Running a restaurant in Hong Kong can be a brutal business, with soaring rents and long hours forcing the closure of hundreds across the city in the past few years. The number of restaurants in the city dropped from 12,354 in 2005 to 11,539 in 2008, the latest government data shows - a loss of more than 800 lunch options for hungry residents. Those that have survived are increasingly bigger and run by large chains with deeper pockets. While the number of restaurants is declining, the number of employees in the catering industry grew from 185,853 in 2005 to 224,210 in 2008. But it is not all bad news for the little guy, with a number of family-owned restaurants surviving against the odds. The next Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay may be just around the corner and more than likely he is a chef who not only runs the kitchen but owns the place. Their key to success is simple - good food and commitment only an owner can have. From the finest French dishes to the freshest sushi and dumplings, small chef-owned restaurants are giving their bigger rivals a run for their money but facing tough challenges. The fact the cooks can often have their life savings tied up in their business is adding to their taste for survival. Dimitri Bastiani, the executive chef who co-founded French restaurant Green Mouse in Central's Peel Street, says he enjoys more freedom as the boss than when he was an employee working for other eateries. The 32-year old worked for a number of restaurants in France before coming to Hong Kong about five years ago. After cooking for other local restaurants, he established his own with business partners 18 months ago. 'I can design the menu all by myself with no need to get anyone's approval,' Bastiani said. 'We can make change to items on the menu quickly if we receive comments from customers.' As the boss now, he can also decide who to hire and speak to customers directly - things he could not do when he worked for other restaurants. But there is also a price. Bastiani earns less than in his previous role as an employee chef. Generally, the executive chef of a French restaurant earns between HK$25,000 and HK$30,000 a month. As a boss he has to shoulder the losses his 30 per cent stake suffered. The restaurant was founded in October 2008 - at the peak of the financial crisis. 'It was a very tough time when we first started,' Bastiani recalls. 'When I saw empty tables, I was so sad. This was so different from when I was an employee. [Back then] I would consider empty tables meant an easy and quiet day. 'When I was an employee, I would receive my salary anyway. But now, even when the business is not good, I have to pay wages to my staff.' After 18 months, the father of two young children now finds he can cope with the most difficult times. Word of mouth has helped and the restaurant is full during the weekends. But space is at a premium. 'We can provide very good service for 10 tables but a big party may make life difficult,' he said, adding expansion was a challenge for a small restaurant with limited resources. At the other end of the international food spectrum, 51-year-old Sato Naoyuki, executive chef and co-owner of the Naozen Japanese Restaurant in Wellington Street, is relaxed about his prospects. 'It was always my dream to have my own shop so I do not care much about business volume,' Sato said while cutting sashimi. 'The most important thing for me is to see all my customers happy and satisfied with the food.' Tokyo-born Sato learned to cook in Osaka and started his career with the prestigious Nadaman group of Japanese restaurants. Nadaman is a household name in Japan dating back to the first restaurant in Osaka in 1830. It now has restaurants around Japan and overseas, including two at Shangri-La hotels in Hong Kong. Sato came to Hong Kong in 1994 as executive chef for the Kowloon Shangri-La Nadaman. Even though he was boss of the kitchen, he still had to follow house rules. When Nadaman wanted to send him back to Japan in 2003, he preferred to quit and set up his own restaurant. The Japanese chef has not regretted his decision. 'When I was an employee, I had to stick to what the restaurant traditionally did. I could not freely decide to use new materials or ways of presentation,' Sato said. 'Now, I am completely free to do anything with the menu or the dish. 'Before, I was confined to the kitchen but now I can come out to meet my clients and ask what they think about the food.' With a team of more than 10 chefs, Sato's restaurant can handle more than 130 people. This came in handy during last month's Hong Kong Sevens. No matter how good a good small restaurant is, it often struggles to get the word out. Unlike MacDonald's, which can easily afford to spend millions of dollars on advertising, small restaurants spend next to nothing. 'We had not done any advertising but when the customers find the food delicious, they bring their friends,' Sato said. 'This is how we expand our business.' Sato opened in the aftermath of the Sars outbreak, and business in the first six months was poor. Luckily, Sato's business partner is lawyer and racehorse owner Woo Po-shing, who owns the two-floor restaurant. A supplier is also a partner and they were able to support Sato during the start-up stage. But not everyone is lucky enough to have their landlord as their partner. Rising rents are a nightmare for 58-year old Wang Zong-yuan, head chef and owner of the Dumpling Yuan in Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, which serves traditional Chinese dumplings and noodles in soup. Rocketing rents were the reason he moved his shop from Central to Wan Chai seven years ago. Now, he said he may need to quit this site if the owners raised rent further when his lease expires in November. 'When our shop was in Central, it cost HK$50,000, which was too high,' Wang said. 'We then moved here and the rent was lower than HK$40,000. But the owner has increased the rent every two years.' Wang comes from a family of restaurant operators. His grand- father and his father owned one of the eight most famous restaurants in Beijing before the communists took power. After 1949, the restaurant was nationalised and his father moved into retailing and trading, raising Wang and his four siblings in their hometown of Yantai , Shandong province. Wang and his wife came to Hong Kong in 1986 to join his uncle's tablecloth trading business and started their own dumpling shop nine years ago. 'For Shandong people, dumplings are their rice,' Wang said. 'My mother taught me how to make good dumplings and cook them in the traditional Shandong style.' When business is good, he can sell more than 3,000 dumplings a day, which allows him to hire a team of five. But he and his wife still have to make the dumplings themselves and Wang handwrites the menu hanging on the wall. 'My staff does not have any idea how to make dumplings. The mixture is very important and that is why my wife and I have to do it ourselves,' Wang said. 'It is also for cost reasons. A head chef has a salary of between HK$10,000 and HK$15,000. If we hire others to do the job, we could not afford it.' He said the business had been hard hit by the financial crisis, and during the downturn people would order less or order the cheaper items. 'Now the worst is over and we have seen more customers coming in.' But Wang said rising costs for ingredients, such as oil, sugar and flour were eroding his profit margins after increasing 25 per cent to 50 per cent in recent years. Shortage of money is not the only problem facing many up-and-coming restaurant owners. They are also time-poor. Even chefs working for big chains work long hours, but for chefs that own their own restaurants the only holidays they have are the ones they dream about. Sato's restaurant is open every day except Sunday morning, while Bastiani only has Sunday off. Wang and his wife take alternative Sundays off. Wang misses working in a trading company. 'When I was an employee I only needed to work about eight hours a day,' he said. 'Now I am a boss and it is very tough and I work long hours. My wife comes to the shop at 7am to do the preparation and I am here every day from 9am. We work all day through to 10pm ... you have no leisure time at all. 'If the property owner increases my rent substantially in November, I will quit and retire. What is the point if all your long hours are just to pay the high rent?'