How long has this project to revive Poon’s been in the works?
I quit my job in advertising about three years ago. We wanted to open a permanent location and found a site that was in our budget. We raised £250,000 in a week from investors including Justin Kennedy (co-founder of Hong Kong’s Beef & Liberty) and Loh Lik Peng (a high-profile Singaporean hotelier and restaurateur). But after that we plateaued. We had persuaded the landlord to wait but then Brexit happened and the institutional investors we’d been courting passed on the deal. Things lost momentum after that, although we came close to opening Poon’s at Soho House’s The Ned, but we were worried the brand might have been a bit lost. After all that, we went back to our original investors and they suggested we do a pop-up to prove the concept. So here we are.
Tell us about the history of Poon’s...
My dad arrived in England in the early 1960s from Hong Kong in pursuit of my mother. He was classically trained in China but ended up opening a fish and chip shop in north London. His disappointment with Chinese restaurants in the UK prompted him to open the first Poon’s, in Chinatown, in 1973. I was a baby at the time.
And more followed...
Yes. The Poon’s that really broke the mould was the Covent Garden site where my dad won a Michelin star in 1980. He and my mum took over an old vegetable warehouse sometime before Covent Garden was the restaurant hub it is today. The business grew to seven location in its 1980s heyday, including a restaurant in Switzerland, but some of them belonged to other members of my family.
Why do you think Poon’s is so fondly remembered?
First and foremost, the food was very good. My dad is a real stickler for classic Chinese technique. The food at Poon’s was very clean. At the time, most Chinese restaurants in the UK were serving cheap ingredients covered in sweet gloop, so what my parents were doing really stood out. Chinese food back then had a bad reputation. Some people really did think that we ate cats and dogs, and had bad kitchen hygiene habits. Partly in response to that, my dad put the kitchen right in the middle of the restaurant at the Covent Garden site. That location was particularly influential because it didn’t look like a Chinese restaurant. There was no red and gold, or dragons and phoenixes. It was ahead of its time. In fact there wasn’t a Chinese restaurant that broke the mould to that extent until Alan Yau came along with Hakkasan some 20 years later.
So your father is retired now?
Yes. He’s in his mid-70s and is a delightfully grumpy old man. No Chinese restaurant is good enough. It’s quite a liability eating out with him, although he did recently declare Andrew Wong (of A Wong fame) a ‘promising young man’. He is consulting on the menu and will cook a special legacy dinner later this month, but aside from that he won’t be cooking.
Did you ever work at the Poon’s restaurants?
Yes. I worked there on and off as a teenager. I swore I’d never go into the business because it can be a very antisocial profession, I never saw my parents and went away to boarding school. I didn’t want it for my own family. My parents didn’t mind that I didn’t want to follow them into the business, which is typical of Chinese restaurant families. My mother is concerned about it. She knows how much work it takes to get a restaurant right. My father’s concern is: ‘who have you got in the kitchen, are they good enough?’.
Tell us about the pop-up...
It’s in Clerkenwell and has 50 covers. It was previously a high-end tea shop. It will be open seven days a week. The menu is all sharing dishes. It has some iconic items from Poon’s, including zha jiang mien; wontons tossed in red chilli oil; and claypot rice with Poon’s wind dried meats. But the menu is different to the original because we want to champion the simpler dishes that are eaten in Chinese homes and also offer some more regional dishes. There’s a lot more to Chinese food than Cantonese cooking, delicious though it is. It’s also more casual than the original Poon’s restaurants because we eventually want to roll the concept out. Everything is designed for sharing, but starter-sized plates are between £4 and £6 and main course-size plates are around £15.
How have you found staffing?
Not too bad, but then we’re not trying to employ chefs that have trained in China. Each dish has been broken down and the recipes are very specific about quantities. The idea is that anyone who can cook can get it right. Not being reliant on Chinese staff is essential if we want to expand significantly.
Where would you open a permanent Poon’s?
I don’t believe Poon’s is a Chinatown brand anymore. We’ve looked at Soho but it’s extremely expensive, prohibitively so in fact. As such we’re looking at Marylebone and Clerkenwell should the pop-up be a success.