recipe for suc­cess

Hong Kong Tatler - - November - Pho­tog­ra­phy Nic and bex gaunt Styling adele le­ung Shot on lo­ca­tion at The Pawn

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

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