Niall Howard is a busy man. In the coming months the Hakkasan Group, of which he is chief executive, will open not one but two restaurants in the City of London, almost doubling the number of different concepts it operates in the process.
Following that he’ll oversee the opening of a further five high-profile Hakkasans in far-flung locations – San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the US, as well as Doha and Shanghai. If that wasn’t enough, a second Sake No Hana will also launch at the start of next year in Dubai, potentially kick-starting an international rollout of the London-based Japanese restaurant. If an army marches on its stomach then Howard and Hakkasan are seemingly well-fed.
“We tend to focus on mega cities, ones where ‘global residents’ live,” says Howard, talking about said expansion. “These people are very rich and don’t necessarily live in just one country. In some places we’ve never found a site, such as Paris, and some places the economic model wouldn’t work – such as the rest of Europe and UK. For a mainstream Hakkasan, places such as Las Vegas and Shanghai are a good fit.”
Such lofty plans won’t come as a surprise considering the company’s ownership and consequent financial firepower. The brand famously began life as a single Chinese restaurant on Hanway Place, a rather down-at-heel alley just off London’s Tottenham Court Road, opened by legendary restaurateur Alan Yau in 2001. Yau opened a further Hakkasan in Istanbul, but then in 2008 he sold the business, which also included teahouse concept Yauatcha, to Tasameem (part of Abu Dhabi Investment Authority) for £31m, thus creating The Hakkasan Group as it stands today.
With Tasameem’s deep pockets, and its desire to create a global brand, expansion since has been prolific. There are currently seven Hakkasans dotted across the globe; this time next year this figure will have almost doubled to 12.
The most ambitious project in the pipeline has to be Hakkasan Las Vegas, due to open in the MGM Grand at the end of April 2013. The former Studio 54 site will feature a huge restaurant as well as two bars and a nightclub with capacity for 3,000 people. Yet the most interesting move has to be the brace of new concepts due to open side by side at Broadgate West in the City of London in the next few months.
The first, Chrysan, will be a fine-dining Japanese restaurant in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Yoshihiro Murata. The second, HKK, has designs on being “the most unique Chinese dining experience in the world”.
“It was a crazy dream,” says Howard, on why he took the ambitious step of opening two different restaurants at the same time. “I was speaking with the landlord of Broadgate West, Peter Marano, who owns L’Anima, and he had a space he was trying to get us interested in. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we created a sort of gourmet centre of excellence in an unlikely place, like an oasis?’ It appealed to me because it was a bit wacky. The more wacky it got the more I liked it.”
How a softly spoken Scotsman born in the Highlands, with more than 30 years’ experience in both oil and gas and financial services – as well as a brief stint at his local distiller William Grant & Sons – has come to be talking about booking DJ David Guetta for Las Vegas and overseeing the most high-profile Chinese restaurant brand on the planet is itself quite wacky. Howard was asked to review the company three-and-a-half years ago at a time when it had posted a loss of £6m. The Hanway Place restaurant was still doing well, but the rest of the estate needed work.
“I went to Abu Dhabi to show my recommendations, which resulted – surprisingly – in the owners asking me to run the company,” he says. “Originally I said no – I live in Edinburgh and I’m not from restaurants, but I agreed to come down and establish a management team to put in place recovery actions. I loved it so much I stayed.”
Howard instantly made his mark by closing the Istanbul outlet and culling the very expensive pâtisserie offer in Yauatcha, as well as cutting head-office costs and setting the company off in a new direction. There followed what he describes as a period of stabilisation and recovery, during which time he put forward a strategy to create a global F&B business with four hubs – the Far East, Middle East, Europe and the Americas – and to have more than just one type of restaurant. “The obvious one after Chinese was to go to Japanese, and they had an appetite for that strategy.”
Creative city dining
Fast forward three years and that strategy is about to come to fruition in the form of Chrysan, the first new ‘brand’ to come out of the group of today. The aim of Chrysan will be to do for Japanese cuisine what Hakkasan did for Chinese food in the early noughties: bringing authentic flavours of the Far
East to Western palates in a high-end capacity. The 150-cover restaurant will follow in the opulent vein of its Hakkasans, which have a famously high spec. A figure of £10m, for example, was bandied around for the opening of the Hakkasan in New York, and while Howard says the company never quotes on financials he indicates this is not too wide of the mark.
“Good restaurants will cost between $500 (£317) and $1,000 (£633) per sq ft. New York [Hakkasan] is about 12,000sq ft, and if you look at the materials we use you can do the maths and you’re not going to be a million miles away. It was a significant investment.”
Chrysan will have two private-dining rooms, one being a chef’s table, as well as a bar called NeNe that will serve a separate food menu. Howard’s ace is the partnership with Murata, a Japanese chef of high repute who currently holds the most Michelin stars in his home country (seven) as well as being chairman of the Japanese Culinary Academy. “I see him as a guardian of Japanese food culture globally,” says Howard. “He’s got this ambition of exporting the best of Japan so as to almost inculcate it into different societies.”
Like Hakkasan, it will be authentic up to a point, but its main focus will be on delivering high-end Japanese dishes rather than being a slave to tradition. Local ingredients will be used, as well as local chefs, but it won’t be fusion food, Howard stresses. “It will still have very authentic roots, with Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients, but it will expand the diversity of Japanese food based on [Murata’s] western experiences. The food will be in the style of kaiseki (comparable to Western haute cuisine) but it might not necessarily match that of the kaiseki found in Japan. Murata’s interpretation of kaiseki is that it is fun.”
Uniquely, the kaiseki menu on offer – including sushi; parsnip and duck foie gras with truffle-flavoured dashi soup; confit of smoked salmon; and 35-day dry-aged Angus rib eye with Mongolian soy sauce and yuzu egg yolk dipping – won’t necessarily be the finished article, nor will the bento box set lunch, that includes dishes such as duck confit, grilled lobster and sushi. “Because of [Murata’s] dream it is imperative he gets feedback from Western guests so he can evolve the menu into what he wants to achieve, which is the best Japanese food that the West likes. He can’t assume what he knows will be liked. We need to get feedback to learn what really works.”
HKK, which sits adjacent to Chrysan, will change the rules again. The 50-cover site will serve a fixed tasting menu (around 12 to 14 courses) of modern Cantonese cuisine and will be part-restaurant and part-test kitchen. The chef here will be Tong Chee Hwee, who has worked for Hakkasan since its inception as head chef at Hanway Place and then executive head chef for the entire group. He will drive innovation, as well as cooking.
HKK’s focus will be more on a bespoke food service, with Chef Tong serving up some of the signature dishes he’s cooked at Hakkasan over the past 11 years. Roast Peking duck will be its speciality, with a glass duck oven taking centre stage in the restaurant, as well as dim sum. Unlike the dim sum served in Hakkasan, which is cooked in the southern Chinese style, HKK will serve styles from across the country.
There will also be a focus on healthy eating, with Chinese medicinal herbs and spices utilised in Chef Tong’s cooking, and on sauces and seasonings, which will then filter down into the group. “It’s a centre of excellence for the brand,” says Howard. “A training centre for chefs to come and work – ‘the mothership’. My view is that Chef Tong is best in the kitchen pushing Chinese cuisine to new frontiers. HKK will almost be a lab, a kind of shop window for new movements in Chinese food.” In addition, chefs from the group will train there under Chef Tong. “We can’t be complacent that our menus across the world will last forever. We have to evolve.”
A more casual future?
With Chrysan and HKK, Howard appears to have got his timing spot on. While a few years back the City played second fiddle to places such as Soho and Mayfair, it is in the throes of a renaissance, boosted by high-profile openings such as Sushisamba, Duck & Waffle as well as D&D’s forthcoming The Old Bengal Warehouse and its South Place Hotel.
“The centre of London is moving back to the City with the development of the East End. We’re going to see the rise of the City. Restaurants and residents are moving in. Crossrail will make Liverpool Street a real epicentre. I see Mayfair saturating and becoming more and more difficult to do business in.”
Yet the always affable Howard is also aware the company needs to diversify outside of fine dining in order to capitalise fully on what’s happening in the UK. Based on consumer feedback at Chrysan, and its overall performance, Howard is considering rolling out a more casual Japanese brand, one that could even move outside London and into other parts of the UK. “Wagamama is in America now, and Busaba [Eathai] is doing well – there’s a market for these kind of places. We’re not going to just copy them. We won’t be in exactly the same space, but we’re close to that. This will be the next phase of the company’s expansion.”
Yauatcha is also ripe for further growth. “I’d love to take it into other parts of the UK, we just don’t have the management time to do it yet.” The casual-dining route might not seem a likely direction for the Abu Dhabi outfit, a city known for its penchant for aspirational luxury businesses, but Howard says to take this view is to do them a disservice. Tasameem has a lot of wealth but takes expansion seriously – there is no blank cheque book at Howard’s disposal and it understands the need to diversify to get the returns it requires.
“My experience is that fine dining doesn’t make much money, you’re going to make more at the mid-range level,” he says. “You don’t want all your eggs in that one basket. El Bulli didn’t make money, and Noma can’t possibly make any money, but they are shop windows for other reasons.
“Companies like Abu Dhabi are more longer term in their thinking than the West. They don’t need cash at the moment, they need income streams for 30 or 40 years. They’ve been supportive in providing capital to grow but look at traditional returns, including internal rate of returns, paybacks etc. They need to be profitable like anyone else.”
To this end, Vegas could be the last Hakkasan to be built. “There are no new projects until we’ve finished the ones we’ve started and reappraised our current assets. There are only a few more places where it would be economically viable.”
A mid-market move is a compelling proposition, and one that wouldn’t be out of place given the Hakkasan brand’s past links to the likes of Busaba Eathai and Wagamama. Moreover, it could mark the beginning of a new style of company that, with Howard’s nous and its financial clout, has the potential to make a significant mark on the sector.
“With more brands you’re changing the whole aspect of the company, but that’s something the investors would like to see. You create more layers of bureaucracy but that’s not a bad word – it means more policies and procedures and more HR and finance people. You actually create more of a company. When you’re small you can do things on a wing and a prayer, but you can’t do that forever.”
This business profile first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Restaurant magazine. Subscribe here.