Geoff Leong's London outfit is one of the few to rethink the Anglo-Chinese restaurant formula with its authentic and varied takes on Asian cooking.
If you’re ever curious about a Chinese person’s age, but think it rude to ask, establishing which creature represents their birth year should give you a clue.
Hong Kong-born Geoff Leong – executive director at 20-strong London-based Asian outfit Restaurant Management UK – arrived in the year of the dragon, placing him in his mid-30s.
The Chinese zodiac also reveals that dragon-borns are blessed with authority, dignity, honour, capacity and luck – useful qualities for those in the restaurant business, the latter in particular.
Leong is the public face of this successful family restaurant business, which also trades under the name Restaurant Privilege. There are several relatives behind the scenes on the ops side but, as is the tradition with Chinese-owned businesses, some details about the internal workings of the company are kept under wraps.
The business is 100 per cent family owned with no debt and no outside investors, another Chinese cultural quirk. The origins of the group are somewhat hazy. Geoff’s uncle, Lawrence Leong, entered the London restaurant scene in the early 1980s, opening Zen, a trio of glamorous Asian eateries in Chelsea, Mayfair and Hampstead that were precursors to Hakkasan and Nobu. Although these were sold off to fund other projects, the Zen brand was successfully exported back to Hong Kong and China where the Leong family retains interests in the restaurant and entertainment industries
“My first exposure to Chinese food in the UK was top-end,” recalls Leong. “At the time, Zen was revolutionary and a big inspiration to Alan Yau [founder of Hakkasan]. They were minimalist, lots of white and glass and very ’80s. As a company we’ve always tried to do things differently. We opened the first Japanese restaurant in Chinatown [Ikkyusan in 1994] and were among the first to experiment with modern European influences at Goldfish.”
Fast forward to 2011 and the company now operates a diverse portfolio of Asian restaurants alongside a corporate events arm. There are three multi-site concepts: Hi Sushi with seven units, Taiwanese restaurant Leong’s Legend with two sites in Chinatown and one unit in Bayswater, and the aforementioned Goldfish, modern Chinese restaurants in West Hampstead and the City.
One-offs include top-end Japanese restaurant Koi in Kensington, Empress of Sichuan in Chinatown, which opened last year to considerable critical acclaim, and the group’s most recent opening The Manchurian, again in Chinatown, specialising in north-east Chinese food. Spend per head varies considerably, Leong’s mid-market restaurants could take anything from £10 right up to £50-£75, depending on how customers use the restaurant – some will have a single dish and bowl of rice, others a prolonged succession of dishes. The upmarket Goldfish brand enjoys the highest spends.
Restaurant Management UK functions as a holding company for the group, monitoring critical business data – including P&L accounts and food costs
– and coordinating PR and marketing. But that’s about it – the restaurants within the group have unusually high levels of autonomy and few functions are centralised.
“We try to give key staff the freedom to make decisions for themselves, the chefs in particular,” says Leong. “Our branded concepts don’t have identical menus. I don’t want to create identikit restaurants, you can lose the soul of a business.”
Much of the company’s success is down to utilising its chefs’ regional cooking skills. China has a hugely diverse culinary heritage that is seldom reflected in UK restaurants. The cooking style and range of dishes varies from province to province, even from town to town. If you eat at one of Leong’s restaurants it’s a good bet that a hot and numbing Sichuan dish or a rustic, highly vinegared preparation from Dongbei will have been cooked by a chef from that region.
In contrast to Restaurant Management UK’s Chinese estate, most Chinese restaurants in the UK offer a Westernised version of Cantonese food.
And – much like the Indian sector – the format is very similar across the country: independently-owned restaurants offering a large menu of familiar Anglo-Chinese dishes and relatively formal service for the price point. Restaurant Management UK is one of a small band of operators that has risked changing the formula.
“Most Chinese restaurants try to please everyone. They’re scared of change,” says Leong. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – customers often
don’t like change either – but we choose to take the risk. Not every concept has worked, but in London it’s possible, perhaps even advantageous, to focus on a particular region or style of Asian cooking.”
Leong believes that the capital’s appetite for interesting, authentic and region-specific Chinese food will continue to grow. “People are starting to understand the flavours more and appreciate the difference between the regions,” he explains.
“Customers also go to some of our restaurants for a particular niche or dish, which further demonstrates a shift in attitudes.”
There may be potential for more specialisation and growth in London’s Chinese restaurant sector, but it’s telling that the majority of this Chinese owned group’s expansion has been thanks to London’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Japanese cuisine, sushi and sashimi in particular. Its seven-strong Hi Sushi brand has expanded at pace and occupies the group’s most valuable real estate with sites in Covent Garden, Soho and Hampstead.
“We anticipated the huge demand there would be for Japanese food in London when we opened Ikkyusan in 1994,” says Leong. “It’s now a highly developed market. We cross-train chefs so we’re able to offer a broader selection of cuisine at Hi Sushi, Koi and Sushi Ga Ga.”
In the wider corporate sector, Japanese food has been much more of a goer too. Yo! Sushi is now up to 66 sites and 106-strong Wagamama (71 in the UK) – now a mish mash of Asian styles, but closer to a Japanese ramen bar than anything else – is set for significant expansion after a change of
ownership. In sharp contrast, branded Chinese concepts are conspicuous by their absence.
Taking the big pan-Asian buffet groups out of the equation, that leaves only the London-based Ping Pong with 17 UK sites and Royal China Club with seven sites and overseas interests. A surprisingly poor showing, especially when you consider the UK’s familiarity with the cuisine and the large number of independents throughout the country.
It’s even tougher for outfits like Leong’s to go nationwide. There are various cultural barriers that have so far precluded authentic regional Chinese food becoming commonplace. The unusual textures and extremes of flavour found in many traditional dishes will come as a shock.
“A heritage version of Kung Pao Chicken, for example, is unrecognisable to the Anglo-Chinese dish of the same name,” explains Leong. “Similarly, most Westerners don’t want to eat meat with the bone and sinew still in, but the Chinese enjoy the textural contrast."
With the wider British palate now attuned to the anglicised version of the cuisine, the group seems unlikely to take its brand of authentic cooking outside London anytime soon.
Even in London, some Restaurant Management UK concepts have had more success than others. Taiwanese specialist Keelung opened in 2009 to broadly positive reviews, but its challenging dishes failed to win the levels of custom required and the restaurant was replaced by Empress of Sichuan.
“If something doesn’t work you need to be able to change quickly,” says Leong. “We’re not afraid to rebrand restaurants if they’ve not been well received or have run their course.”
Despite the hiccups that are almost inevitable when experimenting with different formats, expansion has picked up in recent years with the group adding five new sites since 2008. A third Goldfish will open in Islington next month and Restaurant Management UK remains acquisitive. For the moment, expansion will be concentrated in the West End, and Chinatown in particular.
“London’s residential areas don’t grow much, but the competition has increased dramatically in recent years,” says Leong. “We will still look at London suburbs – the west in particular – but you need to know your market well and think carefully about site selection. Small shifts in customer behaviour can impact severely on bottom line. The West End simply offers a huge amount of custom, and the tourist trade is invaluable.”
The group rarely pays premiums for sites, preferring to bide its time and wait for bargains or occasionally to hunt out A1 retail sites and apply for change of use. With a few exceptions, Leong’s formats don’t require the same large sites and locations favoured by the big corporate chains so
he generally finds himself in competition with one-off independents for property.
Leong has bold plans to increase the profile of Chinese food across the country. “There’s a lot of education to be done, but there is a real future for authentic Asian food in the UK,” he says. “I’m looking at opening pop-up versions of our formats at festivals to further raise awareness. The UK public has a real understanding of the key European cuisines and this has allowed for high levels of growth and diversification. That is something I’d like to replicate in our sector.”