Join me: Yenn Wong's strategy of collaborating with others in the restaurant trade is proving to be a hit
When it comes to restaurants, Yenn Wong cannot put a foot wrong. From the opening of her first restaurant in the city, 208 Duecento Otto, in 2010 - still going strong - to the most recent, Potato Head/Kaum, closely followed by Rhoda in Sai Ying Pun, the magic formula goes from strength to strength. Wong puts it down to creative collaborations and enjoying what they do.
"What drives us is our creative collaborations and we really enjoy what we do and we can stay creative and relevant to the market," she says. "I think Hong Kong is already a stressful city and to be able to develop a business that allows people to wind down and enjoy the space and have a good time is what really motivates me a lot."
Her collaborations include British Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton with 22 Ships, Ham & Sherry and Aberdeen Street Social; Cantonese fine dining and art space Duddell's, with husband and restaurateur Alan Lo; and Potato Head and Indonesian restaurant Kaum Hong Kong, with PTT Family, the group behind the Potato Head Beach Club in Bali and Potato Head Folk in Singapore. Her most recent collaboration with Nate Green, previously executive chef at Ham & Sherry and 22 Ships, was driven by a gut feeling.
"Rhoda came about because we got to know Nathan when we hired him for 22 Ships," says Wong, who came to Hong Kong at the age of 13, from Singapore. "He did a fantastic job at 22 Ships. I got to know the way he manages, his character and after 18 months I felt like we were ready to work together and that Nathan was ready to have his own restaurant."
The farm-to-table concept of Rhoda, where the dishes are inspired by Green's grandmother of the same name, is far removed from the modern-tapas cooking of 22 Ships - and there has not been an empty table since the restaurant opened in late June.
Wong also collaborated with congee and noodle experts when opening Meen & Rice at The Pulse, Repulse Bay. It is very different from her other Chinese restaurant, Duddell's.
"It's very casual dining. We thought the area was lacking something straight forward in local Cantonese cuisine. We collaborated with a well-known restaurateur because we had no access to congee cooks and they are also famous for their suckling pig and barbecue meat," Wong says. "There is a difference between the style of cooking needed for Duddell's and those who cook congee and noodles. You can't get the Duddell's chef to do it for you.
"It's a group of chefs who have always worked in wonton noodle places, congee places and barbecue meat places. Those chefs are a different group altogether, that's why collaborations work well for us as a restaurant group. We collaborate with people who are really experienced in delivering really solid food."
She adds that "it's not about having a big bang opening and it's great because that's what happens in Hong Kong, you have this opening and everyone wants to go there for the first six months and then not".
Wong's strategies include hiring specific designers for each restaurant space such as Joyce Wang for Rhoda and Sou Fujimoto for Potato Head. "We normally think of the concept and the space before hiring the designer," she says. She also opens her restaurants in quiet neighbourhoods.
"Moving to out-of-the-way locations is definitely one of our strategies," she says. "We started 208 on the 'wrong side' of Hollywood Road. We took a risk. I saw the space and I liked it. It feels like a neighbourhood yet it's accessible if you go by car. We felt that the location had a lot of potential. You could see that there were a lot of things happening but not on the restaurant level. Little places started to pop up like galleries and shops after we moved there. We think it's really interesting to go into an emerging neighbourhood and to do something fun there. It is also what our clientele appreciate and enjoy. Even with Rhoda, you think it is in the middle of nowhere, but we are very close to Kennedy Town and Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan and again from Central it's a five-minute drive."
Duddell Street was also in a quiet part of Central when Duddell's moved in. "It was a challenging concept to do a Michelin-star HK$1,000-a-head Cantonese restaurant in a city where there are millions [of Chinese restaurants]," Wong says, "but the location had the potential to be successful as you are opposite the Landmark. And since Duddell's, other places have opened and the developer is taking out other places on the street for restaurants, so the spa opposite is closing down and they are renting out for more F&B. Opening up areas is definitely one of our strengths."
Wong is the founder and CEO of JIA Group, specialising in residential-style hotels and restaurants. The group has 11 restaurant brands, including Chachawan, Fish School and Mak Mak. She famously opened the Philippe Starck-designed JIA Hong Kong hotel in her late 20s, followed by JIA Shanghai and Italian restaurant Issimo in the same city. She later opened a string of restaurants in her home city of Singapore before closing them to concentrate on consolidating her brands in Hong Kong - but not before winning a string of awards.
"We are proud of what we have done, we've been creative - creative doesn't mean that we come up with food concepts that are weird. Creative is just freshening up a basic concept. We go for food that is simple, we think it helps with the longevity of a business having food that people can relate to for a long period of time."
Wong says they are looking to expand, but with caution.
"We are looking at expanding some of our concepts but we are going to be careful that it doesn't dilute what we have right now. We love to create new concepts but at the same time we realise some of our existing concepts could be suitable to expand within the country and Asia. We don't do management because we need to be able to deliver the end product, sometimes with management you don't have full control and I find that difficult. We always join ventures, a partnership, so that everyone puts in money, sweat and effort and every one gets an equal amount of end result."