaurant brands with proven staying power have a value in Shanghai. "We have had Grappa's for nearly 23 years in Pacific Place here, and for many years at Hong Kong International Airport.

"The Airport Authority gave the Grappa's site to another operator, and then decided they missed Grappa's, so it has reopened in bigger premises in Terminal 2. It will soon open at Terminal 2 in Pudong, so we think there is brand equity that should help in our rolling out the concept," he says.

In November, the Epicurean Group will open its El Pomposo Spanish restaurant in Shanghai's new IAPM Mall in a space with a 130-seat outdoor terrace.

Epicurean also owns the Jimmy's Kitchen brand, which celebrates its 85th anniversary in the same month as the El Pomposo opening.

Sadly, the celebrations will be confined to Hong Kong. Jimmy's reopened in Shanghai in 2011, but has since closed again.

But according to Epicurean Group marketing director Caroline Chow, the idea of returning Jimmy's to its home town has not been abandoned, and the search is on for new premises in a better location.

Hong Kong restaurant brands continue to open up in Shanghai. So are we likely to see more Shanghai brands moving in to Hong Kong?

Dining Concepts' founder Sandeep Sekhri, who brought the Laris brand to Hong Kong, says that Laris' Shanghai provenance was not a factor in choosing to work with the chef. He isn't shopping around for another Shanghai brand, but would consider one if the right opportunity presented itself.

"Whether it's a New York brand, or a London brand, or a Shanghai brand, it's a question of whether it suits the needs of the Hong Kong culinary scene and whether it can be correctly positioned," he says.

"Hong Kong has a great food scene, but Shanghai has caught up really fast," he adds.