Star Chefs on the Rise in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is set for another influx of Western celebrity chefs as Yannick Alleno’s long awaited bistro, Terroir Parisien, is slated to open in Central this summer, Bjorn Frantzen has opened Frantzen’s Kitchen and Jean-Georges Vongerichten has returned to the city with Mercato. David Thompson and Wolfgang Puck are also thought to be searching for sites here. But Asian expansion doesn’t mean guaranteed success: Mario Batali’s Carnenvino has closed in Hong Kong, Gordon Ramsay shut his restaurant in Tokyo and both Guy Savoy and Jason Atherton shipped out of Singapore. So what makes some international restaurants thrive in foreign markets while others falter?
“The fact that each of my restaurants is unique although the core philosophy of my cuisine are a part of each,” says Alain Ducasse who is the longest standing celebrity chef in Hong Kong having had a restaurant at the Intercontinental since 2003. “I have a different vision for each restaurant and the input and inspiration from co workers. Each restaurant is a celebration of local tastes and ingredients,” says Ducasse.
The Mandarin Oriental paved the way for international celebrity chefs in Hong Kong with the opening of Jean-George Vongerichten’s Vong Thai French fusion restaurant in 1997. Vongerichten had once worked in the Mandarin’s French restaurant, Pierrot, as well as The Oriental hotel in Bangkok. Six years later Spoon by Alain Ducasse opened at the Intercontinental hotel [recently replaced by Rech by Alain Ducasse]. In 2006 along came Nobu (also at the Intercontinental), Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagniere; when Vong’s around the world closed and the Mandarin reopened after a refurbishment with the contemporary French restaurant Pierre in place.
Pierre’s set up in a luxury hotel with a 25th view of Victoria Harbour is typical of Gagniere’s ventures in Asia. The world renowned chef also has restaurants in Tokyo and Seoul in upscale hotels with great views that leave you with no doubt which city you’re dining in and he places the upmost importance on the partnership when looking at international outposts.
“Pierre Gagniere is behind every one of his dishes. He designs menus every time he visits and regularly liaises with the team so that his ideas are executed,” says a spokeswoman for the Mandarin Oriental. The chef visits three times a year, cooking in the kitchen alongside his Hong Kong team for 10 day stints.
Not that it’s all been plane sailing. Gagniere says Hong Kongers did not welcome him with open arms though he won over a loyal clientele; and the restaurant dropped a Michelin star in 2013. Chef Jean-Denis Le Bras was brought in from Gagniere’s London restaurant, Sketch, last year and over the summer Gagniere came out to work with his protégé on devising new dishes; Pierre regained its second star in the 2014 Michelin Guide [the head chef is now Jacky Tauvy.]
Alain Ducasse and Nobu Matsuhisa also visit Hong Kong regularly. Matsuhisa can’t seem to put a foot wrong, opening the thirtieth outlet for his worldwide restaurant empire in Kuala Lumpur this month. Nobu has the luxury of a clientele made up of both well-heeled locals and international devotees who like to dine at Nobu restaurants wherever they travel.
Some 90 per cent of the menu is found on all Nobu menus worldwide with the addition of a Osume menu showcasing local ingredients. “These dishes give guest a unique taste from each destination alongside their favourite Nobu dishes which are available globally,” says Matsuhisa.
“The Nobu concept is the same throughout the world: good food, good service, good ambience,” he continues. “While the décor of my restaurants vary in each city, the consistency of the food and service is what is most important.”
Jason Atherton, the first British chef to open in Hong Kong, seems to be challenging his former mentor Gordon Ramsay in the empire building stakes. Although he has parted company with his Singapore ventures, on top of his string of London restaurants the chef now has eateries in Hong Kong and Singapore, Shanghai and The Philippines and is considering Bangkok. “We do put a lot of effort into all of our places and Asia is like a second home to me,” says Atherton whose wife is Philippina. “I come out every couple of months. I have huge respect for the people and culture.”
While the old guard flourish in the ultra high end market, the newer arrivals are aiming for a more casual approach. “I think our sharing concept and accessible pricing has also helped our success,” says Atherton.
David Thompson is opening a Thai street food eatery rather than an outpost of his fine dining establishment Nahm. Long Chim, opening in Singapore at the end of this year, moves into the former Guy Savoy haute cuisine site in Marina Bay Sands that closed suddenly this year.
Thompson has plans for more Long Chim branches: “Hong Kong is certainly on the cards,” he says. Nahm originally opened in London in 2001 expanding into Bangkok, and another Christina Ong owned hotel, in 2010. Nahm London lost its Michelin star a year later and closed in 2012. Thompson has no plans to open another. “Nahm is unique and can only really be done in Bangkok,” he says. “Even though I have run similar restaurants in London and Australia, opening Nahm in Bangkok made me realise that it’s the only place where I can operate a restaurant of this nature.”
Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen is based on his informal restaurant of the same name in London. “I was looking at something more accessible,” says Sandeep Sekhri managing director of Dining Concepts who approached Ramsay. “It’s very hard to replicate a fine dining restaurant outside of where the chef is cooking or where they have their key people.”
Sekhri has just closed Carnevino a pricey US steakhouse in partnership with Mario Batali. “The price point was way to high for that size,” he says. “If it had been only 60 seats we would have been packed very night. But at $1700 HK a head the size of the market is limited. It was an error of judgement on our part.” Meanwhile Batali and Dining Concepts’ Lupa, a mid priced Italian restaurant, continues to thrive.
The concept has proved a mixed bag for Jamie Oliver in Singapore, the first Jamie’s Italian in Asia. “We haven’t met everybody’s expectations along the way as there is a stigma that associates celebrity chefs with fine dining while Jamie is all about rustic, affordable Italian food and a relaxed, unpretentious style of service,” says executive chef Gary Clarke. Nonetheless the restaurant has built up a regular clientele who are prepared to queue for a table. Clarke also admits customers expect to see Oliver – a familiar refrain for celebrity chef with multiple venues around the world: “But most realise that however much Jamie wants to be cooking in all his restaurant there’s only one of him.”
Gordon Ramsay will attend the Hong Kong launch of his Bread Street Kitchen next month  – a wise move given the disappointment of the Jamie Oliver no show in Singapore and Hong Kong) and visit the restaurant “once or twice a year”. Sekhri believes there’s only room for one Bread Street Kitchen in Hong Kong although he doesn’t rule out further Ramsay collaborations. [London House has since opened in TST as well as a Bread Street Kitchen in Singapore.]
Jason Atherton has opened several different concepts rather than rolling out the same formula. “I am sure it is definitely part of the appeal,” says Atherton. “I get bored rather easily and assume our guests would feel the same so I am always trying to come up with new ideas for them to enjoy.” Sometimes the chef’s gut instinct is the best.
A version of this piece was posted in 2014.