Will Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver's new Hong Kong restaurants signal Asia expansion?

Two of Britain's most successful celebrity chefs are establishing outposts in the city in what could be the start of rapid regional growth for their businesses

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 5:04pm

British celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver are opening new restaurants in Hong Kong in what could be the start of moves to expand their restaurant empires further throughout Asia.

The plans to set up in the city can be seen as a vote of confidence by both chefs in Hong Kong's mid-range dining scene, in the sophistication of diners here and in their own self-belief.

Jamie's Italian, which is set to open in Causeway Bay at the end of next month, and Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen, expected to open in Lan Kwai Fong in September, will see the pair attempt to establish a strong position in the region.

When the city's taste for fine-dining ran up against the global financial crisis, one result was the growth of mid-market chains bringing niche concepts to Hong Kong. Restaurant groups such as Black Sheep, King Parrot and the Press Room Group, and individual investors such as Yenn Wong, have imported concepts as disparate as German beer halls, regional Thai and British gastropubs.

They're chefs of a different stature, they're not hands-on chefs any more, are they?
michael Van Warmelo, Concept creations 

Michael van Warmelo, executive chef at Concept Creations, which operates mid-market Spanish, Peruvian and Greek restaurants, says price is always an issue in Hong Kong and running a successful fine-dining restaurant means achieving a level of consistency often absent here.

"Fine dining - you have to do it extremely well, like Richard [Ekkebus] at Amber, near to perfection."

Attempts by mid-market groups to operate high-end restaurants have not always been successful. View 62, King Parrot's restaurant offering Spanish molecular gastronomy at the top of the Hopewell Centre, is soon to close. Carnevino, a high-end partnership between Dining Concepts and Mario Batali, is also shutting down.

"At HK$1,500 you limit the size of your market. The market for HK$500 to HK$600 a head is much bigger," says Sandeep Sekhri, managing director of Dining Concepts, which is bringing Ramsay to Hong Kong.

"I approached him first. Gordon Ramsay is a brand. Twelve million people watch him on television every week in the US alone. His shows are extremely popular here," Sekhri says. "He's one of the biggest names and a very strong hands-on chef. With his TV shows, he's built a brand around himself."

Bread Street Kitchen is part of a new expansion for Ramsay, whose empire has already headed off a severe crunch. In 2009, the chef had to sell his Ferrari to help pay off debts of about £7 million (HK$92 million). The problems led to a very public bust-up with his then business partner, Chris Hutcheson, who also happens to be his father-in-law.

The Ramsay empire comprises 27 establishments in Britain, the US, France, Italy and Qatar, mostly restaurants but some doubling as bars and one also offering guest rooms.

"The previous overly rapid expansion was with high-end restaurants, which are difficult to control. His were very spread out: in Cape Town, Budapest and Qatar," Sekhri says. "I think they're going to be expanding in a more organic way now."

They also included a restaurant at the Conrad Tokyo hotel, that closed in 2013.

Despite his television appearances and expletive-strewn autobiography Humble Pie, Ramsay doesn't swear like a trooper in real life.

The swearing is just for television, says Sekhri. "In person he's most affable and professional and an entrepreneur, very approachable. He's completely different in person to what you see on the television."

Ramsay is launching here now because "the business is stable and expanding", he says.

This may be over-optimistic. In May, Ramsay had to file a lawsuit in New York against Rowen Seibel, a former business partner, to wind up two restaurants called The Fat Cow. He is also subject to a US$10 million suit filed by Seibel.

Meantime, Ramsay is involved in a legal dispute in London over the lease of his York & Albany property - a restaurant, bar and hotel. That dispute will reportedly lead to a £6.4 million loss for last year, despite the business generating £5 million profit.

Bread Street Kitchen, his mid-market collaboration with Dining Concepts, will charge an average of HK$200 to HK$300 for lunch and HK$600 to HK$700 for dinner, including wine.

The large space in Lan Kwai Fong will seat 90 diners and 30 guests at the bar and will have an open kitchen at its heart.

As with the London venue, Bread Street Kitchen will be open until late at night. Where ingredients in London are sourced from around Britain, those used in Hong Kong will be sourced from Australasia, where farmers have been promoting traceability for a decade.

Jamie Oliver's reputation and business have also seen setbacks. The Jamie's Italian restaurant chain is highly successful in Britain, with 37 branches across the country. But other ventures such as the Union Jacks pizza chain and an artisan food venture were less successful.

Oliver's public image has suffered more of a dent than his finances - he is estimated to be worth £240 million, with businesses generating an annual income of £14 million. Although his attempts to improve school dinners and the British diet were admired by some, others felt that his forays into food politics have been too patronising, leading to a backlash. Everything from his children's names to his recipes has come in for criticism and comment.

The new Oliver eatery will certainly generate a buzz here.

William Lyon, CEO of the Big Cat Group, says they invited Oliver to open in Hong Kong because they felt the concept of Jamie's Italian was tailor-made for the city, with foodies' love of fresh ingredients served up at good value. Local diners were also starting to appreciate the ethical sourcing of products, with a growing number of restaurants's menus ticking boxes for local and organically sourced ingredients.

The TV chef is as much about ethics as Essex.

"He's very serious, very engaged and very passionate about what he does ... What he stands for is easy to understand because it's the ethos of how he lives his life; educating people, expecting people to do better. It makes for an easy to understand message," says Lyon.

"Meeting him, [I was impressed] by his ability to communicate that in a genuine way because he believes it and it has a waterfall effect in his company. Everyone speaks the same language which makes them easy to deal with."

Ethical sourcing is key to the Jamie's Italian concept but Oliver's name will undoubted bring customers in for the first time, says Lyon.

"If we encourage people to come back, we will replicate the UK success in Hong Kong of Jamie's Italian, taking us some way towards our goal," he says.

Lyon needs repeat customers - the restaurant occupies an entire floor in Soundwill Plaza. Open kitchens line the sides, so that diners can see their antipasti and pastas and sauces being prepared and their meat and fish being grilled. One end will feature large tables, set up for sharing. The bar area will have high tables and chairs while the rest of the restaurant will feature U-shaped booths.

A large piece of graffiti will occupy one wall and, in a nod to Hong Kong's role as a port, parts of the kitchens will be assembled from shipping containers. Some walls are being decorated in a jade- coloured green tile while the floor is being made from recovered wood.

The ceilings will be left bare but punctuated by "awesome" chandeliers. Sharing is an important part of the concept - plenty of the menu items such as planks of meat, cheese or vegetables are designed to be shared.

Van Warmelo predicts success for both ventures. "There will be a lot of chatter about them not being here but they're chefs of a different stature, they're not hands-on chefs any more, are they?"

Success in Hong Kong could well be their launch pad for expansion across Asia. Dining Concepts have discussed opening further Ramsay restaurants in the region. The celebrity chef is also in discussions with Las Vegas Sands about opening restaurants in its casino resorts in Singapore and Macau. Lyon says further expansion of Jamie's Italian is the dream but his priority is now a successful opening in Hong Kong. "It's all we can focus on," he says.

There is already a branch of Jamie's Italian in Singapore.

And are the two celebrity chefs rivals?

"Saying this is about a rivalry will always gather attention. I hope he does really well," says Lyon.