BOOM talks with the urban Chinese eatery’s head chef Jowett Yu about the difficulties of running a restaurant in Hong Kong, and how he overcame them.
Almost a year since its opening, Ho Lee Fook is a restaurant we’ve all heard about. It’s Chinese food with a twist, but the twist lies not so much in the food itself. Rather, it’s in the design, and also in the approach head chef Jowett Yu took in opening the restaurant. In his words, “based on the fact that the rent is just ridiculous”, there is nowhere in the world where opening a restaurant is as difficult as in Hong Kong.
“It’s harder running a restaurant in Hong Kong,” Jowett says, “also because the resources are hard to come by. Nothing grows in Hong Kong, so we have to organise daily shipments. It’s also hard to give value to customers at the same time as making profit and sustaining the business.” Jowett has so far overcome this issue by attacking a niche; Ho Lee Fook pairs traditional Chinese dishes with a relaxed urban style.
“I always wanted it to be like a normal restaurant, that you can use to sit down for a quick meal, or sit for hours over a friend’s birthday meal.” Descending the stairs beside the Maneki Neko-lined wall, the first thing you notice about the interior of Ho Lee Fook is the wacky artwork, made by Jonathan Jay Lee – the local artist and illustrator famed for
creating Marvel characters.
“I just wanted it to be a good Chinese restaurant that didn’t look like one, if you know what I mean,” Jowett tells us. “A lot of Chinese restaurants are pretty homogenous – they’re lit super brightly and covered in gold and red and they don’t look great.” Alongside the artwork, Jowett’s own playlists fill the speaker system – A Tribe Called Quest’s back catalogue, when we dropped in for a bite.
Jowett came to Hong Kong directly from Sydney, where he had been head chef at two restaurants – one was a freestyle Asian eatery and one a Cantonese diner. “I used to cook French food, but realised one day that I just wanted to make Asian food, because the flavour profile is encompassing in all balance. With every bit of salt you also add sugar for balance. There’s acidity, there are textures, there’s heat; it’s all I want to eat and all I want to make.”
On the task of becoming head chef of a restaurant, Jowett advises aspiring chefs: “What people don’t realise is that once you become head chef, no one is going to teach you anything anymore, so it’s all really up to you. You have a responsibility, not just to run shop but to teach other people.” He continues, “no one’s really qualified for the next job they go for, really. So you just go for it. There’s a lot of trial and error, learning from things you’ve done, and how to deal with different situations better. But it’s all a learning process.”
Jowett recommends the dumplings appetiser to new Ho Lee Fook customers. “Everyone loves a good dumpling,” he smiles.
Ho Lee Fook
Address: G/F, 1-5 Elgin Street, Central
Phone: +852 2810 0860