Originally from Paris, Jean-Yves Chatte has operated a successful wine import business in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. He opened French gourmet store Monsieur Chatte in a three-storey shophouse in Bonham Strand, Sheung Wan, in 2008, and now has a second store in Elements in Kowloon and a production kitchen and private dining room in Chai Wan.
Where did your culinary career begin?
My parents ran a traiteur on the east side of Paris. A traiteur is a shop backed by a kitchen. It's not a restaurant; it's a high-end takeaway where you can buy things such as duck confit, boeuf bourguignon and veal blanquette. It's good quality food, the kind of dishes that you find in small restaurants all over France with table d'h?te menus. We were one of the very well-known traiteurs. My maternal grandmother also ran a traiteur in the north of Paris before, during and after the second world war. My father went to work there as a young man and met my mother.
Did you always want to run your own traiteur?
My father didn't want me to follow him into the business because he started work so young and always worked so hard. He said: 'You must study,' and I did, and eventually I went into the wine business. I arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 to set up a wine business. It is a B2B company with distribution all over Asia.
Why did you open a French delicatessen in Sheung Wan?
It was the building that decided it. I had the idea of a French gourmet store for a while, and my office was nearby in Sheung Wan. I saw the building was available. When I walked inside, I thought: Wow, yes! It's so nice. There are a lot of inconvenient things; it's very narrow. But on the other hand, it's easy to make it into a warm place.
What do you stock in Monsieur Chatte?
Products are 100 per cent French. We have dry goods such as preserves, condiments and traditional sweets. We also have fresh products such as cheese, bread and cold cuts such as saucisson, proper Bayonne ham, Paris ham and dried sausage. And we have the handmade dishes we prepare in our production kitchen in Chai Wan. The important thing is that we never adapt our recipes to local taste. They are authentic French dishes. We want people to know the real thing and that it will always taste the same.
Who are Monsieur Chatt?'s customers?
We have all nationalities. A lot of our customers are living and working around Sheung Wan. Then there are a lot of local people who have studied French, and our food and wine remind them of France. With French wine being so popular in Hong Kong, we try to offer a different assortment of wines to other places. We try to find small producers. We are able to keep prices down because we are distributors, too. Of course, we have many French customers, which shows it must be good!
We sell a lot of handmade foie gras. Hong Kong people know about pan-fried foie gras. We promote the traditional terrine. It's different, it's ready made, you don't pan fry, you don't cook, you eat it cold, and people are interested to try it. The foie gras terrine is my father's recipe. He taught my wife, Marie Christine, how to make it many years ago, and we want to keep it to ourselves. My wife and one chef [Sabine Rasse] in our kitchen know the recipe, and she is a long-time family friend.
So it's really a family business?
Yes, my daughter Caroline used to work as operations manager in the shop, but right now she is on a trip from Paris to Hong Kong in an old Renault 4L car. My eldest son, Romain, runs the wine operation, and my wife is more involved with the kitchen, working on new recipes, trying to develop new things.
What's next for Monsieur Chatt??
Ma Cuisine. We are offering a private kitchen experience at our kitchen in Chai Wan. It's an industrial building, so we cannot have a restaurant, but we have a food factory licence. We offer fixed, six-course French dinner menus with different themes such as dishes from Brittany, or from southwest France, or choucroute from the Alsace region. People can book and join the dinner.
Our target is to make a big table like a table d'h?te in France, the old-style restaurant where you don't have so many different tables, so people sit together. It's well-cooked, quality ingredients served in a casual, friendly manner 'comme la maison' [like home]. I don't know if people in Hong Kong will like sharing a table, but if we don't try, we won't know.