recipe for success
Alan Lo and Yenn Wong share the story behind a dynamic personal and business partnership that has transformed the city’s dining scene
Separately and together, Alan Lo and Yenn Wong have transformed Hong Kong dining and brought art to the table. Charmaine Mok breaks bread with the entrepreneurial couple to discover the story behind a marriage of much more than culinary and business creativity
Of all the dining rooms in Hong Kong, there’s one Alan Lo and Yenn Wong rarely get to enjoy—their own. So it’s a special treat for the founders of the influential Press Room and Jia restaurant groups when they have me over to their spacious Midlevels flat for a leisurely breakfast and chinwag about the city’s culinary landscape. It will make a welcome change from their regular morning routine, they tell me when issuing the invitation—a routine of rushing out the door, perpetually late, after gulping down a cup of coffee.
It’s Yenn who opens the door on the day of our breakfast club, ushering me into a bright and airy flat brimming with paintings and sculptures by an international assortment of contemporary artists—unsurprising considering her husband is one of the city’s more prominent collectors. Alan, pottering around in the kitchen, calls out his hellos, and the smell of frying garlic and butter seasons the room with its own warm welcome. The table setting cries out for an Instagram moment: rustic water pails filled with fresh flowers; bamboo bowls piled with Japanese muscat grapes and deep-hued blueberries; jars of artisan peanut butter and citrus honey; and Scandi-chic teaware laid out casually in a show of stylish insouciance.
“Breakfast like this happens maybe twice a year,” laughs Yenn as we settle at the table. “We did it especially for you,” coos Alan as he emerges from the kitchen and sets down a heavy pan with a flourish. “Free-range organic egg frittata with Korean spices,” he intones seriously. “With paprika, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes… en cocotte?” The irrepressible Alan is unable to keep up the act and breaks into peals of laughter. “It’s a great one-dish meal when you need to use up all the odds and ends in the fridge,” he explains once he recovers his composure. “Actually, we stole a few items from Gregory’s organic vegetable drawer.” He’s referring to their son, who at nearly two years old is no doubt already a gourmand in training. “He gets the good stuff; we just eat cheap, non-organic food.”
It’s surprising to hear this from a thirtysomething couple who have conceived and realised—in less than a decade—a hospitality empire that boasts some of the city’s trendiest, zeitgeisty restaurants—wan Chai’s The Pawn, 22 Ships and Ham & Sherry, and Central’s Aberdeen Street Social, to name just a few—and which has fired the transformation of Hollywood Road into a hot dining destination.
The son of tycoon Victor Lo and his late wife Debbie, Alan learned how to enjoy life early, travelling often with his family to exotic locations. His first fine-dining experience—at the Michelin-starred La Chevre d’or in the south of France—came at the impressionable age of 16 and kick-started his interest in food. By the time he was 18, Alan was plotting almost obsessively which restaurants the family would patronise on their next trip. When Alan moved to the
US to study architecture at Princeton, he continued developing his appreciation of the art of dining. On his return home after graduating, his extensive culinary exposure abroad brought into sharp relief what was missing in Hong Kong—high-quality yet convivial Western dining options. So he teamed up with friends Paulo Pong and Arnold Wong in 2005 to establish the Press Room Group to address the issue. Their first restaurant, Classified, opened on Hollywood Road a year later, followed by The Press Room the next month—quite an achievement considering Alan had only finished his studies two years earlier.
“Obviously, it’s easy to go out and look at what’s good and do a cookie-cutter version in Hong Kong,” he explains. “It’s a lot faster and a lot easier, but we like to come up with new things and we like to challenge ourselves. You don’t always succeed, but we love the process.” Alan, who admits to many moments of self-doubt, says the most common criticism he received when starting out was that he was just a rich kid with too much money to spend. “People seem to think that you don’t have the balls and don’t really have what it takes,” he says. “For years I heard that constantly. Now that we’ve been around for almost a decade, our critics have finally stopped saying it.” Classified, a casual all-day cafe concept, now has 10 branches dotted around Hong Kong, plus one in Jakarta that opened in 2013.
Yenn, too, had an anxiety-inducing start to her career. She came to Hong Kong in 2003 in the midst of the Sars crisis after her father, Malaysian businessman Danny Wong Kiam-seng, bought a building on Irving Street, Causeway Bay, for HK$120 million and told her to do what she liked with it. Little did she know that three years down the track, she would have earned a string of accolades, including being named Innovative Entrepreneur of the Year by Hong Kong’s City Junior Chamber, and Hospitality Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2006 Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards.
“I was 23 and it was tough,” says Yenn, who was born and raised in Singapore and gained a degree in marketing and international relations in Australia. “But that was the motivation. It’s when people don’t expect you to make it work and you’re like,
‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’” Identifying a gap in the market, she decided to transform the building into a boutique hotel with a modern Australian restaurant. Without any experience in the field, the entrepreneurial Yenn managed to convince French designer Philippe Starck, via his business partner John Hitchcox, to conceive the interiors, and André Fu to design the restaurant. The Jia Boutique Hotel opened the following year, taking the Chinese word for “family” as its name. Despite the difficult post-sars economy, Yenn had the hotel turning a profit within six months. When she sold it eight years later, she kept the Jia name for her own ventures and the hotel became the J Plus by Yoo.
The paths of Yenn and Alan first crossed in 2006, when the two rising stars were roped into judging a jewellery design competition by a mutual friend of their mothers (“It wasn’t a matchmaking scheme,” Yenn insists). Yenn, finding herself among a group of “weird people with bodyguards” and “25-year-old girls wearing pink frilly dresses,” decided Alan was the most sensible-looking of the assembly. “It wasn’t love at first sight. It’s just that he seemed the most normal,” she says, and Alan bursts out laughing.
Soon after that first encounter, Alan invited Yenn to lunch at his newly opened Hollywood Road restaurant, The Press Room—an experience she found excruciating, sitting awkwardly among his business partners as they picked apart the food. “And then he started trying to pitch restaurant spaces to me,” she laughs. Alan was eager to develop the Sheung Wan stretch of Hollywood Road, which had already attracted a good number of art galleries. He hoped that with the emerging gallery culture and the opening of more trailblazing restaurants like his, the area would become Hong Kong’s answer to New York’s Meatpacking District. It was a novel idea at the time, considering how quiet the area was.
“Alan spoke to everyone he knew in town who owned restaurants and bars, and everyone came back and said no, they didn’t think it would work,” recalls Yenn. “I was just the sucker who said yes.” She backed her bet and the gamble paid off. Inspired by the suburban vibe of the neighbourhood, Yenn established a classic Italian trattoria-style restaurant she was confident the gallerists and trend-hunters moving to the area would find sexy. Opened in 2010 and flanked by popular contemporary art destinations such as the Cat Street Gallery, 208 Duecento Otto is still packed every night. She added Thai eatery Chachawan to the mix in 2013.
“PEOPLE SEEM TO THINK YOU DON’T HAVE THE BALLS AND DON’T REALLY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES. FOR YEARS I HEARD THAT CONSTANTLY. NOW THAT WE’VE BEEN AROUND FOR ALMOST A DECADE, OUR CRITICS HAVE FINALLY STOPPED”
As Yenn and Alan’s restaurants flourished, so did their relationship. The pair eventually tied the knot in 2011, celebrating with a lavish reception at Shaw Studios in Clear Water Bay. Soon after that, they set their sights on the next big project—their first together.
Having started multiple restaurants specialising in various overseas cuisines, Alan and Yenn felt they owed it to their heritage to create something uniquely Chinese—and authentically Cantonese. They also began to think about how to incorporate art and design into their business. By this time, Alan’s art collection had grown considerably. He had also carved out quite a reputation on the local and international art scenes since founding the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design in 2006 and launching its flagship annual festival, Detour, to celebrate the city’s creative talent. So it was fortuitous when destiny came calling in 2011 in the form of Shanghai Tang’s executive chairman, Raphael le Masne de Chermont. The brand had just leased the first four floors of a building in Central’s Duddell Street for its flagship store and approached the couple to establish a restaurant on the premises.
Duddell’s was the result, a restaurant based on the concept of giving patrons the feeling of dining in an art collector’s home, with a vibrant programme of rotating art exhibitions, installations and talks. The restaurant gained its first Michelin star within months of opening and its second the following year, shining testimony to its international appeal.
“It could have gone terribly wrong, doing an art restaurant,” says Alan, recalling his nervousness when he and Yenn came up with the idea. Before committing themselves, the couple hosted an informal focus group to workshop their thoughts.
The gathering included Yana Peel, CEO of Intelligence Squared; Mimi Brown, founder of the non-profit art space Spring Workshop; William Lim, of CL3 Architects; and Magnus Renfrew, who was director of Art Basel in Hong Kong at the time. “A bunch of us sat down in Classified and I went, ‘Guys, this is what I’m thinking about. Please tell me if this is crazy or totally wrong,’” recalls Alan. “I was really nervous.”
Yana, who ended up spearheading the committee behind Duddell’s arts programme, remembers the discussion well. “Looking back to that brainstorming session at Classified all those years ago, I am proud that Alan and Yenn turned such a great idea into a successful reality,” she says. “The great success of all their projects is a testament to their love of life, food and great company.”
William, who jokes that he’s glad Alan made his career in hospitality rather than architecture, says Duddell’s came into being at a crucial time for Hong Kong in establishing itself as an arts hub—and “who better to run Duddell’s than Alan and Yenn. They are not just restaurateurs; their projects add to the cultural identity of Hong Kong.”
Looking back over the past decade, the pair are often amazed at what they’ve managed to pull off in a city where so many restaurants fail. They joke that if they were to start from scratch today, they probably wouldn’t make it. And while there has been the odd setback— skyrocketing rent forced The Press Room to close in the summer of 2014 after eight years—the duo continue to charge forward.
Just this year, Yenn has opened Meen & Rice, a traditional noodle and congee shop, at The Pulse in Repulse Bay, and is planning a new “kiddy park” concept in the same building. She also recently launched Fish School in Sai Ying Pun with acclaimed local chef David Lai. The Press Room Group will soon open the doors at The Fat Pig in Times Square, a venture with celebrity British chef Tom Aikens, who also consulted on the menu for The Pawn’s revamp in 2014. The couple are also working on a new concept restaurant in an 8,000-square-foot space in Sai Ying Pun designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, which is slated to open before March.
“We like to keep challenging ourselves,” says Yenn. “It’s only that way that you can bring something fresh.” Alan agrees: “The concept will be exciting for Hong Kong and exciting for us. It’s what keeps us going.”
And speaking of going, it’s time to set our cutlery down and wipe the crumbs from our lips. Alan is off to a lunch meeting and Yenn is heading down to Sheung Wan to check that all’s in order at her restaurants. As Alan jets out the door, a blur of blazer and chinos, Yenn thanks me for coming. “Let’s do breakfast here again,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “Next year, maybe?”
good taste Alan wears a jacket by Dolce & Gabbana and trousers by Acne Studios, both available through Mr Porter. The T-shirt is his own. Yenn wears a top by Helen Lee and trousers by Cynthia & Xiao, both available at Lane Crawford
use Your Noodle This page: Alan wears a jacket by Kingsman and trousers by Acne Studios, both available through Mr Porter, a shirt by Tom Ford and a bow tie by Fendi. Yenn wears a dress by Valentino, available through Net-a-porter, and a coat by Christopher Kane, available at Joyce. Opposite page: Alan wears a jacket by Public School and trousers by Acne Studios, both available through Mr Porter, and his own shirt and shoes. Yenn’s dress and jacket are by Fendi and the boots by Tom Ford