Profile | ‘I was a difficult kid’: how a Hong Kong plant-based food movement leader overcame ADHD, dyslexia on his path to success
- Christian Mongendre, owner of Treehouse and partner in the Mana! restaurants, was born in Hong Kong and raised in France, where he struggled at school
- After seeing the benefits of going meatless and finding his calling as a chef, he became a driving force in Hong Kong’s plant-based restaurant revolution
I was born in Hong Kong in 1985 and we lived on The Peak. My dad was the head of a French bank – he had me when he was in his early 50s, it was his second marriage – and my mum looked after me and my older sister.
When I was three, after France nationalised its banks, my father returned to work at the bank’s headquarters in Paris. During the week, we lived in Paris and I went to school there, and at weekends we went to our house in the countryside, about 10 minutes from Versailles.
It’s a late 1800s farm that my parents renovated. My parents were hippies at heart and were concerned about the environment. We had a little farm and my dad grew cherry tomatoes and all sorts of fruit and we got eggs from our chickens. We had cats, geese, ducks, a dog, a rooster and Guinea pigs and hamsters – it was fun to grow up around the animals and it had a big impact on me.
I went to quite a few schools because I was a difficult kid. I was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and hyperactivity. I was creative but found it hard to sit down at a desk and listen to professors who were not interesting, so I became a bit of a rebel.
The school I spent the most time at was La Providence; from there I was sent to boarding school because my parents thought I needed more structure, but I hated it.
When I was 14, my mum took me around some high schools in America and I was accepted by Kent School, in Connecticut. It was there that I got into rowing, which not only gave me structure, but also an understanding of my body that I hadn’t had before.
When I was about 16, I started reading about the dairy industry and food supply. I enjoyed rowing competitively and was recruited to Northeastern University, in Boston, and rowed in its Division One.
Although I was there to study business and cinema, I felt that rowing was my real major. We competed all over America against the big college heavyweights like Princeton and Harvard.
I was competing with some of the best guys in America and trying to work out how to get an edge.
I started working with a nutritionist so I could do a plant-based diet in a more educated way. I realised that when I ate plant-based food rather than what was considered manly – burgers and beers – my recovery rate was insanely superior.
If I got a bruise it healed much faster, and my ability to workout longer, mental clarity and overall sense of well-being and performance was better.
I saw a tangible effect in all aspects of my basic manhood and stamina and my ability to move my body in a more efficient way.
Hitting the road
I didn’t finish university. At the end of my second year, my mum became sick with cancer. I told her I wanted to go to cooking school, and she encouraged me to go back to France; it meant I could go to cooking school and be closer to her.
I went to the Institut Paul Bocuse, in Lyon. It was in a beautiful castle with grounds. There were just 25 people per class and all we did was talk and learn about food. It has grown tremendously since I went, but at the time it was a small, in-depth programme.
I did a bachelor’s degree in international hotel management and restaurant business and then a one-year master’s in managerial finance. My mum passed away in 2009 and my father died a year later.
I decided it was time to stop studying and start working, and find my way as a young adult.
For a year I travelled all over India, Nepal, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia. I didn’t have a plan, I was just wandering and checking out all the vegetarian restaurants I could find and trying new things.
A sense of belonging
I came to Hong Kong in 2010; it was part of my soul-searching. My sister’s husband’s job had brought them to Hong Kong, so I was met by family. I went to see where I was born, where my dad had worked.
In Hong Kong, I felt accepted, felt a sense of familiarity. I think the place you are born has a deep, energetic feeling of belonging. In a yoga class, someone heard about my restaurant background and I was hired to work for Dining Concepts. They put me in BLT Steak and that’s where I realised I can’t work against my values.
I can’t be a traditional businessman who works solely for profit; it has to have an ethos, to have something that is bigger than just making money, otherwise I’m not interested.
Mana! from heaven
Since I was 16, I’ve had an idea for a restaurant – I loved McDonald’s, but not the food, I wanted to create a McDonald’s that was healthy, convenient, available and made fresh.
I was the chef and director of operations. We were equal partners, but I didn’t want to be in the spotlight.
A change of pace
I was told, “Sign this contract or we close.” I told them I’m not signing and a week later we closed. It was traumatic because it was so sudden, it’s the violent side of business. A few months after Home closed, Celina and I broke up.
It was a massive change – I left the apartment, I’d been close to her family – combined with the emotional turmoil of closing a restaurant, it was rough. Some of the customers heard about Home closing and asked me to open a restaurant in Portugal, which I did, and I did consulting for two years.
It was a blessing because after Hong Kong speed Portugal was relaxing. I was also rebuilding a house in France, so it meant I could be close to that. I couldn’t have imagined a better situation – a job, resources, and in Lisbon, which is beautiful and a good change of pace.
I’ve learned a lot of skills and have been the main handyman of the business. At the moment I’m in France, I felt it was time to leave my team and let them do their thing, and it’s been good for me. I’ve met investors and plan to open a Treehouse in Paris and I’m going to New York to meet other potential investors with a view to opening a Treehouse there.
I’m dating someone in Hong Kong at the moment. We met while I was doing my 21-day quarantine at the Kerry Hotel last year. Her name is Jenny. She was a Treehouse customer and responded to one of my Instagram posts.
We chatted and then moved to WhatsApp. I had 20 days of being available and talking and that created an openness I usually don’t have. After talking for a long time we met and voilà! I plan to open more Treehouses in Hong Kong and grow a network of Treehouses outside the city.
I think in 2023 we should have a Parisian Treehouse. The business is following my own track – born in Hong Kong and then going to Paris.