Wednesday, 5.30pm, Carbone, LKF Tower, Wyndham Street, Central
The staff meeting is already in full swing. Franco, a middle-aged Italian, is barking instructions. “Make sure to mention the white truffles,” he reminds the restaurant’s multinational staff, who are taking notes intently. Franco points randomly at people, holding a spot quiz on regulars coming to dine that evening, and aiming rapid-fire questions on preferences, quirks and even biographical data. “Always remember, it’s all about love,” Franco says, wrapping up the meeting and looking over his shoulder towards a figure standing in the shadows at the back, who nods in approval.
Listening in, as he does most nights, is Syed Asim Hussain, one of the two co-founders of hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants. Starting at their Italian-American restaurant Carbone, every evening for the past five years, Hussain, 32, and business partner Christopher Mark, 42, have done “the rounds” of SoHo. As if surveying outposts of an empire, they stroll from restaurant to restaurant, taking time to greet customers, friends and acquaintances in what Hussain calls “our neighbourhood”.
To avid SoHo-goers, the sight of Hussain or Mark pounding Elgin Street or taking the escalator is common, but for outsiders, the Black Sheep duo remain largely anonymous. Most Hong Kong foodies will know a couple, maybe more, of Black Sheep’s restaurants. Few realise that some of the area’s most talked about eateries belong to one company, which has reshaped the neighbourhood in recent years.
Hussain is SoHo “through and through”, he says. He grew up working at his father’s Indian restaurant on Wyndham Street, and saw the area transform into a dining hub in the late 1990s. He then watched as SoHo lost its lustre: with rising rents and straitened times came the closure of notable bars and restaurants, glittering symbols of a mid-2000s heyday.
“The restaurateurs who had their start in SoHo in the 90s and noughties, they stopped caring,” Hussain says. “They expanded into Harbour City or IFC and other malls, places where you had much better footfall and could make much more, and easier, money. They were doing better and stopped caring about the neighbourhood.
“But SoHo has gone through a renaissance in the past few years and, this may be hubris, I feel we have been the catalyst, we have been the flag bearers of that change.”
Including a Japanese izakaya-style eatery due to open in March, Black Sheep counts 18 restaurants in its portfolio, with 13 in and around SoHo. The company, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in December, quickly and quietly became one of the biggest restaurant groups in Hong Kong, and did it, Hussain says, by ignoring conventional wisdom and refusing to compromise.
“When we started out looking for locations, people in the industry were telling us, ‘Don’t do SoHo; go to Kennedy Town or Ship Street in Wan Chai, or Quarry Bay,’ as they were the hot places,” he recalls. “But all our friends lived in SoHo.
“The demand side, the customers, they were there still. They wanted good restaurants and were prepared to pay for good food.Great restaurants become part of the neighbourhood, they serve the neighbourhood first and foremost. And we cared about the neighbourhood.”
7.15pm, New Punjab Club, Wyndham Street
Across the road from Carbone and the Buenos Aires Polo Club is one of Black Sheep’s newer restaurants. The staff at New Punjab Club, decked out in smart colonial-era uniforms, are busy setting up for the evening, and garrulous Londoner Brian takes a break from pushing the antique gin trolley around and offers us a drink. Hussain appears relaxed here, pointing out the art on the walls – pieces from his own collection. He shows me the all-gold bathroom, a nod to the gaudily decorated trucks of the Punjab region, and tells me that the tandoori ovens are from his father’s former restaurant. “I put a lot of effort into this place, the decor is a lot of myself,” Hussain says.
Born in Hong Kong, Hussain spent most of his early life outside the city, first at boarding school in Lahore, Pakistan, then in the United States for college and his first job. He says his childhood was unremarkable and that he “had no particular talent for anything”.
“Both Chris and I, our personal stories are about being black sheep, the underdogs, and that’s where the name and values come from,” he says. Attending college, he argues, gave him a vivid feeling of being an outsider.
“College was totally a black-sheep experience for me,” Hussain says. “I was the only kid in my year that was from Pakistan and I was proud of that. It was post 9/11, it wasn’t really cool to be from Pakistan. Girls would ask me if I had a magic carpet and whether I went to school on elephants. I would, of course, say yes.”
Hussain was working at Dining Concepts, the group behind Bistecca, Mama San and Soho Spice restaurants in Hong Kong, when he met Canadian Mark, who was a chef at the same company, in 2010. The two immediately felt a kinship and began to plot ways to strike out on their own. The first of their current ventures was pizza restaurant Motorino. Hussain says it came very close to being their last.
“I met Mathieu [Palombino], the owner of Motorino, when I lived in New York and we bonded over our love of Neapolitan pizza,” he says. “He came to visit me in Hong Kong and we decided to do something together here. When we opened Motorino, people hated it. They didn’t understand what it was. All the things that Neapolitans love about their pizza, people hated. People would say to me, ‘It’s burnt. You’re giving me cancer.’ Chris and I ate more pizzas than we had guests some days.”
Fear of failure was very real, says Hussain, especially because in order to have complete control over their restaurants, all the investment funds came solely from the founders.
“We were just trying to survive one day to the next,” he says. “Every morning, I would check the bank account, and every night, too. But we stuck to our guns, we didn’t deviate. Now it’s the best pizzeria in Hong Kong.”
Hussain says people always ask him if there was a grand plan behind Black Sheep, and he admits that much of it came about by accident, at least at first, though their next venture, Vietnamese casual dining spot Chôm Chôm, inspired by Hanoi beer bars, was an immediate success.
“Chôm Chôm changed things for us,” he says. “It’s just a great neighbourhood bar; if you live around there, it has become your bar. One night, I was scheduled to work service there and Chris called me. He said, ‘Hey dude, I think we’re gonna be successful.’ And I said, ‘You mean tonight?’ and he replied, ‘No. I think we’re gonna be OK.’”
8.05pm, Burger Circus, Wyndham Street
The short walk along Wyndham Street is punctuated by hellos to dozens of people. We stop outside American-style diner Burger Circus and speak to the Australian manager, who is relatively new to the company. As we talk, Hussain bumps into an executive from Dining Concepts, his former employer. There’s an awkward chat and a handshake, and Hussain looks sheepish. I ask him what they talked about. “He just congratulated me,” he says. “I’m not really sure what for.”
Hussain says success has brought new challenges, not least a frosty reception from Hong Kong’s food writers. He feels that the city’s critics don’t understand Black Sheep’s goals, and their reaction to Ho Lee Fook, the group’s high-end Cantonese restaurant, continues to rankle.
“The critics didn’t get it,” he says. “They thought we were making fun of local food and culture with the name and other things. All the reviews were horrible.”
Hussain describes Ho Lee Fook as “our attempt at a modern China Club”, but Black Sheep’s approach to that kind of dining experience was counter-intuitive.
“It’s a basement place with no windows; another distressed property that no one wanted,” he says. “The interior, too, the hundreds of waving cats as you come in, the food, the no-reservation policy, it was all different.”
What saved Ho Lee Fook, Hussain explains, was the response of other chefs and restaurateurs, including some famous names.
“The chefs got it immediately,” he says. “Ho Lee Fook is like playing punk music, and we’re able to get away with it as we understand music theory. I don’t think you can play good punk music if you don’t understand music theory.”
He rattles off a who’s who of chefs, including Ferran Adrià, Alain Ducasse and Mario Carbone, who fell in love with Ho Lee Fook’s modern spin, raving about the restaurant and its Taiwanese chef, Jowett Yu, in interviews and to peers.
Their patronage and enthusiasm was welcome, but it didn’t guarantee customers. Hussain says Black Sheep has been successful because it has made a “connection” with diners.
“I use the word community a lot, but that’s what we’ve created, among the staff and with the customer,” he says. “It’s not because of the great food, or amazing music, or excellent service. It’s the sense of community we have around our work, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
The restaurateur also believes Black Sheep’s innovations have fostered customer loyalty, pointing out that the restaurants stay open during typhoon alerts, providing locals with places to eat and pass the time when other options are closed. Black Sheep also runs a membership scheme, dubbed “The Herd”, that offers coveted reservations and prizes such as trips to great culinary destinations.
The pair have stubbornly resisted Deliveroo, Food Panda and Uber Eats, and earlier this month launched Black Sheep’s own delivery app.
To further support the neighbourhood, Black Sheep has created “SoHo Concierge”, a service ferrying customers waiting at its busy restaurants to less in-demand ones via a short walk. The two staff on concierge duty also provide directions, general information on the area and food recommendations that are not strictly Black Sheep. If it’s good for SoHo, then it’s good for Black Sheep, Hussain says.
The concept of community is just as crucial internally, he adds, and the company has instituted a Silicon Valley-style “values document” to which team members are expected to adhere. Of equal importance, he says, is Black Sheep’s commitment to its people.
“One thing that was important to us was that we never pay people late, Hussain says. “In Hong Kong, sadly, there’s a culture of paying people poorly and late in the restaurant business, and we wanted to get away from that.”
Black Sheep also funds staff training and education in Hong Kong and abroad. “We take chances on people,” Hussain says. “It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s good for everybody. One of our guys joined as a back waiter years ago, and now he runs both Motorino restaurants. He’s a local Nepalese guy. It’s been a tremendous transformation.”
And staff turnover is low, with 94 per cent retention in 2016, according to the co-founder. “This is going to sound funny, but sometimes we want people to leave so they can do their own thing and grow, but they don’t,” Hussain says.
8.50pm, Belon, Elgin Street
Walking between restaurants, Hussain is behind schedule. He speaks briefly to Wednesday evening’s SoHo Concierges, and they remark that it has been a relatively quiet night while walking a group over to Soul Food Thai. He also stops to speak to Mark, who has been doing the rounds in the opposite direction. A brief stop at Belon becomes protracted as more and more familiar faces say hello.
Hussain’s father, businessman and diplomat Syed Pervez Hussain, was proprietor of The Mughal Room restaurant on Wyndham Street, where the great and the good of pre-1997 Hong Kong society went to eat and socialise. “On its best days, it was an elegant, boisterous social spot,” Hussain says. “It was all things for all kinds of people. There was the food, they had Bollywood nights, it had a bit of everything.”
Despite its popularity, Hussain says The Mughal Room suffered from a lack of identity. He spent his summers home from boarding school working at the restaurant, gaining an understanding of what worked and what did not.
“I think my father struggled with his restaurants,” Hussain says. “He was a brilliant entrepreneur but he wasn’t a very good restaurateur. He cared a lot, he was a good host, he understood the art but not the science. The Mughal Room was a bit confused. He tried to throw the kitchen sink at it. We would have all-you-can-eat buffets for lunch, pack the place out, but then our dinner sales fell. I grew up watching him struggle.”
Hussain wanted authenticity at the heart of his restaurants. “I remember there was a restaurant in SoHo that offered Vietnamese, Thai and Malay food all in one place,” he says. “These are all very diverse, vastly different countries, and to say that all these cuisines can be served in the same restaurant, I found that tremendously disrespectful.”
Travel and awareness of cultural and culinary nuance have helped Black Sheep push its more esoteric approach to food, but Hussain says the restaurant experience should also be educational. New Punjab Club, for example, is inspired by a colonial-era club in Lahore and celebrates the food of that region. “There’s no such thing as Indian food,” he says. “India, Pakistan, Bangladesh are big countries [...] with hundreds of languages and hundreds of cuisines, and if you include Sri Lanka, that’s a few dozen more. It really frustrated us that it was all expressed as one thing: it’s all Indian.”
Hussain admits that being true to your vision holds risks. “Sometimes you might get a person come in and say, ‘Why can’t I get a dosa?’” he says. “And you have to say, ‘You can’t get a dosa because the people of Punjab don’t eat dosas.’”
9.40pm, La Vache!, 48 Peel Street
On Peel Street, we pause outside Brazilian-Japanese restaurant Uma Nota, which is not part of Black Sheep but owned by former employee Alexis Offe, whom Hussain admits he had hoped to groom to take over his own role one day. We end the evening at Parisian steakhouse La Vache! Hussain tells me that, with only one menu item, he was sure the restaurant would fail, but he trusted Mark’s instincts. He says they will open another La Vache in Tsim Sha Tsui, and maybe more in other locations.
“We don’t feel successful and we aren’t where we want to be,” Hussain says, reflecting on five years of Black Sheep progress, but, he admits, he’s trying to convince himself of that notion to stay motivated. Despite the co-founders’ need for Black Sheep to be the upstart challenger, success has changed the dynamic. “In our values document, it says we will always be underdogs, but someone on the team said to me recently, ‘We’re not the underdogs any more. We can’t keep saying this.’ I’m reluctantly starting to accept that.”
As Hussain mourns the end of Black Sheep’s start-up phase, the business is moving forward apace, with more restaurants in the pipeline. Mindful of how his SoHo predecessors left the neighbourhood for the easy money of shopping malls, Hussain insists that he and Mark will not follow suit.
“We don’t want to move on to greener pastures,” he says. “We want to keep developing the neighbourhood. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on us opening a hotel in SoHo within the next three years.”
Having elbowed their way to the top table, Hussain says his drive is as strong as when Black Sheep opened Motorino, although he is dreaming bigger these days. “Right now, Black Sheep is a proud Hong Kong-based restaurant group,” he says. “I think both of these things will change. That is, we won’t only be in Hong Kong, and we won’t only do restaurants.”
The company’s first restaurant outside Hong Kong is due to open this year, in Shanghai, and there are plans for one or more in Europe. The SoHo hotel idea is also beginning to take shape, with locations scouted. “Hong Kong has created some world-class hospitality names like The Mandarin, The Peninsula and The Shangri-La. I want Black Sheep to be the next one,” Hussain says. “As my dad used to tell me, dreaming is free.”