To the Nines

Luxury food importer and restaurateur recounts how she got hooked on the business

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It’s not a replica of the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo – though the venue sells fresh produce from Japan, and you can walk into any sushi bar and restaurant and ask the chefs to prepare the seafood you have picked.

The concept is really more of a “downtown seafood market, modeled after a similar one in Tuen Mun’s Sam Shing Hui,” said May Choi Shiu-ha, who opened a 50,000-square-foot specialty food market, named Nine Seafood Plaza, in Whampoa Garden last month.

“It’s a promise that I made to my father: to keep his seafood trading business going after his death, despite our family having diversified into real estate and other more lucrative industries,” said the managing director of Sun Wah Japanese Food.

The junior Choi is the eldest daughter of Choi Kai-yau, who founded the Sun Wah Group in 1957. The late businessman was born into a family of farmers in Zhongshan. Uneducated, he earned his fortune by exporting seafood to Japan after he moved to Hong Kong as a young boy.

The senior Choi saw a demand in Japan for flower and bamboo prawns that were processed and frozen in Southeast Asia. He lobbied for support from big firms to set up a wholesale channel before anyone else did.

“Japan was very affluent under the reign of Emperor Showa,” she said. “We could sell a 12-meter container filled with prawns for roughly US$300,000 in Japan.

“My family had had no local ties, and did not know Japanese or English but he managed to convince Mitsubishi and Mitsui to partner him as he would charge them only after they made a profit. This decision was risky but proved his vision right.”

The junior Choi joined Sun Wah after graduating with a literature degree from the University of Hong Kong. She helped her father with administrative, accounting and translation works, and then moved on to seafood trading and Japanese restaurants.

Her younger brother, Jonathan Choi Koon-shum, is chairman of the group, looking after the other business units.

Sun Wah is one of the largest seafood wholesalers in Hong Kong, importing tonnes of seafood from Japan every month, and selling it to more than 1,000 local restaurants. It also imports vegetables, packaged food and kitchen appliances.

“Except firearms,” she joked when asked about what she doesn’t sell. “We import everything you can imagine: aprons, cutlery, fruits and vegetables, snacks, shoes, the iron pot for cooking kamameshi (a traditional rice and meat dish), and even sushi bar counters. We have 11 freight shipments delivering perishables from Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka, and Okinawa every week. We also ship hard-to-find products from South Korea, and Central and North America.”

These specialty products include abalone, conch, Kamikomi pork, Mozuku seaweed, king crab, octopus, oyster and organic blueberries.

Choi is proud of the importing unit as she persuaded her father to include it in the family’s business. She established the logistics system, as well relationships with overseas trading partners, over the past decade.

“My first air cargo weighed 12 kilograms. Three clients separately ordered a fish, a tomato and some other vegetables. My father joked that he would have bought more stuff from the supermarket in a single purchase.

“I learnt Japanese by myself so that I can talk to the vendors in fish markets.”

She also had to overcome the double stigma of being a foreigner and a woman.

“I was once invited to an old fisherman’s home to have dinner with his family. He was in his 80s, and lived in Erimo, a small town in Hokkaido famous for its salmon.

“He knew that I wanted to buy salmon from him but did not take me seriously. He challenged me to meet him the next morning at 4.15 to go on a fishing trip, saying that he would decide afterward. It was winter, but I did manage to get up in the cold after two hours of sleep. When I arrived at the pier, the old man was putting on his boots. He was amazed to see me. We eventually became business partners.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on July 14, 2017.

Amuse Bouche

Lai Yuen amusement park scion wants a bite of the restaurant business

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Before smartphones transformed treasured moments into pixels to be glazed over, local businessman Deacon Chiu Te-ken dedicated himself to entertaining a generation of people, and along the way, created numerous collective memories that will last.

“My father was a man of strong character, always inventing new ideas to run his cinemas and television station,” said Duncan Chiu Tat-kun, 42, the Far East Consortium founder’s youngest of eight children. “He has been a big influence on me. I am quite like him in a way.”

Of all his entertainment ventures, an amusement park in Lai Chi Kok, known colloquially as Lai Yuen, was a source of pride to the elder Chiu. The park was demolished in 1997, but lives on as an emblem of nostalgia, evoking many cherished memories.

In 2015, the Chiu family revived Lai Yuen as a summer carnival in the Central promenade. The carnival ran for 70 days and attracted 1.2 million visitors. Sadly, the elder Chiu did not see the HK$70 million project to fruition. He died in March at the age of 90.

“We intended to bring Lai Yuen back as an one-off project, but were overwhelmed daily with requests to keep it running,” the junior Chiu said.

“That convinced me to set up a company and find new ways to re-launch the brand. We cannot rely only on selling nostalgia.”

The past year saw a new Lai Yuen emerging: a mobile theme park that has pitched camp at Asia World-Expo, and at a trade exhibition in Guangzhou.

Two weeks ago, Chiu added a cha chaan teng in Tsim Sha Tsui under Lai Yuen’s name.

The tea restaurant serves the carnival food sold at the old Lai Yuen. Classic drinks, such as cream soda with fresh milk and coconut red bean ice, are also on the menu. Paintings of the tiger cub mascot and a carousel chandelier echo the amusement park connection.

“Lai Yuen was not a full restaurant but food was part of the fun. There were many stores selling frozen pineapple slices. As kids, we would buy deep-fried chicken drumsticks after riding bumper cars,” he said.

“We’ve tried to keep up with the times by offering different cuisine, more healthy vegetable dishes and nicer presentation at the restaurant. We are not going to host a carnival this year. We have to focus on running the new cha chaan teng, which will be a permanent project.”

Although Chiu assisted his late father at work after university, assuming the chairman’s role of Lai Yuen was unintended. His full-time job is that of a tech investor. He manages a private investment firm, Radiant Venture Capital, which he co-founded in 2014.

“When I got back from the United States in 1996, the investment holding company that I looked after for the family had a bit of everything – entertainment, shops, factories in China, stocks, and a golf resort. These assets were worth some money, but they were losing money as well,” he recalled.

“In 1999, I started looking into different possible investments. I thought, as a business, the tech sector had a future. Hong Kong and China could be a start-up launchpad. Luckily enough, some of the companies I invested in survived the bust of the dot-com bubble the year later.”

His first profitable tech investment was Chinasoft International. The internet business services provider was floated in 2003, and now has a market capitalization of US$10.14 billion (HK$79.09 billion). Chiu, an early investor, sold all his shares when the company entered the main board.

Venture capital fund and amusement park are two vastly different businesses. However, they require the same taste for innovation and originality, Chiu said.

He does not intend to be only an old guard of his father’s theme park but sees himself as a business founder like his father.

“A business is easy to start, but a brand is difficult to maintain and grow. Lai Yuen is more than a theme park. It’s a homegrown label, and we intend to make it last. To do that, you cannot do away with the spirit of inventing,” Chiu said.

“That’s why, in every project, we tried to make something new based on the old elements, right down to the last decoration details. And these new ideas have to be original. Create or perish – that is the rule we have to live by in the modern world.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on June 23, 2017.

Main Man

Gordon Ramsay wants to be judged by what he puts on a plate, not his TV persona.

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You hear Gordon Ramsay before you see him. Not profanity. It’s the oohs and ahhs uttered by the crowd – some hysterically waving behind the windows in a building across the street – that have gathered to catch a glimpse of the reality TV star.

What the British celebrity chef and restaurateur is like in real life is comparable to what you see on television.

The quick-witted talker can appear in different shades and threat levels, from being the benevolent fatherly host in MasterChef Junior, to the fiery-tempered culinary perfectionist in Hell’s Kitchen.

His self-introduction is not a one-liner: “I am a driven, passionate chef. I don’t suffer fools. I get straight to the point. I don’t like [expletive]. What you see is what you get. I love cooking. I cook from the heart. My job became a passion decades ago, so probably, I am one of the most hard-working chefs anywhere in the world today. Please to meet you. Now sit down and enjoy dinner.”

Ramsay flew over to inspect Bread Street Kitchen & Bar in Lan Kwai Fong. The restaurant, opened in 2014, is one of his 31 establishments spread around the world.

It had been 18 months since Ramsay last set foot in the restaurant. He started the Bread Street label in an attempt to branch into casual dining. When looking East for further conquest, the chef chose Central as his first foothold. Singapore and Dubai soon followed, and Ramsay will open a fifth in Sanya in October. He is also planning to open in Beijing and Shanghai.

The label was originally established in London in 2011. “The first Bread Street has five services in a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and cocktail. It spans 12,000 square feet. The one in Hong Kong is 3.5 times smaller,” Ramsay said.

“Hong Kong is really important for us. It’s a highly pressurized tiny foodie city – landlords demanding ridiculous rents, independent restaurants being pushed out due to soaring overheads. What keeps restaurants full is quality.”

To maintain high standards, Ramsay rotates his head chefs every two to three years. Gareth Packman, a “young, tenacious and hungry” lad from Manchester, was recently hand picked to helm the restaurant in Central. While Ramsay is not physically present, he runs a tight ship by hiring mystery diners.

One would expect working under Ramsay, who currently holds seven Michelin stars, to be a kitchen nightmare. He’s actually not. “The pressure for being a young chef today is completely different from it was five, 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s the amalgamation of being socially astute, having an innovative mind, and understanding the Asian influence of the modern European all-day eater.”

The 50-year-old, who overcame a harsh childhood, personifies what it means to be social savvy. He cooks for those with money, fame, power, or all three. Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela were his patrons.

“The beginning of my journey was about improving what I grew up with,” he recalled. “When you have that hunger and that determination, you can have nothing in life, and still control the way you want to go.”

Still, he connects with common people.

His Twitter account has 4.71 million followers. “I have four amazing children, who update me on how to be trendy,” he said. “Megan is at Oxford. Holly is doing A-Levels, studying French. Jack wants to go to the Marines. Mathilda just wants to annoy everybody. She is 15.”

Ramsay’s straight-talking is a social media hit. Recently, a woman requested a special dinner to convince her boyfriend to propose. “How the [expletive] do I do that?”, he said. “If he is not going to propose naturally, then you’ve got no chance, love. Move on. Don’t think my dinner is going to make him change his mind.”

Ramsay still has unfulfilled ambitions. He wants his two Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pressoir d’Argent, to nab a third star.

And he wants to start enjoying life a little.

“I want to buy a Sunseeker and go fishing. Also, spend more time with my mum. She is 70. She likes coming to our house to spend the weekend. She cooks for the children what she cooked for me.”

Most importantly, he wants to regain control of his life. “I don’t rely on television to make me or my food famous. I know [expletive] well that what I put on a plate will be better than what you see on television. Judge me for what I put on the plate – not what you see on TV.”

The article first appeared in the Standard on April 21, 2017.

Top Table

The founder of Dan Ryan’s, Hong Kong’s famed themed restaurant, is a man who knows what’s truly at steak

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Even if you haven’t heard of Merritt Croker, chances are you would have been one of his many patrons. The American have been running a string of prominent themed restaurants for the past three decades.

Croker’s most notable establishment is Dan Ryan’s, a family restaurant famous for its Midwestern comfort food. The former restaurant consultant co-founded Dan Ryan’s with Chicago banker Paul Christenson and a group of local investors in 1989.

“When we opened the first Dan Ryan’s at Pacific Place, I was a very young guy,” the Philadelphia native recalled. “I came to Hong Kong in 1988. I was 32. We opened the restaurant in June 1989 – the same week as (the) Tiananmen Square (crackdown).”

“It was a very interesting and emotional time. That first week, I went look out the front door to Queensway near the UA Cinema. There were a million people marching down the street.”

Dan Ryan’s achieved instant success – to some surprise, as the Midwestern dining culture was such a foreign concept. On the menu were Milwaukee bratwurst, Vienna beef hot dogs, barbecued baby beef ribs, Reuben sandwich and Miller’s beers.

And adding to the culture shock was the ambiance. Interspersed with the jazzy tunes in the background were speeches by the former mayor of Chicago Richard Daley.

An article in the Chicago Tribune written five months after the restaurant opening reported that a Chinese patron asked what English was Daley speaking. After being told it was “Chicagoese, but with a Daley accent,” the patron said: “I didn’t realize they spoke a different kind of English in Chicago. It must be an interesting place.”

“Back then, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s were doing okay, but we were very, very successful. That restaurant was making money within three months. A restaurant with a new concept usually takes about six months to a year to become successful,” explained Croker.

“There was something new, not only about the food and the decor, but about a themed restaurant, the service and how we did everything.”

The first Dan Ryan’s remained hugely popular until it closed in April, when its lease expired. It was pity as the restaurant recorded US$6 to US$7 million (HK$46.8 to HK$54.6 million) in annual sales at one point.

In August, Croker’s company, Windy City International Group, was acquired by Bayshore Pacific Hospitality, a Taiwan- based company which has ventured into the restaurant business since 2013.

Croker now acts as president and chief operating officer of Bayshore Pacific Hospitality. He has also become one of three founding partners of the company.

He and his partners manage five chains in Asia: TGI Friday’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Texas Roadhouse, Dan Ryan’s, and Amaroni’s, an Italian- American cafe and restaurant.

By consolidating the five brands, the company can maintain a consistent dining experience and avoid internal competition.

“For example, in Taiwan, the per person spend at Texas Roadhouse is about 30 percent higher than TGI Friday’s,” he said. “Our aim is to do a few things, and do it well and consistent. We believe a brand is a promise to the customer of delivering a certain dining experience.”

For the past three months, the company has renovated or opened four restaurants in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Taiwan. For example, Amaroni’s in Festival Walk was reopened in September with an evolved store design and a new menu.

These were part of a two-year expansion plan with the aim of reaching a goal of US$100 million in sales.

“We focus on three key areas – Taiwan, east and south-east China,” he said. “If you add all those up, you are talking about a population larger than Europe.”

A new Dan Ryan’s will open in Cityplaza in Taikoo Shing early next year to replace the Pacific Place flagship. The new restaurant will feature an improved menu and a more female and children friendly environment.

Around 40 percent on the new menu will be the classics. Some will come with a twist, such as potato skins with upscale cheese, apples and smoked bacon. The new items include hand- tossed salads and seafood.

His restaurants mean more than business for the family man.

“I know that as a father, if I can get great food, a cold beer, and my wife can get great food and maybe a glass of wine, and the restaurant welcomes and takes care of my children, then I am a happy person,” he said.

The article first appeared in the Standard on December 9, 2016.