Top image: Indian restaurant Chaat’s pork cheek vindaloo. Courtesy of Chaat.

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By Maggie Hiufu Wong, CNN

Hong Kong is widely regarded as one of the toughest cities in the world to operate a restaurant – a seething cauldron of shifting tastes, cutthroat competition and an unsavory economy.

At the heart of his culinary world, with ties to at least half of his hottest tables, is publicist Geoffrey Wu.

Wu and his 10-year-old consultancy Forks and spoons work with some of the city’s most ornate restaurants and bars, such as the two-Michelin-starred TATE Dining Room, and Ando, ​​one of the city’s most sought-after reservations.

An atypical publicist

“I wouldn’t say that we are better at our job than the others. I’d say we’re different,” he told CNN Travel at The Baker and The Bottleman, a casual new bakery and natural wine bar by celebrity British chef Simon Rogan, where he agreed to spill some of the secrets. of Hong Kong’s culinary scene. .

After being expelled from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology for ‘skipping too many classes to play cards at McDonald’s’, Wu joined Amber, the famous French restaurant under Richard Ekkebus, as staff. operations in 2005.

Over the next few years, he took on various marketing roles for different companies, but always found himself in the food and beverage industry. In 2012, he opened his F&B consulting firm.

Wu is not your typical food and drink publicist. He is not friendly. He’s been known to occasionally yell at customers for making a mistake, or at members of the media who he feels haven’t done their research.

“I’m not afraid to speak up – people know that for sure. Sometimes you need a consultant who is upfront about things that need to be fixed. We are not here to massage your ego. We are here for the results. We are here to win,” says Wu, looks more like a football coach than a PR professional.

“If I wanted to please everyone, I would sell ice cream. Fortunately, most of my clients understand.

Among those customers is Yenn Wong, founder and CEO of JIA, a restaurant group behind award-winning popular restaurants in Hong Kong like Mono and Duddell’s.

“The Forks and Spoons understands and personalizes the needs of each concept and always stays very up-to-date with relevant strategies to ensure that we, as clients, get the most publicity possible from our target audience, which ultimately generates positive revenue growth,” Wong told CNN Travel.

“The fiercest F&B market in the world”

One of the important jobs of an F&B publicist is to be physically present in a restaurant, according to Wu. He’s either tinkering with menus, trying out new dishes or simply meeting customers.

This can range from translating the restaurant’s a la carte menu from Chinese to English, to working with chefs to choose dishes for a tasting menu, “so you can see what’s going on and let the staff that you care about them,” says Wu.

For example, later that day he says he has a test lunch at Bluhouse, a new concept in casual Italian dining at the Rosewood Hotel in Kowloon.

“During a tasting, we look at everything, the taste, the presentation and the temperature of the food. We also look at furniture, trade flow, pricing, and more. he says. “No new restaurant is ever perfect, but let’s try to minimize the error.

“We’ve only worked with clients in Asia – Hong Kong, Macau, Maldives, etc. – but I truly believe Hong Kong is the toughest food and beverage market in the world.”

His assertion is not unfounded.

Getting the opening right is essential in Hong Kong because of its competitiveness.

The city is often referred to as the most expensive rental location in the world. And Hong Kong residents are among – if not the – biggest spenders on restaurants, especially pre-Covid. Food imports are extremely expensive.

According to a recent government survey, Hong Kong households spent on average of 60,539 HKD (or 7,761 USD) on restaurant meals and takeaways in the year 2019 to 2020 – Hong Kong suffered from six months of social unrest in 2019 before the Covid epidemic in 2020

That was about double what New York-area households spent on average on food away from home in the same year.

“It’s such a condensed market,” says Wu.

“People are always talking. Hong Kong customers are also very knowledgeable. If you don’t get it right from the start, you have to rearrange a lot of things. The question is: will customers give you a second chance? There are so many choices that there is a good chance they will go elsewhere.

“So to build a successful restaurant, it’s important to make sure the opening is strong. With good word of mouth, business will come. It’s that simple.”

Example: Bluhouse. This open in June and dinner reservations are complete through October and November at the time of writing.

Chefs have a more important role than ever

Hong Kong’s F&B industry has evolved rapidly over the past decade, thanks in part to the arrival of the Michelin Guide in 2009 as well as the rise of social media and the local food community.

Hong Kong chefs have seen a change in their roles.

“About 20 years ago, chefs mostly cooked and served food,” says Wu.

“Now in 2022 there’s also this thing called relationship building. Chefs have to show their faces. They have to touch tables and take pictures with guests. A chef’s job is much bigger than It all comes down to a need for human connection. Customers, media, influencers, bloggers, everyone wants to have a human connection.”

And it just makes business sense – customers are more likely to return to a restaurant where they’ve established a relationship with the chef.

The problem, of course, is that chatting with diners doesn’t come naturally to all chefs. This is where Wu comes in.

“We just cheer them on and cheer them on and just cheer them on,” he says.

He cites Manav Tuli of the modern Indian restaurant Chaat – which is also located at the Rosewood – as a success story. Chaat opened in 2020 and won its first Michelin star two years later.

Unique dishes like Tuli’s tandoori lobster – Indian cuisine with a touch of Hong Kong seafood – and a team of knowledgeable staff who beautifully communicate the stories of the food are some of the reasons Chaat is the one of the most difficult restaurants to book in Hong Kong.

Tables are published two months in advance and scanned within minutes.

But Chaat’s biggest star is Tuli, considered one of the most beloved culinary figures in the city today.

“When he arrived two years ago, he didn’t know Hong Kong’s landscape or culture,” Wu said. two motivations. For him to move his family to Hong Kong with him, he wants to make it a success. So we have been working closely since day one on that,” Wu said.

He encouraged Tuli to meet guests and fellow chefs, joining him at events and meals as the chef made a name for himself.

Cold calling does not build a relationship

On his days off, Wu hosts lunches for the media, including revered industry critics, and chefs he works with or may work with in the future.

These often take place at places Wu doesn’t work for, from Hop Sze, a no-frills Cantonese restaurant that has a six-month waiting list, to Forum Restaurant, a Chinese joint with three Michelin stars.

“I worked until 4 a.m. [this morning]. I only joined because Geoffrey Wu hosted this lunch,” a food critic told CNN Travel upon entering the private dining room inside the Forum.

The daily menu includes everything from street food-style rice rolls to classic Cantonese sweet and sour pork and the restaurant’s famous braised abalone.

As with most lunches with Wu, there is also an off-menu surprise.

Adam Wong, the executive chef, and CK Poon, the general manager, arrive with a cart near the end of the meal.

“We’re thinking of adding this to the next menu update,” says Poon as he caramelizes the sugar for the candied apple fritter (ba si apple), a Northern China-style dessert, on the spot. “It’s the first time we’ve done this – so let us know what you think.

The five o’clock lunch ends with industry gossip over cognac bottles.

But Wu never works.

He punctuates gatherings with potential collaboration ideas (Tuli and Wong brainstormed that day about a connection between the two restaurants) and fills moments of silence with jokes to keep the meal entertaining.

“I always say I’m the entertainment director,” Wu says. “Building relationships takes time. Cold calling and sending press releases do not create a relationship.

Flavor is king, but that’s not all

Ultimately, connections won’t get you far if the food isn’t good or the restaurant refuses to scale.

“Flavor doesn’t lie,” says Wu. “But everything — restaurants, bars, chefs — has a shelf life. It’s impossible to stay number one forever. You have to keep coming up with new ideas to keep elevating the restaurant.

It could be doing more table service, educating guests about the dishes, or simply adding a bite before dessert that cleanses the palate, he says.

One of Wu’s latest assignments is editing the menu for one of his new clients, Yong Fu, a Michelin-starred restaurant specializing in high-end cuisine from the Ningbo region on China’s east coast.

He’d like to shrink the original book an inch thick and created a tasting menu to provide a more curated ordering experience.

In Hong Kong, Ningbo cuisine is often confused with Shanghai cuisine. The tasting menu includes dishes diners may not know enough to order – a “sticky” boiled wax gourd and yellow croaker fish in sour broth, for example – which amp up the trinity of star flavors from the Ningbo cuisine: “salty, umami and sticky”. ”

Yu Qiong, Yong Fu’s manager, is there to offer an in-depth explanation of each of the dishes.

“These are some of the things that will enrich the whole dining experience,” says Wu. He likens restaurant marketing to management: “Keep refining. Keep pushing. My belief is that you shouldn’t stop before you reach the finish line.

It’s an apt metaphor. The avid runner wakes up at 5:45 a.m. most days to exercise.

“I enjoy Hong Kong on quiet mornings when the city hasn’t woken up yet. When you run, you see a lot of things and think a lot of things,” says Wu.

As for what he had in mind that morning?

“I was thinking about our interview. I thought I wasn’t swearing. I did well, I only swore once.

The-CNN-Wire
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Top image: Indian restaurant Chaat’s pork cheek vindaloo. Courtesy of Chaat.

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