The French Revolution: Why three top chefs are going it alone in Hong Kong

Three top chefs have left their jobs in some of the city's finest dining establishments to open their own restaurants, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 9:45am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 4:02pm

A number of shop spaces in Lee Gardens Two are boarded up, undergoing refurbishment, but the latest tenant is a cause for excitement for foodies. Frenchman Olivier Elzer, former executive chef at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, last month fulfilled his dream of opening his own restaurant, Seasons, at the upscale Causeway Bay property. The 35-year-old is out to establish a name for himself in the city after spending five years learning about local tastes.

Elzer is one of three French chefs at top local restaurants who have recently taken the step of going it alone to head establishments of their own. With their newfound freedom, each is seeking to put his own stamp on the local culinary map.

I want to be on the floor talking to the guests and asking what they want to eat
Frederic Chabbert, mano 

Seasons has a similar set-up to Elzer's former workplace, with a bar area next to the open kitchen and a contemporary French menu - but the similarities end there.

Elzer thanks chef Pierre Gagnaire, who invited him to Hong Kong to work at Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental, for opening his eyes to the potential of fast-forwarding his career in Asia.

"I have been working in two- and three-star Michelin restaurants in my 20-year career and in France you have to work 30 years in the industry before you can open your own place. But here, if you work hard you can go faster," Elzer says.

Seasons is backed by Hysan Development Company, whose deputy chairman Lau Siu-chuen had been a fan of Elzer's food at Pierre. In fact, it was Lau's wife who planted the idea in Elzer's head to open his own restaurant in one of the company's properties.

"I'm thankful to them [Hysan] because it's hard to get a good space in Hong Kong," he says. Most local restaurants maximise space for customers, and the ratio between dining and kitchen space is 80:20; at Seasons it's 60:40. "Western restaurants need more space, not just for cooking but also food storage and preparation. We are also concerned about hygiene, so space is important."

Elzer says Seasons is arguably the first competitively priced fine-dining restaurant in Causeway Bay. The menu features degustation and full-portion prices, and the chef expected most diners would choose the set dinner menu at HK$588 for four courses. However, he has been pleasantly surprised to find many customers are interested in paying more for the menu carte blanche, where Elzer whips up a four-, six- or eight-course dinner (HK$888, HK$1,188 and HK$1,488 respectively) based on diners' preferences and the ingredients he has that day.

Elzer sees the opening of Seasons as the culmination of his culinary skills and experience of the restaurant business in Hong Kong.

"At Pierre we had 1,500 customers a month, while at Robuchon there were 5,000 to 6,000, including the bakery, the jardin, the salon and opening up so many outlets [Landmark, IFC, Elements and, soon, Harbour City]."

Another Frenchman familiar with running a large operation is Philippe Orrico, chef and owner of Upper Modern Bistro in Sheung Wan. Coincidentally, the 40-year-old was Elzer's predecessor at Pierre before moving to Hullett House in Tsim Sha Tsui to head fine-dining restaurant St George.

"I had wanted to open a restaurant before I went to Hullett House, but I liked the project. It's in a colonial building so it's difficult [logistically] but interesting because I got to learn about opening a restaurant," says Orrico. "Working in a hotel is not flexible, but Hullett House was more family-style, giving me more freedom."

But when owner Aqua Group sold Hullett House to GR8 Leisure Concept last June, Orrico decided to strike out on his own.

He searched for more than a year for a space, almost giving up and leaving Hong Kong in frustration. He wanted to be in the Tai Ping Shan area because he used to live in the neighbourhood. "There aren't too many big buildings here and it looks like a small area of Paris or New York," he says.

Nine months ago, he poured all his savings into opening Upper Modern Bistro and things have been non-stop ever since, with guests making reservations two or three weeks in advance.

"We were completely full for lunch and dinner for the first seven months," Orrico recalls. "We weren't expecting it to be so busy. I lost 14kg in the first few months."

Some of his staff followed him from Hullett House, which Orrico took as a compliment.

"It's a good feeling for me because they want to follow me on my adventure," he says. "I think this is normal because when you are young, you want to work for the chef, not the restaurant. And this is a risk you can take when you're young. For them, they can learn how to open a restaurant and find solutions."

Nevertheless, as majority owner, he's pleased to finally serve the dishes that he wants to cook.

"When you work for other people, you have to do what they want. Sometimes you get criticised for the food, but they're not your dishes. Now I'm doing what I want to do and I can do what I think the guest wants. It's not to make me happy, but to make the people of Hong Kong happy."

Orrico says 80 per cent of his customers are Hong Kong Chinese, and customers from Pierre and Hullett House have flocked to his restaurant. "It's a good mix of guests here. Yesterday we were very full, but we had a good ambience. It's not posh, but fun."

Frederic Chabbert, 37, is also starting a new chapter in his culinary career, having left Petrus in the Island Shangri-La after eight years.

The day after he left the Shangri-La, he plunged full time into a new venture, Mano, in L Place in Central. His fiancée, Evangeline Ng, had left Island Shangri-La to work at Mano, and told him the restaurant needed his help.

"One thing led to another and now I'm a partner," he says with a smile. "I'm not in it to generate a lot of money, but to do something successful. My [business] partners are extremely supportive. If we want to change things, we make decisions quickly and then it's done."

The casual eatery was recently renovated, with all the furniture and crockery replaced, and reopened on August 1. The concept is now casual dining for breakfast and lunch, and fine dining from 6pm onwards. The ground-floor space is more intimate, with windows at the entrance and a proper bar. There's also a chef's table for eight to 10 people

"I've always wanted to open my own restaurant, to fly my own wings," he says. "The hotel environment was good, but there are rules you have to follow and it can take a long time for decisions to be made, which can be frustrating. You can work on a project for weeks and months, and you also have to fight hard for something you believe in. You want people to support you, not challenge you."

Chabbert enjoyed his time at Petrus, but is relishing the opportunity to follow his own vision. "Few hotel restaurants allow their chefs such creativity except perhaps Mandarin Grill's executive chef, Uwe Opocensky, who creates fantastic dishes at the Krug Room."

He hopes Mano will attract the office crowd for drinks after work. They might then stay for dinner, tempted by dishes such as whole roast chicken, beef, oysters and caviar. The food is high quality yet good value for money, he says.

"I've had people say to me, 'Frederic we love your food, but I don't want to dress up [to go to Petrus]. We love the view, but it's not exciting.' But here [at Mano] we want to have a lively vibe, and kids are welcome. I don't want to be in my 'cage' - I want to be on the floor talking to the guests and asking what they want to eat. Because once you understand, it's easier to know what they want."

Freelance food writer Yu Yat-yiu sees more French restaurants opening and notes that diners used to perceive them as venues for special occasions, requiring dressing up.

"Previously, chefs in hotels wouldn't go out and open their own restaurants, but for example, Olivier's [Elzer's] dishes aren't expensive, and you don't have to have a specific occasion to go. We don't have many places like this in Hong Kong," Yu says.

Yu adds that while he is surprised Chabbert is doing something different, he believes the Frenchman is very flexible and will probably be the draw at Mano. Nevertheless, Yu advises that desserts need to be good to draw in local diners. "That will help them a lot," he says with a laugh.

In the meantime, Orrico isn't stopping for a break just yet - in October he plans to open a second restaurant, in Central, but refuses to reveal more except that it will be a different concept from Upper Modern Bistro.

"Only the mushroom soup we will keep, but that's all I can tell you."