We arrive half an hour early for our appointment with Gourmet Dining Group’s managing director, Michelle Ma Chan, so we wait in her French garden patio of Épure Café, which is outside the fine-dining restaurant Épure, by the harbour front on the fourth level of Ocean Terminal. The café is in the throes of afternoon tea, and we notice how attentive, efficient and polite its waiting staff are. Clearly pleased to hear this, Ma Chan says that one of her most important investments is in her staff.
“I know because of overheads, the waiting staff do not get high salaries, so I invest in training them so they can see there is a future in this industry,” she says.
Ma Chan, who founded Gourmet Dining Group several years ago - opening fine dining Épure, Épure Café and bringing over famous French patisserie Dalloyau - is also executive director of Fancl, a botanical beauty range from Japan.
She decided to open French fine-dining restaurant Épure three years ago after she noticed there was a gap in the market for stand-alone, high-end restaurants.
“I noticed that most restaurants in Hong Kong are middle-graded, unlike other international destinations, such as Japan, Paris, London and even Singapore, where you can find a greater selection of top-tier restaurants,” she says. “I decided to open my first restaurant, Épure, aiming to provide a high-end, top-grade dining experience in terms of food quality, ambience and hospitality.
“In order to achieve this, we invited Nicolas Boutin to join us as our executive chef. He honed his skills at the finest Michelin-starred establishments in France,” she continues. Boutin worked in such establishments as Maison Lameloise and La Maison Troisgros - both three Michelin stars - Les Jardins de l’Opéra, Jean Bardet and Hauterive Saint-James - all two Michelin stars. “His experience ensured that our culinary quality would be among the top destinations in the industry. In terms of ambience, the interior design of Épure was created by internationally renowned firm, Yabu Pushelberg, so the quality of work was guaranteed,” Ma Chan says.
Épure has been a success since its opening, attracting fine-dining regulars, mostly from Kowloon, Ma Chan says.
About the same time she opened Épure fine dining and cafe, she brought over the Dalloyau brand from France, famous for serving cakes and pastries in the Palace of Versailles royal court since 1682, and creating incredible delicacies through the reigns of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Marie Antoinette and beyond. “At first, Dalloyau in Hong Kong focused on pastries and French delicacies. As time went by, we became increasingly popular among the public and it opened up new opportunities to explore different channels of culinary craft. We saw that many landlords were seeking high-quality brands in their establishments, so we launched a shop in IFC as well as Hong Kong’s first Dalloyau bistro in Pacific Place, last December, serving a full range of authentic Parisian cuisine to Hong Kong’s diners. Now we have six shops, all in prime locations such as Harbour City, IFC, Pacific Place and Sogo Causeway Bay.”
Gourmet Dining Group’s latest project is Arbor, a fine-dining restaurant for innovative French cuisine that officially opens in H Queen’s in Central this month. “As always, we aim to provide top-quality food, wine, service and ambience, not only for diners in Hong Kong but also for international travellers. We want them to visit Hong Kong, not just for street food and local cuisine, but also for world-class, internationally acclaimed fine dining, enriching their culinary experiences and spark conversations when they return to their home countries,” Ma Chan says.
“Although the cost of running top-quality restaurants is substantial, and may take a little longer to break even, I believe it’s worth the effort if we can inspire customers to appreciate our work in creating a truly memorable dining experience.
“For Arbor, we envision a breakthrough style of innovative French fine dining, which still focuses on using French cooking techniques but with hints of creative flair and eclectic ingredients. We use a lot of Asian flavours, textures and ingredients, and you will find a lot of Asian influence in our cuisine. Since Japan is a leading country in terms of culinary standards, we’ve focused on sourcing most of our ingredients from Japan and the result will be a sublime standard of quality and gastronomic artistry.”
She hired designers Yabu Pushelberg, again for the interior. “We couldn’t be happier with the results,” Ma Chan says. “Épure’s interior dining space channels Parisian heritage and the serenity of nature. Through a magnificent golden entrance, a mellow and intimately lit dining room emerges with a touch of allure, grandeur and the royal heritage of France in the golden age.
“Our vision for Arbor is about contrast, as we aim to provide a tranquil venue for diners where they can relax, unwind and thoroughly escape the grinding pace of the city. The intimate interior décor is a collection of warm, soft textures, curving lines and botanic tones providing a space where guests can feel like they’re at home. This concept is reflected in its name - Arbor - which represents the sense of serenity that one experiences when walking past softly swaying trees in a pristine forest.
“As our team becomes more mature, we would be open to launching more venues in Hong Kong or even in other Asian destinations such as Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Shanghai and Beijing,” she says. “But one founding principle we will always follow for every one of our new establishments is to maintain peak culinary standards and world-class hospitality that exceed the industry standard.”