Yenn Wong is the mastermind behind popular Thai restaurants Chachawan and Mak Mak, and Italian restaurant 208 Otto Duecento. She’s also a partner of British chef Jason Atherton on 22 Ships, Ham & Sherry and Aberdeen Street Social.
Not to mention that she co-owns Cantonese fine-dine-slash-art-space Duddell’s with husband Alan Lo, and is bringing Potato Head to Hong Kong. The list doesn’t end here, and the busy restaurateur tells us what it’s like working with big-name chefs, and why her hometown of Singapore trumps Hong Kong when it comes to its local food scene.
A little background
Singaporean Yenn Wong was sent by her father to Hong Kong 13 years ago, when the family — which owns a construction business — acquired a building in Causeway Bay and didn’t know what to do with it. Wong turned it into a boutique hotel. After its success, she went on to open a hotel in Shanghai and restaurants across Asia. Today, she has consolidated her portfolio to a list of successful restaurants in Hong Kong.
How would you compare running hotels with running restaurants?
I find restaurants a lot more intense than hotels. Restaurants also have a shorter timeline. Even though it’s investment-heavy, it’s not as investment-heavy as a hotel. It’s a bit different, but I actually find restaurants more difficult than hotels. Because with hotels we invest in our own properties, there’s an asset element to it. With restaurants, if it doesn’t work you’re screwed. It’s a lot riskier with restaurants, but the returns are also a lot faster. I’m a generally very impatient person so running a restaurant, I like the pace.
Tell me more about 208, your first independent restaurant venture in Hong Kong.
I think 208 was one of the biggest risks that we took. It was kind of like a space that we weren’t really very sure about. But there was a very good vibe about it — it was still an underdeveloped part of Hollywood Road, but there was just something very nice about that area, it felt very suburban. The rental was great. It used to be a cold meat storage space.
We thought of doing Italian because we wanted to go with something more accessible. At the time we were working with people who were all from Naples, they had very good Napoletana pizza, and we also felt like that was something interesting for the market. When we opened, people didn’t even understand the [concept of Napoletana pizza], they were like, “It’s so soggy.” They didn’t get it. Now everyone gets it.
What’s the difference between working with an established chef, versus developing your own restaurant concept?
Working with a known chef is interesting, like working with Jason [Atherton], who came from a lot of very famous restaurants in London. The way that they work, the kind of environment they work in is very different from Hong Kong. It’s so harsh there.
Basically when we opened 22 Ships, we had three days of trials and the day before we soft-opened, I think 80 percent of our chefs left. There were like, “This is too hard, I can’t work.” In London, if you treat this as a serious career, you work like a dog. You work 20 hours a day and you don’t get to rest and you get shouted at all the time. And because you want a career, you’re willing to rough it out. But you know in Hong Kong sometimes it’s just a job. “Oh I didn’t go to school so I’m just going to work in the kitchen.”
The good thing about working with Jason is, he already has a team in London so when shit happens, he’ll fly in more people just to support. And with a known name and all that, it always helps to build the interest initially.
Whereas with our own concepts, there’s more flexibility, we don’t have to keep scratching the chef’s back. It’s also more fun, because we build it ourselves. It’s different.
Singapore and Hong Kong seem to compete with each other over everything. What’s the verdict for you? Who wins?
In terms of food, both are very interesting. I think in terms of local food, the Singapore government is making a conscious effort to retain the street food concept, which is very important, and the Hong Kong government is doing nothing. Fishball noodle shops are all closing down one by one. In terms of the international food scene, Singapore started a bit earlier because of the casinos. With Hong Kong, it’s starting. Hong Kong is a bigger market, because people eat out a lot more.
I asked your husband [Alan Lo of Press Room Group] this too, but who’s the better cook between the two of you?
Neither of us is a really good cook. We’re good at criticizing other people’s cooking, and we’re good at eating, but he likes cooking more. I always try to let him be the head chef in the kitchen. He’s the most disorganized person in the world. He’ll try to cook something that needs to be in the oven for two hours at 7pm. I’m like, really? You want your guests to eat at 10:30pm? I try to be the organized person. I let him do the cooking, but I try to prep for him and all that.
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