Aqua Group founder David Yeo talks about his recipes for success

Aqua Group founder David Yeo started a small restaurant and worked as a barman before building an F&B empire, writes Tracey Furniss

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm

With restaurants in Hong Kong, London and Beijing, and opening in New York and possibly Las Vegas in the near future, the Aqua Group celebrates 15 years of incredible dining.

Self-confessed foodie David Yeo founded the Aqua Group in 2000 on the urging of his friends who, after many a good dinner party at Yeo's house, suggested he start his own restaurant.

"I said, you know, how difficult can it be? Maybe I will. So it was just meant to be a laugh really," says Yeo, who had been a partner in a law firm and director of Credit Suisse here. "I got Richard Ward interested who is now a partner and we really just opened a canteen for the boys - a 60-seater at the corner of Hollywood Road.

"We bought the fruit juice from this man around the corner. I created the recipes, it was fun. The market came all the way up to Lyndhurst Terrace, there were dai pai dongs all around. A few months after we opened, a man came up to us and said, 'do you have a card and have you got any press photos'?

"We said, what's that, we had no idea, so he said, if you've got some photos send them to me. Twelve months later, we got into 100 hottest new tables in the world by [media company] Condé Nast in New York. We won it again two or three years later with Hutong."

That was the first Aqua restaurant, which served food that Yeo liked - contemporary cuisine influenced by London, New York and Tokyo. The Aqua Restaurant Group now has 20 restaurants and bars serving Spanish, Japanese, Italian, Thai and contemporary cuisine in three cities, including Aqua, Armani/Aqua, Armani/Prive, Hutong, Shiro, Zafran, Tivo, Vivo and Ayuthaiya in Hong Kong, four Aqua restaurants and Hutong in London and Agua - a Spanish version of Aqua and Fez bar in Beijing.

He develops the brands differently in each city. "When we open Hutong in New York, it will look different; even our Hutong menu in London is 50 per cent different to Hong Kong. We are not a chain. London's menu has new menu items, so you can eat new things and have a great time, and New York will be different again.

"Going forward in the next year or so is going to be about more international expansion for us," Yeo says. "We are only expanding four major brand names, Tivo, Shiro, Aqua and Hutong. The flagship restaurants are going to be Aqua and Hutong, and there is only going to be one in each major city with the exception of London and perhaps New York, but if we open in Paris or Miami there is only going to be one. Then we have the more lifestyle mass brands Shiro and Tivo. Tivo went from more traditional Italian, like pizza and pasta, to a more global modern European cuisine. Since it opened it's been morphing. We've been changing the menu according to demand. We have the staff who tell us what might work and then diners tell us what they want."

Singaporean-born and London raised, Yeo always had a passion for cooking. "My mother was not a good cook, that's why all the kids could cook," he says, "although my mum is a good cook now."

While Yeo was a law student in London, he started working in a cocktail bar.

"I was trying to pay my way through university and became a barman. At that time, cocktails were coming in, and it was still considered posh to have a cocktail," Yeo says. "There were only two bars you could work for, one was called Legends and the other Peppermint Park in London. That place [Peppermint Park] was just heaving. I will tell you how expensive it was, relatively. My rent was just £20 [HK$240] a week for a room in St John's Wood. A mai tai was £3.50. I thought if I slurped three of those I would actually have paid half a week's rent.

"I really wanted to work there because one, the money was good, huge tips, up to £150, a barman got £10 a shift and floor man £5 and then tips. I found out who the barman was so every shift change I would stalk him."

His persistence paid off. Yeo's first job involved cleaning the bar and clearing the bottles. He was promoted to scooping the ice cream before he was allowed behind the bar. He was taught the "Tom Cruise" style of making cocktails, which Yeo refers to as "kung fu training" as it was stringent. He had to learn to pour multiple 1/6 gil measures for each cocktail - which had to be precise and fast as the lines of people waiting for drinks were three thick. By the time he was done he could make 10 drinks at one time.

"Each ice cube is also measured so four of those will fill a 10-ounce glass so then I had to make the cocktail and then tip the bottle upside down to show I hadn't wasted a drop and it was absolutely precise.

"From a single drink I would make pitchers of it with 10 drinks at one time. And that's how you become skilled. Why I mention that, is because it really helped me and changed my life," he says, adding this skill made him popular at student parties, along with his cooking skills.

Yeo still creates recipes for his restaurants.

"I am in touch with the chefs regularly, I send them recipes, I say, guys we should be doing this, how about that and they will then do various things for me," he says. "I am a foodie."