Celebrity chefs are beating a path to the city, but there's no guarantee of success

A fresh wave of celebrity chefs are looking to open restaurants in the city. But how will they succeed where others have failed?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 3:44pm

Hong Kong is set for another influx of celebrity chefs. David Thompson, Wolfgang Puck, Yannick Alleno and Mark Sargeant are searching for sites here as Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen opens in Lan Kwai Fong next month.

But Asian expansion is no guarantee of success: Ramsay shut his restaurant in Tokyo, Guy Savoy shipped out of Singapore, and Mario Batali's Carnevino has closed here. So what makes some top chefs' restaurants thrive in foreign markets while others falter?

"The fact that each of my restaurants is unique, although the core philosophy of my cuisine is a part of each," says Alain Ducasse - the longest standing celebrity chef here, with Spoon notching up 11 years this October.

"I have a different vision for each restaurant, and like the input and inspiration from co-workers. Each restaurant is a celebration of local tastes and ingredients," says Ducasse.

The Mandarin Oriental paved the way for international celebrity chefs in Hong Kong with the opening of Vong, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Thai-French fusion restaurant in 1997. Vongerichten had once worked in the Mandarin's French restaurant, Pierrot, as well as The Oriental in Bangkok.

I have a different vision for each restaurant. Each one celebrates local tastes.
Alain Ducasse, Spoon

Six years later, Spoon by Alain Ducasse opened at the InterContinental. In 2006 came Nobu (also at the InterContinental), as well as Joël Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire, when Vongs around the world closed and the Mandarin reopened with the modern French restaurant Pierre.

Pierre's set-up in a luxury hotel with a 25th-floor view of Victoria Harbour is typical of Gagnaire's ventures in Asia.

The renowned chef also has venues in Tokyo and Seoul, in upscale hotels with great views that leave you with no doubt which city you're dining in. He places the upmost importance on partnerships when looking at international outposts.

"Pierre Gagnaire is behind every one of his dishes. He designs menus every time he visits, and regularly liaises with the team so that his ideas are executed," says a spokeswoman for the Mandarin Oriental.

He visits three times a year, cooking in the kitchen alongside his Hong Kong team for stints of 10 days.

Not that it's been easy. Gagnaire says Hongkongers did not welcome him with open arms, although he finally won over a loyal clientele; and the restaurant dropped a Michelin star in 2013.

Chef Jean-Denis Le Bras was brought in from Gagnaire's London restaurant, Sketch, last year and over the summer Gagnaire came out to work with his protégé devising new dishes. Pierre regained its second star in the 2014 Michelin Guide.

Alain Ducasse and Nobu Matsuhisa also visit Hong Kong regularly. Matsuhisa can't seem to put a foot wrong, opening the 30th outlet for his worldwide restaurant empire in Kuala Lumpur this month. Nobu has the luxury of a clientele made up of well-heeled locals and international devotees who like to dine at Nobu restaurants wherever they travel.

Some 90 per cent of the menu is found on Nobu menus worldwide, with an Osume menu of local ingredients.

"These dishes give guests a unique taste from each destination alongside their favourite Nobu dishes which are available globally," says Matsuhisa.

"The Nobu concept is the same throughout the world: good food, good service, good ambience. While the decor of my restaurants varies in each city, the consistency of the food and service is what is most important."

Jason Atherton, the first British celebrity chef to open in Hong Kong, seems to be challenging his former mentor Gordon Ramsay in the empire-building stakes. On top of his six London restaurants, the chef now has three apiece in Hong Kong and Singapore, and two in Shanghai.

"We do put a lot of effort into all of our places and Asia is like a second home to me," says Atherton, who is backed by Singaporean entrepreneur Mavis Khoo-oei in his Asian ventures. "I come out every couple of months. I have huge respect for the people and culture," he says.

While the old guard is flourishing at the ultra-high end of the market, the newcomers are aiming for a more casual approach. "I think our sharing concept and accessible pricing has also helped our success," says Atherton.

David Thompson is opening a Thai street food eatery rather than an outpost of his fine dining establishment Nahm. Long Chim, opening in Singapore at the end of this year, moves into the former Guy Savoy haute cuisine site in Marina Bay Sands that closed suddenly this year.

Thompson has plans for more Long Chim branches. "Hong Kong is certainly on the cards," he says. Nahm originally opened in London in 2001 expanding into Bangkok, and another Christina Ong-owned hotel, in 2010. Nahm London lost its Michelin star a year later and closed in 2012. 

Thompson has no plans to open another. "Nahm is unique and can only really be done in Bangkok," he says. "Even though I have run similar restaurants in London and Australia, opening Nahm in Bangkok made me realise that it's the only place where I can operate a restaurant of this nature."

Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen is based on his informal restaurant of the same name in London. "I was looking at something more accessible," says Sandeep Sekhri, managing director of Dining Concepts who approached Ramsay. "It's very hard to replicate a fine dining restaurant outside of where the chef is cooking or where they have their key people."

Sekhri has just closed Carnevino, a pricey US steakhouse he ran in partnership with Mario Batali. "The price point was way too high for its size," he says.

Meanwhile, Lupa, their mid-priced Italian venue, continues to thrive.

The mid-priced concept has proved a mixed bag for Jamie Oliver in Singapore, home to the first Jamie's Italian in Asia. "We haven't met everybody's expectations, as there is a stigma that associates celebrity chefs with fine dining. Jamie is all about rustic, affordable Italian food and a relaxed, unpretentious style of service," says executive chef Gary Clarke.

But the restaurant has built up a regular clientele who are prepared to queue for a table. Many customers expect to see Oliver, Clarke says, "but most realise that, however much Jamie wants to be cooking in all his restaurants, there's only one of him."

Ramsay will attend the Hong Kong launch next month (a wise move, given the disappointment resulting from the Oliver no-shows here and in Singapore) and visit the venue "once or twice a year".

Sekhri believes there's only room for one Bread Street Kitchen in Hong Kong, although he doesn't rule out further collaborations with Ramsay.

Jason Atherton has opened several different concepts, rather than rolling out the same formula. "I get bored rather easily and assume our guests would feel the same, so I am always trying to come up with new ideas for them to enjoy," says Atherton.

Sometimes a chef's gut instinct turns out to be the best.