The wonder of Yau

28 January 2005 by
The wonder of Yau

Alan Yau has been a dominant force on the London restaurant scene ever since he introduced us to the now legendary concept of Wagamama in 1992. Wagamama's long wooden benches, cheery staff and signature bowls of noodles and broth quickly became a way of life for city-dwellers. Yau sold the business in 1997, but his success has continued unabated.

The establishment of the stylish dim sum den Hakkasan and its coronation with a Michelin star - the first Chinese restaurant in the UK to achieve that status - has underlined Yau's reputation as a man to be reckoned with. The launch of Yauatcha this year and the growing chain of sleek Thai canteens known as Busaba Eathai have elevated him to a level of success rare among independent restaurateurs. Yau's empire is very much focused on London, but I caught up with him in Hong Kong, where he was judging at the city's most prestigious culinary competition - The Best of The Best 2004. The location and the event are significant, not just because Yau was born in Hong Kong, but because of the driving influence his relationship with the islands' people and culinary heritage have had on his success. Hong Kong's 234 islands, awe-inspiring skyline and relentless activity are a both a source of pride and cultural identity for Yau, but, more significantly, they're also an abiding place of inspiration. "Whatever cuisine you're in, you can never set your business apart from the others if you're stuck in London," Yau says. "In an environment like this, I have more time to think." While Yau's parents quit the country some 30 years ago, emigrating to King's Lynn, Norfolk, to start up a Chinese take-away business, Yau now spends a significant amount of time at his birthplace. Every four weeks he quits London's restaurant-lined streets to travel to a range of far-eastern destinations, including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Osaka, Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. These trips, he says, are the lifeblood of his business. Yau comes to Hong Kong for space to breathe, and for raw materials, staff, sites, equipment and - most of all - ideas. And he works hard at it. In one evening together, we visited five different restaurants, tasting, talking, tasting, looking, but mostly tasting. Eating with Yau is a serious business, and he never tires of it. After first examining some Chinese salami made from liver and pork belly, salt-cured in soy sauce, bull's penis with noodles, crab pancakes made with congealed blood and snake soup, we moved on to the real eating. At the first restaurant of the night, Yau picked out marinated duck, grouse and pork from rows of barbecued birds hanging full-bodied in the window, so crispy they looked caramelised. Before tucking in, he explained the cooking technique as well as pointing out the tiny field birds, the size of sparrows, which had gone the same way. "Chinese food is surprisingly Atkins friendly," he said between a mouthful of duck and a mouthful of pork. Despite his Hong Kong roots and the ease with which he flits between English and Cantonese, Yau is still very much a Londoner. A few more mouthfuls, a characteristically snap decision - "the duck is better than the pork," and on to the next restaurant. Yau had spent the day in search of Hong Kong's finest wan tan noodles, an endeavour that had involved following a train of recommendations around the city and a marathon of tastings. Undeterred by his daytime activities, we stopped off at another restaurant (another recommendation) to taste everything from glasses of warm, nutty soy milk to dishes of hand-drawn vermicelli, succulent greens, and a range of meat dishes including a large fish dressed in sweet and sour sauce and cleverly, if somewhat surprisingly, shaped into the form of a squirrel. Comforting milk puddings followed elsewhere while bottomless cups of green tea were consumed constantly. Inspiration is clearly a slow process that requires both patience and stamina when it comes to eating. When it does arrive, however, Yau says it usually stems from one simple, but important idea or object. The concept behind Wagamama, for instance, was inspired by the humble wooden bench on which thousands of bottoms now daily sit slurping on bowls of noodles. "The benches referenced old public school dining as well as traditional seating in Japan," Yau explains. "The austerity of the bench defined the whole concept. The key is taking a concept to the edge, but not beyond. Either side and you kill it." Yau collects these seeds of ideas wherever he goes and doesn't hesitate when he finds what he wants. "It could be one menu item, a mug or a piece of furniture but it has to represent the whole idea to me," he says. "Knowing what will work is intuitive now. I monitor sales analysis closely but I know what works." Designing the larger concept from the initial thought is an equally intuitive process. "I don't need to try that hard on design because it is already a hobby so it happens naturally. For me, design is making sure the social dynamics of the space work. It's about soft engineering and space planning, from routes of delivery to how the customer arrives - if that doesn't work, everything else fails. The food is what really interests me." It doesn't take long with Yau to realise how intense the relationship he forms with his restaurants is. "When I start a new operation I have absolute focus on it," he says. "I am absolutely in tune with the entity and it becomes almost like a living thing." Nowhere is the importance of this relationship to Yau's business more evident than when he talks about Anda, the one project to date that did not take London by storm and closed earlier this year. "All my other concepts had been greenfield sites," he says. "They had grown in the back of my mind every step of the way. At Anda we took over what was already a loss-making business and I found I had to become almost like a surrogate mother. I did not have the patience or the feeling to make it work." As well as an endless search for inspiration, Yau is also on another mission in which Cantonese food and his Hong Kong heritage intertwine to play the central role. "A major driving force for me is boosting the profile of Chinese food internationally so it can compete with other world cuisines," he says. "This way, it is no longer purely a business endeavour but more of an emotional process." Hakkasan was perhaps the first, if unwitting, step. "Getting a Michelin star was never the goal - but having said that, now I recognise how important it is," he muses. "It gives a different status to a restaurant. I'm pleased because Chinese food needs to progress." Charting the development of Chinese food in Britain from the reign of Chop Suey in the 1950s, on to Mr Chow in the 1960s, Ken Lo in the 1970s and the minimalist "zen" movement of the 1980s, Yau laments the lack of progression since then. "The zen, minimalist blueprint left a lot of Chinese restaurants soulless," he laments. "Chinese cuisine lacks a profile and leadership internationally as well as qualitative standards. Whatever you think of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, people aspire to be like them and China needs figures like that so Chinese chefs can transform their profession from a livelihood into a career." Yau is also working on widening his own reputation in the area in which he was born. "I always want to elevate dim sum out of the Chinese menu," he says. "It's one of the world's great grazing cultures and should be on a level with sushi from Japan, meze from the Middle East and tapas from Spain. But I also want to do something here in Hong Kong. It's where I come from and it would be nice to be able to make something of a success here too. Here it is more of a challenge because I'm on an equal footing with my competitors." Widening his sphere of influence is not constrained to the restaurant sector either. It's difficult not to get the impression that Yau is ever so slightly bored with restaurants. Certainly he is keen for the next step, which at this stage looks likely to be a hotel, potentially in Thailand and in collaboration with Christian Liaigre, the designer behind Yauatcha. "A hotel is a natural progression for a food and beverage operator," he says. "More importantly, it would be a lot more fun. A restaurant provides only a small part of a person's daily life, a hotel covers 24 hours. This being Yau, however, his plans are both adventurous and ambitious. "I'd like to create "a new Four Seasons," he says without flinching. Watch this space. n Hong Kong specialities Eating in Hong Kong is not for the faint-hearted, although it offers an incredible diversity of cuisine. While Cantonese predominates, islanders can take their pick from Vietnamese, Italian or Lebanese. Or, if you want to get closer to ingredients, take a trip around any of the wet-markets to see the mountains of live sea food, fish and fresh meat on display. Similarly, a trip to Kowloon's dried food district will unveil a wealth of unusual treats, including dried antelope horns, hundreds of different types of dried mushrooms, jars of bird's nests (actually the spittle the swallows use to stick their nests to the wall), caterpillars (from Tibet), abalone and tiny pearls - a delicacy to eat as well as wear, and apparently good for the skin. Meanwhile, Hong Kong specialities to look out for include congee, a rice porridge eaten alongside chicken, pork liver or fish balls. For breakfast try a classic pineapple bun - a soft, sweet roll eaten with butter or sometimes served with tinned pineapple and custard inside. Otherwise, tuck into some toast spread with butter and condensed milk. If you can't decide whether to drink tea or coffee with your food, in Hong Kong they serve a mixture of the two topped with evaporated milk, which is nicer than you might imagine. For lunch look out for another island speciality which involves a dish of meat or fish and fruit. White fish and mango is particularly worth a try. Yau's empire Busaba Eathai, 106 Wardour Street, London W1 and 22 Store Street, London WC1 and two more planned for 2005 on Bird Street, W1 and Floral Street, W2 Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, London W1 Yauatcha, 15 Broadwick Street, London, W1 Best of the best The Best of The Best is a giant cook-off staged between Hong Kong's most highly renowned restaurants. The plethora of restaurants that entered were whittled down to 10 in each section - casserole, desserts, egg and beef - by several rounds of anonymous visits. The final cook-off took place at Hong Kong's first-ever culinary academy, the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute, a government-backed millennium project aimed at raising the quality and international profile of Chinese cooking. A panel of both national and international judges and interpreters spent two days hunched over a constant stream of dishes, with winners announced at the end of each day. Gold with distinction winners included: stir-fried sliced black chicken and sliced frog with truffle, assorted mushrooms and bell peppers, from the Celestial Court Chinese Restaurant; and crunchy shrimp ball and mini lobster in casserole, from the Tai Woo restaurant (Causeway Bay).
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