Secrets from the man behind Hong Kong’s most popular restaurants

(CNN) – Hong Kong is widely considered one of the most difficult cities in the world to operate a restaurant in: a cauldron of changing tastes, keen competition and a nasty economy.

At the heart of its culinary world, with connections to at least half of its most popular tables, is publicist Geoffrey Wu.

Wu and his 10-year-old consultancy The Forks and Spoons work with some of the city’s most decorated restaurants and bars, including the two-Michelin-star TATE dining room and Ando, ​​one of the most sought-after reservations. in the city.

An atypical publicist

Geoffrey Wu is the publicist behind many of Hong Kong's toughest tables.

Geoffrey Wu is the publicist behind many of Hong Kong’s toughest tables.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

“I wouldn’t say we’re better at what we do than other people. I’d say we’re different,” he tells CNN Travel at The Baker and The Bottleman, a new casual bakery and natural wine bar from the famous British chef. Simon Rogan, where he agreed to spill some of the secrets of Hong Kong’s food 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 headed by Richard Ekkebus, as a staff operations in 2005.

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

Wu is not your typical food and beverage publicist. It’s not nice. He is known to occasionally call out clients for making a mistake or members of the media who he believes have not done their research.

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

“If I wanted to please everyone, I’d go sell ice cream. Luckily, most of my customers understand that.”

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

“The Forks and Spoons understand and customize the needs of each concept and are always up-to-date with relevant strategies to ensure that we as clients get maximum exposure to our target audience, which ultimately delivers positive growth of revenue,” Wong told CNN Travel.

“The most daunting F&B market in the world”

Dinner tables at Bluhouse, a new Italian restaurant at the Rosewood Hotel, are usually booked two months in advance.

Dinner tables at Bluhouse, a new Italian restaurant at the Rosewood Hotel, are usually booked two months in advance.

Courtesy Bluhouse

According to Wu, one of the important duties of a food and dining publicist is to be physically present in a restaurant. Either he is playing with the menus, tasting new dishes or simply meeting with the customers.

It could be anything 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 know you matter,” says Wu.

For example, later that day, he says he’s having a test lunch at Bluhouse, a new casual Italian dining concept at Kowloon’s Rosewood Hotel.

“In a tasting, we’ll look at everything: the taste, the presentation and the temperature of the food. We also look at the furniture, the flow of operation, the prices, etc.,” he says. “No new restaurant is ever perfect, but we try to minimize error.

“We’ve only worked with clients in Asia (Hong Kong, Macau, Maldives, etc.), but I really think Hong Kong is the most daunting food and beverage market in the world.”

His claim is not unfounded.

Getting the opening right is essential to Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

The city is often named as the most expensive rental location in the world. And Hong Kong residents are some of, if not the, biggest spenders on eating out, especially pre-Covid. Food imports are extremely expensive.

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

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

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

Case in point: Bluhouse. this open in June and dinner reservations are full through October and November at the time of writing.

Chefs play a more important role than ever

Hong Kong’s food and dining industry has evolved rapidly in 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.

Chefs in Hong Kong have experienced a change in their roles.

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

“Now, in 2022, there’s also this thing called building relationships. Chefs have to show their faces. They have to touch tables and take pictures with guests. The chef’s job is much bigger than before. Everything it goes back to a need for human connection. Customers, media, influencers, bloggers… everyone wants a human connection.”

And it just makes business sense: Guests are more likely to return to a restaurant where they’ve built 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 encourage them and encourage them and encourage them,” he says.

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

Chef Manav Tuli of Chaat Restaurant at Rosewood Hong Kong.

Chef Manav Tuli of Chaat Restaurant at Rosewood Hong Kong.

Nora Tam/SCMP/ZUMA Press

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

Tables are published two months in advance and shuffled in minutes.

But Chaat’s biggest star is Tuli, now regarded as one of the city’s most beloved culinary figures.

“When he arrived two years ago, he didn’t know the landscape or culture of Hong Kong,” Wu said. “He’s a quiet person, but we kind of align in that we both have drive. For him, to move his family to Hong Kong with him, he wants this to be a success. So we’ve been working very closely from day one. in it,” Wu said.

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

Cold calling is not relationship building

Wu recently hosted a collaborative dinner between Chaat and Forum, a three-star Michelin Cantonese restaurant.

Wu recently hosted a collaborative dinner between Chaat and Forum, a three-star Michelin Cantonese restaurant.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

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

They often take place in places where Wu doesn’t work, from Hop Sze, a no-frills Cantonese restaurant with a six-month waiting list, to Forum Restaurant, a three-Michelin-starred Chinese joint.

“I worked until 4 in the morning [this morning]. I only joined because Geoffrey Wu hosted this lunch,” a food critic tells CNN Travel as he enters the forum’s private dining room.

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’s also a surprise off the menu.

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

“We’re thinking of adding it in the next menu update,” says Poon as he caramelizes the sugar for the candied apple (ba si apple) fritter, a northern Chinese-style dessert, at the site. what do you think.”

The five-hour lunch ends with industry gossip over bottles of cognac.

But Wu never works.

He punctuates meetings with potential collaboration ideas (Tuli and Wong exchanged ideas that day on a connection between the two restaurants) and fills the quiet moments with jokes to keep the meal entertaining.

“I always say I’m the head of entertainment,” says Wu. “Building relationships takes time. Cold calling and sending out press releases is not building a relationship.”

Flavor is king, but it’s not everything there

Wu recently worked with Yong Fu, an award-winning high-end restaurant in Ningbo, to help refine its menu for local tastes.

Wu recently worked with Yong Fu, an award-winning high-end restaurant in Ningbo, to help refine its menu for local tastes.

Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN

At the end of the day, connections won’t get you far if the food isn’t good or the restaurant refuses to evolve.

“Taste 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 palate-cleansing bite before dessert, she 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 cut the original book an inch thick and has created a tasting menu to provide a more curated ordering experience.

In Hong Kong, Ningbo cuisine is often confused with Shanghai cuisine.  Therefore, Wu has worked with Yong Fu to create a tasting menu for local diners.

In Hong Kong, Ningbo cuisine is often confused with Shanghai cuisine. Therefore, Wu has worked with Yong Fu to create a tasting menu for local diners.

Yong Fu

In Hong Kong, Ningbo cuisine is often confused with Shanghai cuisine. The tasting menu includes dishes that diners might not know enough to order — a “sticky” boiled wax gourd and yellow croaker in sour broth, for example — that expand the trinity of Ningbo cuisine’s star flavors : “flavorful, umami and sticky.”

Yu Qiong, the manager of Yong Fu, is there to provide an in-depth explanation about each of the dishes.

“These are some of the things that will enrich the whole dining experience,” says Wu. He compares marketing restaurants to running: “Keep refining. Keep pushing. My belief is don’t stop until you’re at the finish line.”

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

“I like Hong Kong in the quiet mornings when the city has not yet woken up. When you run, you see a lot and think about a lot,” says Wu.

As for what was on his mind that particular morning?

“I was thinking about our interview. I was thinking about not swearing. I did well, I only swore once.”

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

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