Neighborhood

Famous restaurateur Yenn Wong discusses Sai Ying Pun and Hong Kong’s ever-aggressive F&B industry

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Over the past few years, Sai Ying Pun has become a dining paradise. From the local cha chaan tengs to the internationally themed fine dining restaurants, SYP has rapidly developed into a hotspot for people looking for a decent bite. A huge array of eateries have opened their doors here as streets like Second, Third and High have been remodelled into fairly intense dining destinations. There’s a fresh ‘n’ funky feel to this area with a massive range of cuisines of offer.

Also over the past few years, restaurateur and entrepreneur Yenn Wong has been raising her business profile in our city by opening a veritable empire of successful dining venues under her JIA Group. The Singaporean is behind the likes of Chachawan, Duddell’s, 22 Ships and Aberdeen Street Social, which have each carved out a dedicated fanbase of hungry guests. And her restaurants in Sai Ying Pun, namely Fish School, Rhoda and Kaum at Potato Head Hong Kong, have helped SYP in no small part gain a moniker as one of the SAR’s most exciting dining destinations.

Wong was sent to Hong Kong over a decade ago by her father when her family, which owns a construction firm, bought a building in Causeway Bay. Wong, who had an interest in the hotel and F&B industries from an early age, created a boutique hotel at the site, quickly became successful, opened another in Shanghai and then set her sights on the restaurant game. The rest, as they say, is history as she’s opened, either on her own or with partners like her husband Alan Lo or chef Jason Atherton, a string of successful dining venues over the past few years.

Wong speaks to theDesk about her success in this dog-eat-dog (no pun intended) world of fast-opening and fast-closing restaurants, plus she turns her attention to our neighbourhood in SYP, which is a dining destination that is showing little sign of slowing down as more restaurants open all the time across this district…

Hi Yenn! Great to meet you. What have you been up to lately?
We had an aggressive 2016 with a lot of restaurant openings, so this year is about consolidation and also I’m expecting a baby in May!

Congratulations from theDesk! So, you’re Singaporean, based in Hong Kong, 39-years-old and you’re the force behind restaurant and bar empire JIA Group, which includes Duddell’s, Chachawan, Ham & Sherry, Aberdeen Street Social and many more. What’s the secret to your success at such a young age?
It’s a tough market in Hong Kong at the moment – customers here give you one chance to succeed. I think there are a number of things we can attribute our success to. Firstly, we aim to develop restaurants that are at the same time both design-led yet comfortable spaces that people want to come back to. In addition to this, we always strive for interesting locations, not just because we feel it’s fun for the concept but also because the rent is often cheaper so we can spend more to deliver more to the customer instead of the landlord – this goes a long way to ensuring the guest has a good experience. Finally, we endeavour to provide unique restaurants that enable the busy working people of Hong Kong to relax and get away from Hong Kong’s hectic ‘always-on’ culture. Ultimately, it’s a lot of passion, commitment, hard work and some business acumen involved.

In our neighbourhood around theDesk, we frequent three of your restaurants: Rhoda and Fish School, under JIA Group, and also Kaum at your Potato Head complex. Firstly, Rhoda, in SYP’s Des Voeux Rd W. This only opened in the summer, last year…
Rhoda’s ethos is ‘the food you eat is the food we love’. Chef Nate Green’s down-to-earth yet discerning philosophy runs through every aspect of the restaurant: each plate, the furnishing, the ingredients and even the suppliers we work with. At Rhoda we try to make use of every piece of each ingredient that we buy to create a down-to-earth, vibrant menu with dishes made for sharing, cooked either on the Western-style charcoal grill or in the kitchen.

It’s been a huge success. Why?
Responsible dining and conscious eating is a movement that gained traction in 2016. We saw high demand for sustainable produce with more diners concerned with the source of their food. I think this is one of the reasons Rhoda has seen such success. It was a trend we had in mind when we opened the restaurant. A place where we could showcase grilled meats sourced from local farms. We’ve also seen a rise in popularity for ‘forgotten spirits’ such as sake, cognacs and whiskies. Diners are looking for drinks that featured in the past so they can bring them to the present. This is also something we thought about when creating the drinks concept at Rhoda. Rhoda offers a range of ‘forgotten drinks’ to diners. Finally, Rhoda offers modern comfort food in a market where back-to-basics cooking has increased in popularity. While fine dining still occupies a revered space in Hong Kong’s gastronomic scene, customers are also looking at scaled-down simplicity and dining experiences with more accessible menus, which is what Rhoda specialises in.

Then there’s Fish School. What’s the ethos here?
Fish School is a neighbourhood fish specialty restaurant tucked away in a hidden alley on Sai Ying Pun’s Third Street. The restaurant was the brainchild of myself and Hong Kong chef David Lai. The concept of Fish School grew from David’s lifetime love of seafood and his vast knowledge of local produce. We bring modern Hong Kong to the plate with a cuisine that reflects the local culture and resources.

Where do you source the ingredients?
At Fish School, we serve up the freshest seafood primarily sourced from small family-owned fishing boats on local waters. Each dish is carefully prepared with seasonal ingredients from nearby farms that grow produce specifically for the restaurant under David’s watch.

Why does Hong Kong adore restaurants that are geared entirely towards the fruits of the sea?
Hong Kong’s fishing culture is steeped in history and remains culturally significant. Fish School specifically reflects the local culture which so many Hongkongers are exposed to in the fishing villages or out on the islands surrounding the city. I think the expert knowledge that comes with a restaurant geared towards the fruits of the sea allows Hongkongers to connect with generations of local seafaring traditions.

We agree. Okay, there’s also Potato Head in Third Street. This also opened last year and has been a huge success. What’s the secret here?
Potato Head Hong Kong is an exciting multifunctional space. It’s an urban version of the renowned Bali-based beach club, featuring a tropical bar, an Indonesian restaurant – which are far and few between in Hong Kong – and the Music Room space. The Potato Head group has a vision similar to ours – creating projects that are unique, daring, community-focused and original. The team are committed to showcasing Indonesian culture through this contemporary context in the worlds of food, mixology, music and art. Hongkongers have been receptive to this because it is so different to anything else in the market here. It also carries the Potato Head brand name which is such a renowned space in Bali – this translates to this market too.

Why did you think this would work in Hong Kong, though?
As a multifaceted site, there is so much to explore. People in Hong Kong are always looking for the latest trend and something different to explore – and I think this is, in part, why it works so well in this market. In addition, the venue collaborates with some really talented individuals, from chefs and designers to DJs and mixologists. There is always something new going on to attract the Hong Kong audience.  

We’re big fans of Kaum, the restaurant at Potato Head. What are your favourite dishes here?
I always love the babi guling and all the sambals, as they are so authentic. You can only find them in Potato Head in Hong Kong and eating them always reminds me of being in Bali.

What’s new coming up at these restaurants?
Rhoda has an exciting pop-up planned with Hawksmoor, the steak restaurant in London. We will be hosting Richard Turner, the executive chef, during the first week of April for a meat-focused pop-up experience. Potato Head is currently planning to bring across some great hip-hop talent for its Sunday Circle Sessions. And, at Fish School, we have a great new chef’s tasting menu which is being received very well by our regulars. We will, of course, continue to refresh menus at all three restaurants to ensure we stay current in this market and continue to innovate.

Each of these three restaurants are in Sai Ying Pun. What is it about this district that works for you in terms of the F&B industry?
I think, for restaurateurs, we’re always on the lookout for pockets of areas that are interesting and at the same time can offer better rentals. This allows us to offer more to our customers rather than paying hefty rents to landlords. Being in Sai Ying Pun, we are surrounded by unique neighbourhoods such as Kennedy Town, Sai Wan and Sheung Wan. In all of these areas there are many new residential developments that are attracting young professionals as well as families – and these are the audiences that we hope will appreciate and enjoy the concepts we are offering, such as Fish School, Rhoda and Potato Head.

Do you have plans to open up more businesses in SYP?
We are not currently looking at Sai Ying Pun as a destination for another restaurant, however we do have plans for openings in Hong Kong this year, so watch this space…

We at theDesk are proud to be in the SYP and Kennedy Town neighbourhoods. Aside from your restaurants, where else do you like to hang out here?
I love the vibe at Ping Pong 129 Gintonería in Second Street and the coffee at Classified in Des Voeux Road. I also love the local fruit stall next to the escalator on Third Street and there’s a little Taiwanese joint called Yuan Is Here in that same street that I love too.

What are the pitfalls of running a business in Hong Kong?
There are so many, from the high operational costs in running anything to the sheer competition you get in a very open market.

In fact, as a Singaporean, how has your heritage affected how you do business in our SAR?
I think with everyone being so aggressive in Hong Kong, being a Singaporean and taking a more backseat and careful approach makes a difference.

What would you say to F&B startup businesses who want to launch a restaurant in Hong Kong?
The business climate in Hong Kong is great but the F&B world is a very competitive market. It’s a saturated market and this is important to be aware of when launching an F&B venture in Hong Kong. Of course, if the concept is successful, it can bring a lot of cash-flow upside and brand awareness. You need to be sure of what you’re doing in this field and I think you really need to love it. The most important thing to focus on is establishing and maintaining consistency and your customers’ interests. The F&B industry moves so fast here – restaurateurs can’t just ride off their success. They must work very hard to ensure the public are excited about a concept but then also focus on building consistency so that customers can trust the concept and brand.

What does the future hold for Yenn Wong and JIA Group?
We are currently focused on strengthening our current restaurants while also developing exciting plans both locally and internationally.

What would you say the future holds for the F&B industry in Hong Kong, in fact?
In 2017 and beyond, I believe we will see the aforementioned back-to-basics cooking gain traction further. Restaurants offering the comfort of simple foods such as burgers or a bowl of comforting noodles which evoke memories will become more popular with Hong Kong’s foodies. This is something we thought about with the launch of our latest restaurant – Commissary in Pacific Place – which offers diners simple Southern Californian dishes cooked well. It also paves the way for our new openings in 2017…

To find out more about Yenn Wong’s restaurants in Sai Ying Pun, visit rhoda.hkfishschool.hk and kaum.com.

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