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Alan Yau: the philosopher-restaurateur who’s breaking all the rules

Restaurateur, now tech-entrepreneur Alan Yau wants to democratise taste.

We caught up with restaurateur and innovator Alan Yau, who was in town for the launch of Madame Fan Bar, the Chinoiserie-inspired cocktail bar located inside the contemporary Cantonese restaurant of the same name, whose concept Yau consulted for.

The main dining room of Madame Fan

The main dining room of Madame Fan

Plato proposed the ideal of a philosopher king, a “wisdom-loving” ruler who was not just well-versed in statecraft, but considered all disciplines in his rule. A ruler who, as a “pilot of a ship”, paid attention to “seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft”.

In the restaurant world, Alan Yau feels like just such a person. The 56 years-old Hong Kong-born Londoner has been in the restaurant business for almost 30 years, and has built brands that have gone on to become empires.

Yau speaks in a halting manner, pausing in between sentences to give measured, sometimes almost byzantine answers that flit between everything from Zen Buddhist sayings (Yau spent 8 months in Thailand training to be a monk), to business jargon, to the infinite wisdom of Bruce Lee. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find a restauranteur that speaks like Yau. He’s rarely discussing the specifics of cuisine, nor will you hear him bemoaning the lack of manpower and the difficulties of leasing — two all-too-common problems in Singapore.

But Yau isn’t like most restaurateurs. The man has a habit of creating successful concepts that he would then sell before moving on to the next project. Yau’s first major venture was fast-casual ramen chain Wagamama, which he founded in 1992, and exited in 1997. The brand was acquired for £559m in 2018 by British F&B empire Restaurant Group, and now has over 150 locations worldwide.

Then there’s Hakkansan, which was founded by Yau in 1999 as a reaction to the Western perception that Chinese food was only fit for low-to-mid level dining  “There was a glass ceiling for Chinese food, and people thought that you couldn’t make it sophisticated for that level of fine dining, and I saw a market niche there,” shares Yau.

The success of New York-based Japanese Nobu gave Yau the impetus to embark on Hakkasan, whereas the Paris-born chill-out F&B concept Buddha Bar gave him the idea for something he terms an “entertainment restaurant”.

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Ways of dining

“The definition of an entertainment restaurant in those days was a DJ-led environment with lounge-style dining. The idea was to ask the perennial question: ‘is there life beyond Chinese tea?’ I wanted to turn 80-20 (food to alcohol) sales mix to at least a 60-40. You need the ambience to be a little more attractive to allow that to happen. That’s why that kind of environment interested me. That’s why Hakkasan has a DJ, and is quite moody.”

Yau might have sold Hakkasan in 2008 (together with a yum cha concept, Yauatcha, for a not-too-shabby sum of US$60 million), but his prescience was spot on. Hakkasan grew into a nightlife empire which, after a recent 2018 merger with Sam Nazarian’s SBE Group, is now worth close to USD$1 billion; and will encompass a hotel, restaurant, and nightclub operation based out of Las Vegas.

Despite the large amounts of money that become involved, and earned, when Yau takes on a project, wealth or numbers don’t seem to be a major concern for the man. “I wouldn’t consider myself a businessman. Because I were one, and in order to make money in the restaurant industry, I wouldn’t want to take up the risk of a start-up. I would go into a project at the tier 2 or 3 stage of that brand, when a restaurant is already a mature platform, and I can buy in at that level to scale the brand upwards,” he explains.

Instead, Yau sees himself as “in a Western definition, kind of innovative entrepreneur”. While Yau the not-businessman clearly knows how to sell alcohol to wealthy Londoners looking for a good time, Yau the innovator goes off on many tangents, forming a complex web of sometimes-interconnected, sometimes seemingly-disparate ideas that sees him dipping his toes, and sometimes immersing his whole self into various aspects of the food world.

(Related: Meet The Prive Group’s Yuan Oeij, the man redefining what it means to be a modern-day restaurateur)

All things considered

For one, Yau’s continually opening, and consulting for new restaurants. It’s also perhaps the conceptualising of new restaurants where Yau’s philosophical bent really shows — he studied politics and philosophy at the City of London Polytechnic.

“An Alan Yau restaurant is one where, within the concept vertical, you can actually reference the hows, the whys, and the what in relation to the level of conceptual, creative, and intellectual rationalisation.

“I hope that with my projects, there is a reason for every decision, and that’s driven by an ideology at the top. That ideology then flows through why everything thing in the restaurant exists. That’s quite important to me.”

Yau cites the example of Park Chinois, a “Chinese food-driven old school dinner and dance” that he opened in 2015.  Inspired by pre-war Shanghai glamour, Park Chinois was built around a palate of Chinoiserie, with its interior overseen by renowned Parisian designer Jacques Garcia. “[Chinoiserie] is not Chinese, but what the French and Europeans thought ‘Chineseness’ looked like without having been to China. And I wanted this design because I thought it worked for the concept”, shares Yau, who prides the detailing of Park Chinois to be something even an “art historian, even from an academic point of view,” would approve of.

Handcut Taiwan noodles with wind-dried pork and lala clams at Madame Fan

A Madame Fan signature: Handcut Taiwan noodles with wind-dried pork and lala clams

Besides a Cantonese cuisine-led menu that features such continental indulgences as truffles, caviar and uni, Park Chinois’ dimly-lit opulence also include cabaret shows and jazz bands. The idea of opening a Chinese restaurant for Londoners and branding it with an aesthetic that was created by colonial-era Europeans as a romanticisation of the far East seems almost tongue-in-cheek, but Yau also knows his audiences.

He admits that something like Hakkansan, with its “entertainment” concept would only today work in certain markets, explaining: “it cannot be the real definition or a representation of Chinese fine dining, but it has its own niche. Certain cultures — broadly speaking of course — do like to dine in that kind of environment. Chinese people, no. This wouldn’t work in Hong Kong or China. They want very bright places, large round tables.”

(Related: Meet the creatives who have probably designed a restaurant you’ve eaten in)

The main dining room of Madame Fan

Madame Fan Bar

Burgers and beyond

There’s also Yau’s obsession with the “mono product”, which he defines simple, an easily-constructed food item of “no more than three components” that’s accessible, and portable. An early implementation of this was Wagamama with its canteen-style service and fast-casual noodles, for which Yau spent time working in different fast food franchises to research for. Since then, Yau has toyed with the mono-product idea in other forms. He’s opened Yamabahce, a Turkish pide concept which Yau sees as the next natural evolution from the popularity of pizza; and also wants to “emancipate the kebab”.

“I think [the kebab] has tremendous potential in the marketplace of fast food. With it, you don’t need to find a new way to market the product or re-invent it.

To me, the kebab is very similar to sandwiches or coffee in that there is already market demand for it. What’s missing though, is that there’s currently no single brand to consolidate the marketplace, like how coffee was before Pret-a-Manger or Starbucks happened.”

Yau’s right. Kebabs outsold the combined turnovers of McDonald’s, Burger King, and German sausage brand Wienerwald. He’s possibly sitting on another multi-million dollar food concept, but Yau seems more preoccupied with his next big venture: a “Qualitative trust-based recommendation platform” for food called Softchow.

Cocktail collection at Madame Fan Bar

Craft cocktails from the recently-launched Madame Fan Bar feature plenty of homemade infusions, syrups and garnishes

Hardware to software

Yau’s beginnings are humble. His emigrant parents ran a Chinese takeaway, which gave him his first taste of the restaurant business. In many ways, he’s had to build his “taste”, something which Yau concedes is tied to one’s environment and economic status. For someone who’s in the restaurant — and now food-technology — business, Yau doesn’t really talk about the food itself. He hasn’t brought up his favourite restaurant or dishes, and instead brings up things like “democratisation of food”.

Yau seems more preoccupied with food as an ideal — it’s role culturally and politically, and it’s importance in its ability to “bring happiness”. He shares, “I believe where that happiness comes in is when you experience phenomenal taste, there’s a biofeedback where your body produces happy hormones that create this pleasant memory that stays with you.”

In this vein, Yau has created Softchow, which he calls the “Spotify of food”. The idea is simple enough: a platform where food recommendations, be it a restaurant, coffeeshop or even a chocolate bar from grocery store, are qualitatively driven instead of a numbers-only rating. Yau’s vision though, seems to be for Softchow to be this all-encompassing, food utopia with a thriving ecosystem of engaged tastemakers, seekers, and even businesses. There are talks of integrated reservation systems, and “taste acquisition journeys”; although the main mission, according to Yau, is for users to have “no food regrets”.

If anything, Softchow feels like the natural evolution of Yau’s history of taste-making, opening restaurants that were at their height of cool, from Wagamama to Park Chinois. Yau’s now putting the idea of “taste” — and it sounds almost grandiose — in the hands of the people, and not just those that can afford roasted duck rolls with heaping mounds of beluga imperial caviar at Park Chinois.

Last meal

Perhaps fittingly enough, it’s the simplest question that gets Yau thinking. A rundown of what his last meal would be lists “comfort food” ranging from ramen to shepard’s pie, to spaghetti bolognese (very British, unheard of in Italy) and wonton noodle soup; but Yau has no clear answer. Perhaps it’s because he attaches no sentimentality to the idea of a last meal — no grandma’s cooking or particularly treasured dish.

Maybe it’s monk-like detachment, or maybe Yau just sees equal merit in all these dishes. Or maybe, he’s ready to leave the world of food behind past retirement, sharing “I really want to end my career by changing it at the age of 70. I want to do spiritual work at that age, especially on the healing side of things.”

 

Yau’s first Southeast Asian venture, Madame Fan, is located at the NCO Club

32 Beach Rd, Singapore 189764. Tel: 6818-1921