Meet the 20-something women who are shaking up Hong Kong’s bar and restaurant scene
Young, determined and passionate about food – this entrepreneurial trio have turned their dreams of business ownership into reality
Late last month, a new vegetarian restaurant called Home – Eat to Live opened in the space that, somewhat ironically, was previously occupied by Burger King in Central. Inside there is lots of wood, an open kitchen upstairs and communal dining tables, lending it an informal atmosphere.
Christian Gerard Mongendre, formerly chef and co-owner of Mana! Fast Slow Food, Mana! Raw and Mana! Cafe, gets kudos for the salad bowls, vegetarian burgers and raw cakes. Meanwhile, another person gets praise from friends and associates for getting the restaurant off the ground.
Twenty-two year-old Elizabeth Chu Yuet-han is dressed in a black blazer decorated with a sparkly brooch with the initials “ZS”, which stand for ZS Hospitality Group of which she is the chairwoman.
Home is not her first restaurant – she opened Viet Kitchen about a year ago with Peter Cuong Franklin, and later this summer will add more dining establishments on Lyndhurst Terrace with Harlan Goldstein.
Vietnamese-born Chu may still be a social sciences student at the University of Hong Kong, but she comes across as very mature, poised and passionate about food, as her entrepreneurial parents nudged her into the family business two years earlier.
“During the Occupy protests, my friends were on the front lines, but I was planning to open a restaurant,” she recalls.
“I have to be assertive to get along with them,” she says of the three chefs who are her partners, including Goldstein.
“At first my mother told me to try to be humble when dealing with people, but you can’t be like that with Harlan,” she says. “At my age it’s hard to manage guys who are 30 years older than me.”
Goldstein has no problem working with Chu. “She is young, aggressive and determined. She has passion and likes food; she liked my restaurants before. She probably has aims to build her company into a big group.”
Chu’s parents are entrepreneurs, too. Her mother, Truong My Lan, started selling cosmetics when she was 16 in Vietnam, where she met Chu’s Hong Kong-born father, Eric Chu Nap-kee. They married and set up restaurants and hotels and invested in property in Vietnam and Hong Kong.
After visiting Vietnamese restaurants in the city, Chu was motivated to open one that was more refined. “I wanted to change the image of Vietnamese cuisine, that it’s not just cheap street food. So we approached Peter and at the time he wanted to do something new.
“The first time I met Franklin was with my mum and she said she would hand the business to me, and that he would have to ask me for approval for everything.”
Even though the restaurants are in buildings owned by her parents’ companies, Chu still has to pay rent at market price. The plan is to eventually inherit her parents’ business by learning and working at the same time. While her parents are based in Vietnam, she talks to them regularly and consults the director of the parent company.
“My dad never praises, he just says that I’m improving. If I have problems I’ll consult my mum. She thinks I have her genes so I should be equally capable, and if I make mistakes I should rectify them myself; luckily I haven’t made too many mistakes.”
Vivien Shek made a splash in the restaurant scene with the opening of Lai Bun Fu last spring, followed by The Drunken Pot in January this year. Now in her late 20s, Shek’s entrepreneurial streak began when she was 18 years old at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, setting up a company to organise events for fellow tertiary students, such as dances, career seminars and sports events.
“I would cold call companies to arrange meetings and they rejected me many times because we were university students,” recalls Shek, who studied finance and marketing. “But after they saw what we were doing, they would call us.”
Shek’s father owns a factory in China that manufactures hats and fascinators, and he asked her to go and help with the business. Instead she stayed on in Sydney and opened two shops selling her father’s products and some necklaces she designed herself.
“I learned that location is very important as well as market research. My shop was in Westfield Shopping Centre, which is like Pacific Place. The problem was that people would buy things, and then because we had to have a return policy, people would use something and then return it for a refund so we couldn’t make money.”
But Shek persevered, setting up booths in outdoor flea markets which meant having to wake up at 5.30am just to get a stall.
“I didn’t know how to do promotion and I tried to keep costs down by taking my own photos and fixing them in Photoshop. In hindsight I should have built up a team, but I thought I should do everything myself, though I did hire staff to tend the shop.”
Shek came back to Hong Kong in 2011 and thought about opening a dessert shop. Then one of her business partners introduced her to chef Chung Kin-leung, who was known for cooking Cantonese delicacies for then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen at Government House.
In February 2014 she asked Chung to come and cook for her family and friends, and she was impressed by his dish of tender white eel with preserved cabbage, and crispy chicken. After cooking for Shek’s family a few more times, Chung says she talked him into opening a restaurant with her.
“I was quite concerned at first, wondering if it was a good idea to partner with a young girl – my daughter’s age – who doesn’t have much experience in the food and beverage industry,” recalls Chung. “However, I could feel she had a passion for it. She works hard at her research and cooks dishes I have never come across before. Vivien put so much effort into working on the whole concept that I started to be convinced.”
Chung says they had differences over development of the dishes, as he admits being more traditional. “But then I started to learn more about modern culinary styles and she showed me how much people concentrate on presentation besides the quality of the ingredients and taste.”
Shek continued with The Drunken Pot, best known for hot pot spiked with sake, colourful dumplings and fish balls. It has become extremely popular with younger diners, despite its out-of-the-way location on Observatory Road in Tsim Sha Tsui.
When asked if her parents gave her capital to start the two restaurants, Shek says the money was her own. Her father taught her and her brother how to play the stock market when she was 16 years old. Together with money pooled from silent partners, Shek opened both restaurants.
American-born Victoria Chow had neither the money nor wealthy parents to realise her dream. After working in marketing and events for several years and studying art and design, Chow decided to open a bar, as she loves wine. She has some wine certification, thanks to being near Napa Valley during her college years.
“Wine is a crowded market, and at the time cocktails were a missing niche, though there’s a huge boom now. I did some research and felt cocktails were a good area for a creative outlet,” says Chow, also in her late 20s.
To open The Woods, a stylish cocktail bar in a basement on Wyndham Street, Central, Chow enlisted the help of her two sisters, the oldest Juliet an investment banker who rounded up investors, while Regina, who runs an architecture and interior design firm helped with designing the space.
“Hong Kong people like F&B. People are crazy enough to invest in first-timers. It’s a vanity project for some people,” Chow says.
Chow also creates one-off events for clients such as Jo Malone, Lane Crawford, House of Madison and the Financial Times, and more recently has branched out into set design.
While she admits she’s not “swimming in money”, Chow says she is lucky to have family support. Both siblings are older than Chow – Juliet is 16 years older, and Regina 14 years.
“Owning your own company sounds like a luxury, but it’s actually a nightmare, because you have to work 24/7.”
In hiring staff, Chow was very honest with them and as a testament to her management skills, the majority of the opening team are still with her. “At first we thought we should hire mixologists, but in the end we hired trustworthy people who had worked in clubs before but may not have made proper cocktails. I told them we were going to learn together.”
While she sets the vision and ideas, Chow gives her staff the freedom to create the drinks, which they then try together and give constructive feedback. “It’s a more democratic process. The automatic assumption is to have a mixologist, but then it’s like having a Michelin-starred chef. I have a strong opinion about what I want and every few weeks or once a week we try new drinks so the bartenders are never bored.”
Last summer she found a space on Staunton Street to open The Walrus, a hip oyster bar. “The Woods is quite refined, about beautiful things, whereas The Walrus is fun and loud. They’re different characters. Personally, I try to make sure they run well on their own because I always want to make them better.
“My parents are much happier now that we have a restaurant. At first they were mortified I was opening a bar – it was not a place for a young lady, they worried about the drugs and gangs. But I told them I’m not opening a nightclub.”
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