Five Hong Kong restaurant groups expanding in Asia and beyond

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 6:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 6:45pm

Hong Kong has its share of celebrity chef restaurants, from Joel Robuchon to Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. But in the past two years, expansion has headed in the other direction with Hong Kong-based restaurants groups taking their brands abroad.

Three Michelin-star chef Umberto Bombana has set up in Shanghai, Beijing and now Macau; even no-frills dim sum eatery Tim Ho Wan boasts outlets in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney.

Other restaurant groups are spreading their wings, too, bringing foods such as gourmet hamburgers and modern Chinese to nearby cities such as Singapore and Manila, and as far afield as Abu Dhabi, Vancouver and London.

Opening restaurants in another country can be daunting; there are unfamiliar regulations to deal with, reliable new suppliers to secure and staff to recruit. Even with the benefit of a celebrity name, Mario Batali's Carnevino failed to gain traction in Hong Kong. But these Hong Kong-based restaurateurs believe they have the right strategies to establish themselves in new markets.

Perhaps the fastest roll-out comes from the two-year-old Butchers Club. The high-end Wan Chai burger joint was such a hit that the owners recovered their investment within two weeks of opening. Fuelled by this success, founder and managing director Johnny Glover plans to open nine restaurants abroad in 18 months. Its first outpost opened in Bali in December, followed by Singapore, Dubai and London.

"We had so many people come to Butchers Club Burger, enjoy the experience and then contact us about opening one where they live," Glover says.

They are also in negotiations to open in 11 other countries. Of the potential new footholds, Glover says, "the weirdest has to be Colombia, which freaks me out, and Sweden". As flattering as these requests are, Glover says such business collaborations must be based on trust, which is why he opened the Bali restaurant with a partner he has known for a long time; other branches will adopt a franchise model.

IHM, the company behind Linguini Fini, Posto Pubblico and Stone Nullah Tavern, is also franchising its Italian restaurant.

Linguini Fini opened in Manila last August and IHM founder Todd Darling says the exercise has been a lesson in flexibility.

"You have the same challenges of opening a restaurant from an operational point of view, but there's the addition of understanding the new culture, palate and spending habits that are different from Hong Kong. You have to constantly adapt and learn."

This adaptibility may be one of the reasons for the success of Darling's restaurants. When he came to Hong Kong 12 years ago, the New Yorker learned to adapt to the culture, language and accept the situation for what it was, which put him in a good position for expanding to Hanoi and Shanghai in the next 12 months.

Darling has even had inquiries about opening a Linguini Fini in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However he decided the distance made this infeasible even though its laid-back vibe and casual menu of pastas and pizzas are designed to reach a broad base.

"I met this woman who had restaurants in Rwanda and we talked. She's well-connected, but my time is limited. Just to get there I would have to fly to Beijing to get a visa and then fly through Doha. It's just too far. With Hanoi, Manila, and Shanghai, I can fly there in the morning and be back by the evening."

Among the more surprising overseas ventures is Chinese fine-dining restaurant Mott 32, which is set to open in Vancouver next year in Trump International Hotel & Tower, the city centre.

Run by Maximal Concepts, the group behind a clutch of Western dining outlets including Blue Butcher and Limewood, Mott 32 has become a hot spot for foodies thanks to its exquisite dim sum and imaginative twists on old favourites (lobster mapo tofu, for example).

Maximal had not planned on expanding their Chinese restaurant, says Malcolm Wood, group managing director and culinary director. But six months after they opened in Central, five-star hotels started knocking on his door.

Generally you see restaurant concepts from New York or London, but nothing from Hong Kong
Malcolm Wood, Maximal Concepts

"We were surprised at the demand for Mott 32 in other countries. It shows you how important China is, that hotels internationally want to move towards offering Chinese food," Wood says.

Although the large Chinese community in Vancouver ensures the city doesn't lack quality Chinese dining, Wood believes the use of modern cooking techniques that allow the most subtle control will help Mott 32 stand out.

"We'll be doing the same as here, focusing on the ingredients and timing the cooking process. For example, we have a quail egg siu mai where the egg is exactly soft boiled, [rather than having it] sit in the steamer and become overcooked. I don't think you'll find a sous vide machine in Fook Lam Moon."

While restaurant chains such as Din Tai Fung and Crystal Jade have made successful expansions abroad, Wood says Chinese fine dining at this level has not been done before by a restaurant group.

"Generally you see restaurant concepts from New York or London, but nothing from Hong Kong. It's exciting to bring a brand grown in Hong Kong," Wood says.

He is also keen to bring architect Joyce Wang's award-winning decor for Mott 32 to Vancouver, raising the bar on interior design in Chinese restaurants.

"It's important for Chinese food. People want Chinese brands to go international," he says.

More dramatically, the team from Serge et le Phoque, the quirky French diner in Wan Chai, beat rivals including Joel Robuchon's company to win a contract to open a restaurant and run food and beverage operations at the Mandrake, a new luxury boutique hotel being built in London. It is due to open next spring.

Chef and co-founder Frederic Peneau secured the deal by cooking 25 dishes for the owner and a group of investors.

"Even though we got the tender, I wasn't sure because I wanted to know if we would get along," says Peneau, a former architect. But after spending more time together, Peneau says they have become good friends as well as business partners.

As the hotel is being completed, Peneau and Serge et le Phoque co-owner Charles Pelletier are developing a menu for the new restaurant. They haven't decided on a name yet.

"The food concept [featuring eclectic flavour combinations] will be the same, using quality ingredients - the same as Pierre Gagnaire but with a less formal atmosphere," Peneau says.

"We are constantly evolving; we are not the same restaurant as the one that opened two years ago, even though the banquettes are the same," he says with a laugh. "We have to learn to adapt and we'll find ourselves."

The pair may want to pay attention to the painful lessons dealt to Bo Innovation owner Alvin Leung, whose Bo London closed quietly 16 months after it opened in December 2012.

"The set menus [priced at £98 (HK$1,175) and £138 ] were a problem, so I'm going to change it to something more casual. And you need good PR to explain to the media what we are doing," says Leung.

Cultural differences were another issue Leung cites for the failure of Bo London to secure a foothold in London: diners might not have understood its molecular menu, which was heavily influenced by Hong Kong and Chinese cuisine. "I'm not serving egg foo yung," he says. Taking a dig at London food culture, he adds: "The Brits like to see their local chefs do well - when a foreign chef comes in - even Joel Robuchon - they are harshly critical."

This setback hasn't dampened Leung's appetite for expansion - he is set to launch another Bo Innovation in Shanghai, and the self-styled "Demon Chef" has just opened R&D (Rebel & Demon) in Toronto with Eric Chong, the first winner of MasterChef Canada, a reality TV show on which Leung served as one of the judges.

The R&D menu, which was mostly developed in Hong Kong with Leung, offers Asian riffs on Western favourites - poutine topped with tofu and lobster chow mein, for example. He has a seasoned partner managing the business in Toronto, but it is Chong who runs the kitchen.

"While you can have the cult of the celebrity chef, the food still must taste good. Just because it tastes good in Hong Kong, it doesn't necessarily translate elsewhere," Leung says.

"You learn from experience, regroup and apply those lessons elsewhere."