Black Sheep Restaurants – Leaders of the Flock

in F&B

As restaurateurs, the guys behind black sheep restaurants are certainly no woolly thinkers.

Black Sheep may not be a name that’s too familiar, but you probably know the restaurants that Chris Mark and Asim Hussain have created: Motorino, Boqueria, La Vache, Chôm Chôm and now Ho Lee Fook, all part of the new wave of design restaurants that have taken Hong Kong by storm.

The name ‘Black Sheep’, as Asim explains, is fundamental to the group’s philosophy. “Chris and I have always been the black sheep in our families growing up. So Black Sheep is our attempt to do things a little differently. When we try to do concepts, we ask ourselves, for instance, what is the Vietnamese food dialogue in Hong Kong and will our concept add to it?”

In the past three years, Chris and Asim have expanded from one to six restaurants, each time challenging the industry. “When we were looking at setting up La Vache, everybody said to us this was a really bad idea. They said it was a crappy site, that it used to be a seedy bar, that we wouldn’t get the license, that the ceiling height was oppressive, that no-one would come here and spend money on steak frites, much less on a bottle of wine. They asked us ‘how are you going to have a restaurant with only one dish? It’s not going to work.’ But I guess we were silly enough and just stuck to our convictions.”

That La Vache has become a runaway success is testimony to their vision, but their risk was calculated. After all, La Vache is a spirited homage to one of Paris’s greatest and best-loved institutions, Entrecôte, a restaurant that has been serving exactly steak frites and nothing else for over 40 years. And the idea of a restaurant that only serves one dish is merely a refinement of how many people in Hong Kong already eat. As Chris explains, “People here always go to that place with the definitive fried crab or roast goose. Of course, there’s always a huge menu, but no-one pays any attention to that. So the idea of a single-item menu isn’t that far-fetched.”

La Vache also exemplifies their attention to detail. Their designer Sean Dix, in collaboration with Substance, worked on their design brief, which was to reimagine how Entrecôte would be like if it had been designed today. “Everything we have in La Vache is a subtle homage to the original Entrecôte. For example, they have the same hexagonal floor tiles, but ours are much larger.” In fact, their approach to design appears to be, in some ways, the reverse of how many restaurants approach it. “Design is integral,” says Chris, who comes from ten years of running restaurants for Dining Concepts Group. “Usually, the starting point is the cuisine or the chef and everything grows out of that. Many restaurants approach it differently, where they put all the art they like on the walls or put all the food they like on the menu, which ends up lacking clear direction. We always knew we’d do more concepts, so we could afford to be more focused and distinctive. We’re lucky that we’re not trying to express all our passions in one place.”

For Asim, the key is that ‘good design is invisible’. “The customer sees decoration, but behind that is design.” To get it right, Chris and Asim do their research. “Before we did Chôm Chôm, we knew that we wanted to do a concept around beer. So we went to Hanoi and spent seven days immersing ourselves in the culture of bia hoi – these outdoor places where you sit down and food just keeps on coming as you drink your beer on the street corner. We tried to understand what makes it work in that setting and how we could bring it over to Hong Kong.”

When it comes down to it, Chris and Asim have no qualms about pinpointing the basis of their success: hard work. Chris points to the water glass in my hand. “We spent weeks sourcing that glass. Customers come to [Ho Lee Fook] and might not even notice, but this is the original Tsing Tao glass. Everything in each of our restaurants we’ve spent countless hours sourcing so that they can all come together in the spaces we create. We looked at over 240 sites for our first Motorino! And Chris and I are on the floor of each of our restaurants seven days a week. Every night, we’re just walking between our restaurants.”

No longer the black sheep of the restaurant industry in Hong Kong, Asim and Chris are justifiably proud of what they’ve accomplished. But their challenge to be different still holds true, and it remains their philosophy. “It’s become a sort of litmus test for us now. If people tell us we’re being idiots, then it means we’re onto something good.”

 

Black Sheep Restaurants:

Boqueria
Address: 7/F LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street
Phone: +852 2321 8681
Website: www.boqueria.com.hk

Motorino
Address: G/F, 14 Shelley Street
Phone: +852 2801 6881
Website: www.motorino.com.hk

Chȏm Chȏm 
Address: 58-60 Peel Street
Phone: +852 2810 0850
Website: www.chomchom.hk

La Vache!
Address: 48 Peel Street
Phone: +852 2880 0248
Website: www.lavache.com.hk

Ho Lee Fook
Address: G/F & L/G, 1 Elgin Street
Phone: +852 2810 0860
Website: www.holeefook.com.hk