Alan Yau’s CV reads like a timeline of some of the most successful restaurants to have opened in London: Wagamama in 1992, the opening of Busaba Eathai in 1999, the launch of Hakkasan in 2001, followed by Yauatcha in 2004. Not to mention his three latest projects: Babaji Pide on Shaftesbury Avenue, Duck & Rice on Berwick Street and Park Chinois on Mayfair’s Berkeley Street, as well as smattering of creative consultancy roles across the globe in places like Moscow and Monaco.
Yet you scroll all the way back to the first entry on his CV in 1990 and it reads: McDonald’s Franchisee training programme. The global fast food chain is arguably the most successful example of consistency within the food industry across the globe. Whether you love it or loathe it, a Big Mac in Geneva will taste the same as a Big Mac in Adelaide.
The Golden Arches notch on his impressive career journey reminded me of what Yau said at the end of our interview when I asked what his future held. “I want to do an “IBM” - to migrate from hardware to software: to move from restaurants to a food platform.”
In a recent FT interview, Yau said that he is,“tantalised and troubled by the unfinished business of fast food. I want to move out of this industry because I can’t really expand. The amazing thing about digital technology is that it can hit 50 million people overnight but change through restaurants is 10 years minimum.” As he goes on to say, “I want to disrupt taste from the current, almost analogue age of critical mass adoption to the millennial age of credible mass. For the TripAdvisor generation, it is all about what they ‘like’ rather than what is ‘good’, even if it is not to their taste.”
Yet this vision seems a long way off from his latest project, Park Chinois in Mayfair. The 15,200 sq ft, 300-cover site on Berkeley Street - a couple of doors up from Richard Caring’s Sexy Fish - has reportedly cost over £20m spent to get it off the ground and during my visits - once for lunch, once for afternoon tea and once for dinner - it’s clear this project is a labour of love for the Wagamama founder. This is something that cannot be easily replicated.
Inspired by the French rococo period, Park Chinois had originally been planned to open in the Gramercy hotel in New York a number of years ago. I ask Yau if the London version had changed from what was planned for Manhattan. “That’s very observant of you, you’ve done your research well. The concept has changed in its totality except for the design anchor of ‘chinoiserie’. The ‘old school’ brand philosophy, which the concept sits under, now drives everything else. The ‘dinner and dance’ component is also a recent development”, says Yau.
I mention to Yau that I’ve always thought there was a gap in the market for more dinner and dancing venues in London that are not private members’ clubs. I suggest something along the lines of a public Annabel’s or LouLou’s. He replies by saying “I think Club Chinois will be more ‘old school’ compared to Annabel’s, I hope. Both musically and the feel of the place will hark back to the glory days of the Cotton Club in Brooklyn, Buena Vista Social Club in Havana and the Peace Hotel in Shanghai”.
A few days before interviewing Yau, a well-known chef with restaurants in Mayfair and Soho told me that there were plans to open a more informal restaurant and bar in the former Automat part of the site on Dover Street. “You know the space very well”, replies Yau. “We are looking to turn the old Automat space into a whisky bar with food coming from the same kitchen as Salon de Chine.”
Despite creating some of the most famous restaurant brands in the world, Yau has always remained low-key when it comes to his profile and press. Show a passer-by a picture of him and they would be unlikely to recognise him. Travelling back in time, I bring up the topic of Wagamama. As a restaurant it was so ahead of its time - communal dining on long tables and the cuisine was unknown to Brits. At the end of last year - the group now owned by Duke Street Capital - announced they were to open their first since in the States in New York. I ask Yau what it was like open the first Wagamama.
“I really enjoyed the work in those days”, he notes. “Apart from being young and naive, being an owner-operator allows you to sweat out the problems as well as the successes. Looking back, those days represent romance and nostalgia.”
Nine years afters launching Busaba Eathai on Soho’s Wardour Street in 1999, he sold it to Phoenix Equity Partners for £21.5m. The sleek interiors had been created by Christian Liaigre and David Thompson - for whom Yau has the utmost respect for his “absolute dedication to authentic Thai cooking” - created the menu. In a sense, he brought good Thai food to the masses. I ask him if this is the same for Babaji? He says “it’s not so much about trying to bring Turkish cuisine to the masses. I hope the Babaji proposition is more focused, and my ambition is to push Pide as a mono-product, with a similar roll-out model to what Pizza Express did with pizza.”
“Going forward, both the menu and the spatial template will be tighter, the unit economics better defined, and there’ll be a system architecture to facilitate the roll-out strategy. Lastly, Babaji will appoint a CEO, to lead the expansion plan”, notes Yau.
We discuss the future for Duck & Rice and Babaji and if there’s any plans to open internationally. “We’re looking to restrict the roll-out ambitions of Duck & Rice to UK shores. For Babaji, Dubai is an easy fit in terms of cultural compatibility. It would create a shop window platform for the GCC countries. We are also partnering with SSP to place Babajis into airports globally”, replies Yau.
With both Babaji and Duck & Rice, we’ve seen Yau take a new direction in design and collaborating with design studio, Autoban. Set up by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çaglar in 2003 in Istanbul, the studio has worked with the likes of Hermes, as well as local restaurants in the Turkish capital including Karakoy Lokantasi. The decor, most notably the tiling, is similar to that of Babaji and Duck Rice. I ask Yau his reason for choosing to work with this specific company.
“For me, the two best designer / architects are Christian Liaigre and John Motford”, says Yau. French designer Liaigre’s clients include Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein and Rupert Murdoch. And Motford has created some of the most iconic hotel interiors in Asia - from the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong to the Park Hyatt Tokyo, made famous in the Sofia Coppola film "Lost in Translation".
“I like design and I enjoy design. I have a list of designers and architects whom I like to work with, but at the same time the way I work is about choosing and matching the concept to the designer, as I don’t really believe designers can change their internal design traits. With Autoban, I really like the way they can take the design brief to a semantic level, affecting the FF&E components of the design. I really admire this level of design coherence”, notes Yau.
Our topic of conversation turns more generic and we start to discuss the London restaurant scene. At the time of writing, there has been a lot of press about Mayfair restaurants relocating due to high operational costs - especially rent - and the impact this will have on the sort of operators openings in the West End. I ask Yau if he thinks that London is currently the best restaurant city in the world.
“I’m not sure London is the best restaurant city in the world in terms of food quality - but certainly in terms of dynamism of trade, yes. London will always fall short in terms of the quality of produce, and an appreciation for a produce-driven culture is still lacking, compared to say Tokyo or San Sebastian”, suggests Yau. We touch upon recruitment in the industry. “It’s very challenging, especially with the ever-increasing tightening up of working visas for non-EU nationals. I believe the situation will force a trend towards Euro-centric cuisines in order to compensate the cost / quality trade-off”.
For any restaurateur or chef, travelling to discover new cuisines is so integral to their restaurants for not only just food but design, concept and hospitality. For Yau, Japan - bar none - is the most inspirational place he has visited in terms of food and hospitality. “Not just for the cooking or specific type of cuisine, but for their cultural appreciation of quality: quality of produce, quality of cooking, in line with the seasons (shun), and the aspirational attitude towards learning that chefs have - absolute post materialism”, as Yau explains.
Taking in everything Yau has spoken about, especially the sort of language he uses, it’s clear that he’s not just your ordinary restaurateur who is content with opening a restaurant. It strikes me that he is constantly searching to improve what he does - always tweaking at things - that not only benefit his restaurant but hopefully the industry as a whole. When you think of the Danny Meyers and Jeremy Kings of the world - they are the best at what they do because they constantly strive for perfection and flip an idea on its head. You ask ten people the same question and you’ll get nine identical answers apart from Meyer and King who will be look at a situation in a different way. I sense Yau is the same.
But something doesn’t sit right with me and I still can’t quite place my finger on it. I’m not saying that Yau doesn’t enjoy what he does now but he seems to remember the Wagamama and Hakkasan days with such fondness and nostalgia, as though his current projects are like a second marriage but he’s still in love with with his first wife. The wedding moon, the honeymoon, the anniversaries are not the same the second time around.
I only later discover that after falling ill in early 2009, Yau flew to Thailand and trained to become a monk for eight months. I’m told this takes time, commitment and forgoing many of life’s pleasures. Much like being a restaurateur.