Above and be­yond high-end dining

| At a Chi­nese res­tau­rant off Times Square, a Malaysian-Chi­nese chef is tak­ing his of­fer­ings to a whole new level in fine-dining, a goal of many Chi­nese restau­ra­teurs these days, but only a few ac­tu­ally make it, re­ports ZHANG YUWEI from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

Walk­ing through an 80-foot en­trance­way cov­ered with Ital­ian mar­ble, chef Ho Chee Boon in­tro­duces his guests to New York’s Hakkasan — an in­ter­na­tional res­tau­rant chain that aims to of­fer a lux­u­ri­ous, fine-dining Chi­nese ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It’s af­ter lunch hour so I have some time to my­self,” says Ho, Hakkasan’s in­ter­na­tional ex­ec­u­tive chef, while he gives a tour of the kitchen.

“I en­joy in­no­va­tion in my work,” says Ho as he shows some dim sum sam­ples to his guests. “I want Western peo­ple to know that Chi­nese food — like other cuisines — can also be a qual­ity ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The 11,000-square-foot out­post — cost­ing some $10 mil­lion — is just a few blocks off Times Square. Cov­ered by dimmed blue lights, the res­tau­rant has a 60-foot-long bar on the side with the main dining area di­vided into small cham­bers sep­a­rated by carved Chi­nese wood lat­tices. It car­ries a mod­ern at­mos­phere of West and East.

About six months af­ter the New York chain was opened in 2012, the Malaysian Chi­nese chef earned a Miche­lin star (out of three), the old­est and best-known Euro­pean ho­tel and res­tau­rant ref­er­ence guide.

Ho, 41, was born to a Chi­nese fa­ther and Malaysian mother in Taip­ing, lo­cated in north­ern Perak, Malaysia. He started help­ing in lo­cal restau­rants at the age of 13 and learned to make tra­di­tional Can­tonese food on jobs in var­i­ous lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore, where he met Hakkasan founder Alan Yau.

Yau, a Hong Kong-born restau­ra­teur, opened the first Hakkasan in 2001 as just an up­scale Chi­nese res­tau­rant in Lon­don, where he is based. It was sold to prop­erty in­vest­ment firm Tasameem, an arm of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Man­sour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — also owner of the Manch­ester City soc­cer club — in early 2008. Hakkasan has since ex­panded into night­clubs in its lo­ca­tions such as Los An­ge­les and is plan­ning to build ho­tels around the world.

“My goal is to bring Chi­nese cui­sine over­seas and I want to change the stereo­typ­i­cal con­cept of Chi­nese food be­ing only in the set­ting of Chi­na­towns,” Ho says.

Ho’s goal echoes that of many over­seas Chi­nese restau­ra­teurs these days. They aim to take Chi­nese food to a newer level — some­thing be­yond chow mein take­aways or Chi­na­towns’ quick din­ers with sim­ple ser­vices — of a fine­din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Hakkasan is a high-end brand and we wel­come their con­cept into the mar­ket to en­cour­age peo­ple to view Chi­nese food as qual­ity and lux­ury,” says Lisa Tse, a Bri­tish Chi­nese restau­ra­teur based in Manch­ester, Eng­land. She be­lieves food is an art, re­gard­less of where it orig­i­nated.

“Af­ter all, Chi­nese food was the food of the em­per­ors in China and there are so many tech­niques in Chi­nese cook­ing that are not fully ap­pre­ci­ated,” Tse says. “Any op­er­a­tor who can help raise the man­tel of Chi­nese food is good news in­deed.” Be­yond high-end

Dif­fer­ent from other restau­rants that are fo­cused on Chi­nese cui­sine, Hakkasan aims to pro­vide con­sumers a high-end, lux­ury ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond just dining. In June, Hakkasan Group ac­quired The h.wood Group, a LosAngeles-based nightlife and event pro­duc­tion com­pany. The deal — that po­si­tions Hakkasan Group as the ma­jor­ity stake­holder in all of The h.wood Group’s en­ti­ties — strength­ened Hakkasan’s po­si­tion in the nightlife and events in­dus­try in the US, and will ac­cel­er­ate the growth of both com­pa­nies by pro­vid­ing guests with a di­verse port­fo­lio of of­fer­ings.

“With the ac­qui­si­tion now com­plete, we look for­ward to pro­vid­ing cap­i­tal re­sources to The h.wood Group as they pur­sue sig­nif­i­cant growth both in LA and be­yond,” said Nick McCabe, pres­i­dent of Hakkasan Group.

In April, in a sim­i­lar move, Hakkasan Group formed –— MGM Hakkasan Hos­pi­tal­ity — a joint ven­ture ho­tel man­age­ment com­pany with US-listed MGM Re­sorts In­ter­na­tional. The new com­pany will fo­cus on the de­sign, devel­op­ment and man­age­ment of lux­ury non-gam­ing ho­tels, re­sorts and res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties in key in­ter­na­tional gate­way cities and prime re­sort des­ti­na­tions across the globe.

All the ho­tel and re­sort projects un­der devel­op­ment by each group will con­trib­ute to the joint ven­ture, in­clud­ing MGM projects in the Amer­i­cas, the Mid­dle East, and Asia; and Hakkasan projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Kha­dem Al Qubaisi, chair­man of Hakkasan Group, said it was a “cru­cial” for Hakkasan to find the right part­ner to do this, and he said the two com­pa­nies are a good match in de­vel­op­ing new branded projects.

“This joint ven­ture ex­em­pli­fies one of our stated strate­gies of de­vel­op­ing Hakkasan Group into a mul­ti­fac­eted global life­style com­pany,” said Al Qubaisi.

Os­car Yuan, vice-pres­i­dent of brand strat­egy con­sul­tancy Mill­ward Brown Op­ti­mor in New York, says there is al­ways an op­por­tu­nity to change con­sumer per­cep­tions about a brand or a prod­uct, es­pe­cially in cat­e­gories as rich and sub­jec­tive as cui­sine. Up­scal­ing food

“The food cat­e­gory, specif­i­cally, has a trend in tak­ing what has tra­di­tion­ally been seen as some­thing sim­ple and con­ve­nient and trans­form­ing it into a plea­sure to be en­joyed, tak­ing up­scal­ing to a whole new level,” says Yuan.

Sim­i­lar to what Hakkasan tries to achieve, dif­fer­ent kinds of cuisines are try­ing to make a high-end ver­sion of them­selves to give peo­ple a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. Ex­am­ples range from gourmet ham­burger out­lets, with top­pings such as truf­fles, ar­ti­san cheeses, and or­ganic vegeta­bles to Kobe-qual­ity beef, to gourmet piz­zas in up­scale set­tings.

“On a more mass scale, we have seen chains like Chipo­tle at­tack the Mex­i­can food mar­ket from an an­gle of health and sus­tain­abil­ity,” says Yuan.

One fac­tor mark­ing the food high-end, ob­vi­ously, is the price.

Hakkasan’s prices range from an ap­pe­tizer at $10 to an en­trée with a three-digit price tag — a plat­ter of Ja­panese abalone and black truf­fles for $888 (whether or not to match a lucky num­ber of Chi­nese, which means for­tune).

One of the flag­ship dishes — Pek­ing duck gar­nished with Bel­uga caviar — is $345, and Ho says the unique in­gre­di­ents used for the dish are worth the money.

“This kind of caviar is rare and pre­cious,” says Ho, re­fer­ring to the Rus­sian Bel­uga caviar, which is pri­mar­ily found in the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest sea-salt lake.

“For some 30 grams, it’s about $300, and it can’t be found in the US,” he notes.

“Adding some Bel­uga caviar to the crispy duck skin makes it re­ally de­li­cious,” Ho says of one of their menu in­no­va­tions in mak­ing the duck dish.

“We pick the fresh, healthy in­gre­di­ents for our dishes for the prices we charge,” says Ho. “We never use can food, for ex­am­ple.”

To some, Chi­nese res­tau­rant brands’ try­ing to achieve the high-end mar­ket is not new.

Cedric Yeh, a cu­ra­tor at the Wash­ing­ton­based Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory at the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion, shares his con­cern, won­der­ing how ex­actly these res­tau­rant brands can make a dif­fer­ence by mar­ket­ing food with an ex­pen­sive price.

“It’s tak­ing ad­van­tage of a stereo­type,” says Yeh, the cu­ra­tor for an up­com­ing ex­hibit on the 160 years of his­tory of Chi­nese food in the US.

“When you go to these fancy restau­rants, it takes it out of the nor­mal – how many can ac­tu­ally go to these restau­rants?” Yeh asks. “You can’t in­flu­ence any­thing when you are so ex­pen­sive.”

The mar­ket Hakkasan is seek­ing does ex­ist when most Chinatown restau­rants lack high­end, so­phis­ti­cated ser­vices, says Wil­liam Kirby, a pro­fes­sor with Har­vard Busi­ness School and a his­to­rian of mod­ern China.

“Con­sis­tency, qual­ity and imag­i­na­tion” are things Kirby says are im­por­tant for build­ing these brands. “It’s just not an easy thing to do but it’s pos­si­ble to do and do it at the high­est pos­si­ble stan­dard,” he says.

Yuan, the brand­ing strate­gist, says the broad cul­tural and re­gional speci­fici­ties of Chi­nese cui­sine ac­tu­ally cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties to tar­get high-end mar­kets, which in­creas­ingly value prove­nance and sto­ry­telling around the prod­ucts.

“It gives the brand many an­gles from which to pro­vide a high-end ex­pe­ri­ence, from dis­cussing the dif­fer­ent types of pep­pers used in Szechuan cui­sine to how the bam­boo steam­ers cre­ate dif­fer­ent fla­vors in dim sum,” says Yuan, who tried Hakkasan’s Lon­don chain.

Yuan thinks a Chi­nese com­pany is “uniquely suited to craft and share these mes­sages”.

“The chal­lenge is that there is a strong tra­di­tion of brand build­ing from large Western com­pa­nies, who have the re­sources and know-how to re­ally build a high-end food brand,” he says.

Tse, of Sweet Man­darin, thinks the chal­lenge that Hakkasan, like any res­tau­rant may face, is find­ing a team who will “em­brace their ethos and carry it through across the restau­rants”.

“The op­por­tu­ni­ties are to tap into a mar­ket that typ­i­cally hasn’t em­braced Chi­nese food as a first choice for lux­ury dining,” she says.

Is­sues around qual­ity per­cep­tions for Chi­nese com­pa­nies that have been widely cov­ered in the press could af­fect their brand build­ing, says Yuan. “Chi­nese brands will have to man­age these per­cep­tions care­fully”.

Hakkasan’s Ho be­lieves in qual­ity and con­sis­tency, which he says is key to make a brand sus­tain­able.

“I think be­ing self-crit­i­cal helps,” says Ho. “I con­sis­tently think about how to im­prove our menu, how to in­no­vate and cre­ate new things; that’s what mat­ters.” Over­seas lo­ca­tions

In the New York chain alone, there are about 50 chefs in full op­er­a­tion, most of whom are Chi­nese, at the lunch and din­ner hours. Ho, as ex­ec­u­tive chef, helps the com­pany de­velop over­seas lo­ca­tions. That’s about a dozen now world­wide in­clud­ing Lon­don, Mi­ami, Los An­ge­les, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai, Dubai and New York.

Af­ter more than 10 chains opened out­side of China, the Chi­nese res­tau­rant brand launched its first chain in Shang­hai in March.

“It is a huge dif­fer­en­tia­tor and draw for Chi­nese con­sumers to see for­eign brands en­ter­ing China — it pro­vides a level of ex­clu­siv­ity and qual­ity that ap­peal to the rapidly emerg­ing mid­dle class,” says Yuan of Mill­ward Brown.

Start­ing over­seas is a valu­able as­set to bring to the Chi­nese mar­ket, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to food, Yuan ex­plains. “Chi­nese con­sumers are cu­ri­ous and open to try­ing dif­fer­ent cuisines, par­tic­u­larly when it’s a for­eign take on the cui­sine they know so well.”

Ho splits his time be­tween Lon­don and the rest of Hakkasan chains. “I will spend more time in the US in the com­ing months,” he says, re­fer­ring to the five out­posts in the US out of Hakkasan’s cur­rent 12 all over the world.

On oc­ca­sions when Ho could sit down and eat at any of them, chefs there would get him to sam­ple new dishes.

“I don’t quite like the so-called fu­sion style,” says Ho of the emerg­ing trend in Hong Kong in re­cent years.

Tiny de­tails in cook­ing make a dif­fer­ence, he says. “Wood or coal stove for sim­mer­ing soups would taste dif­fer­ently.”

Ho says he en­joys the free­dom his boss gives, which al­lows him to show new ideas and cre­ativ­ity to make the menu bet­ter — the rea­son why he has stayed with the com­pany for so long.

“That helps me ac­com­plish my goal — it gives me the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate some­thing spe­cial and bet­ter qual­ity,” he says.

Hakkasan also fo­cuses on lo­cal­iz­ing its menus based on dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, with 40 per­cent of lo­cally cre­ated dishes based on the orig­i­nal menu.

“We would cre­ate menus to tailor the lo­cal de­mands and with what in­gre­di­ents we can find lo­cally to make some­thing dif­fer­ent on the menu,” he says.

It’s prob­a­bly Ho’s abil­ity to adapt to new places, pas­sion for cook­ing and his open mind to share his recipes that have led him to where he is to­day.

“Only when you teach ev­ery­thing to oth­ers, you will reach where you need to in­no­vate and cre­ate new things, that’s how I look at it,” says Ho. “In­no­va­tion and fear of­ten don’t ex­ist at the same time.”

Be­fore launch­ing a Hakkasan in a new place — ei­ther a coun­try or city — Ho would explore the city and ex­pe­ri­ence its cul­tural nu­ances.

“It’s im­por­tant to learn about the cul­ture, tra­di­tions, and even the his­tory of a place, and that could re­flect on the cre­ation of our menu,” says Ho. When he is not cook­ing, he reads. “I read a lot — mostly Chi­nese clas­sics and his­tory books,” says Ho as he talks about a plot in the DreamoftheRedCham­ber, one of China’s four clas­si­cal nov­els, set in the18th cen­tury. He re­calls de­tails of sev­eral of some 400-plus char­ac­ters in the story, re­mem­ber­ing each one’s per­son­al­ity.

It’s al­ways tricky to ask a chef to pick his fa­vorite in his own menu. But Ho an­swers it in a smart way: “I en­joy my mother’s fam­ily BBQ the most,” he says. “I would give her three Miche­lin stars.”

Con­tact the writer at yuweizhang@china-

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Ho Chee Boon, born to a Chi­nese fa­ther, is Hakkasan’s in­ter­na­tional ex­ec­u­tive chef.


Dining area of Hakkasan in New York which re­ceived one Miche­lin star six months af­ter it was opened in 2012.

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