Generation Next

How MasterChef's Larkin Cen built a mini restaurant empire

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

MasterChef's Larkin Cen on building Woky Ko Bristol restaurant business

Related tags: MasterChef, Restaurant, Casual dining, Bristol

In just a few years former MasterChef contestant Larkin Cen has opened four Woky Ko restaurants in Bristol and is now one of the UK’s most exciting Chinese chefs

Spain’s Jamón Ibérico producers would probably be surprised to learn that some of the trotters from their ham legs – which are traditionally thrown away – end up in the basement prep kitchen of an Asian restaurant in Bristol.

The gelatine-packed feet are used to make agolden stock that’s used across all the menus at Larkin Cen’s group of modern Asian venues. “We did a lot of work on our umami broth,” says the 34-year-old. “We cook it at a very low temperature to achieve a perfectly clear liquid. It’s not like a tonkotsu broth where you just boil the hell out of it. What I love about it is that we managed to work with a supplier (the Bristol-based Mevalco) to make use of a waste product.”

The rescue of these Iberian trotters is but one example of a restless creativity that has seen the confident and personable chef open four linked yet distinct places to eat in central Bristol that he describes as ‘modern Asian noodle bars with a cheffy twist’.

Despite very approachable prices and a focus on dishes that are perceived as being fairly simple to execute – including soup noodles, bao buns and katsu curry – his Woky Ko-branded restaurants are experimental, mixing Asian and Western techniques and ingredients to create punchy dishes of impressive originality.

Cen takes tried-and-tested Asian flavours and plays around with them. His tantanmen noodle soup is based on the flavours you’d find in Sichuanese dan dan noodles. He uses preserved mustard greens, chilli oil and Sichuan pepper to make a tare and then adds the umami broth, noodles and minced pork.

Other dishes on his creative menus include a vegan ramen made with robata-grilled sweetcorn, chipotle and pickled shiitake; Korean fried cauliflower with lemongrass; and an ingenious chicken dish that sees wings served amid a rustling pile of chilli and Sichuan peppercorns, a riff on the Sichuan classic laziji.

Growing up in the business

Cen grew up in an Anglo-Cantonese takeaway in Cardiff but his journey to becoming a restaurateur has been a circuitous one. “My mum and dad’s place was a basic Chinese with a big menu,” he says. “But it took a lot of skill to run. I worked as a delivery boy there, although I did learn some things about the kitchen via proxy.” 

As is nearly always the case in restaurant-running Chinese families, Cen’s Hong Kong-born parents were not keen on him following in their footsteps. Instead, he was pushed down the academic route, at which he says he was awful despite qualifying as a lawyer and working in the profession for six years.

woky dishes
Crisp Peking duck bao (L) and wonton soup noodles at Woky Ko

He tried on three occasions to launch his own business during that time, he says. “I loved cooking. All I wanted to do was restaurants. Law is transactional. There’s not much scope for entrepreneurship or creativity.”

In 2012 he submitted an application to BBC One’s MasterChef during his lunch hour, figuring that an appearance on the show had the potential to get him on people’s radars. He made it to the finals, and immediately afterwards launched a forward-thinking Asian takeaway in Cardiff with fellow finalist Dale Williams.

Hokkei opened amid a blaze of publicity – there was even a BBC TV show, Larkin and Dale’s Takeaway Revolution – and was well-received but only lasted a year. Cen and Williams could not get the numbers to work, largely because they didn’t account for the fact that most Chinese takeaways are heavily subsidised by being family-run operations. The pair’s commitment to quality ingredients and sustainable packaging made it even harder to balance the books.

“It’s the one that got away. Despite growing up in a Chinese takeaway I didn’t have enough experience to make it work,” says Cen a little bashfully. “Being delivery-only made things tougher. We weren’t able to make use of the gig economy back then so we were paying our delivery drivers by the hour, which severely limited our profitability.”

Following a brief stint running an eponymous Chinese restaurant at Newport hotel and conference venue Celtic Manor, Cen launched his first Woky Ko site in 2016 at Cargo 1 shipping container development in Wapping Wharf, aided by two classically trained Chinese chefs.

woky bristol
Woky Ko Cargo

It was a derelict area of the city that was then very much off the beaten track but its central location appealed to Cen. “I had a good feeling about it. The first few months were tough as we opened with practically no budget and the area had very little footfall, but it worked out.”

A number of the dishes were lifted from Hokkei’s menu, including a handful of Chinese takeaway classics that Cen created to appease customers expecting to see the likes of crispy beef and sweet and sour pork on the menu.

“They were much nicer versions but people weren’t that interested. They were more into the creative stuff, which was great news for me as I’d rather have the opportunity to play around and introduce people to new things.”

Rolling out

Such was Woky Ko: Cargo’s success – Wapping Wharf quickly became a major hub for quality indies – Cen opened a larger flagship restaurant called Woky Ko: Kaiju in nearby Cargo 2 serving a more ambitious menu of small plates and ramen alongside a street food stall at St Nicholas Market.

He then opened a further restaurant at the top of Park Street, near the University of Bristol. The latter opened as Woky Ko: Kauto with an offering that was comparable to Woky Ko: Kaiju but was recently relaunched as Chinese roast meats specialist Woky Ko: Jing Xu. “The feedback was positive but I wanted to evolve Kauto into a venue that could offer quicker service because the area is busier at lunch than at dinner,” says Cen. “Roast meats make sense because they can be cooked ahead of service and served quickly. It’s also a great fit for the Chinese students that make up a large part of our customer base there.”

Alongside its roast duck, roast pork and char siu, Woky Ko: Jing Xu offers Cen’s most extensive selection of noodle dishes yet, including Korean fried chicken and kimchi; hot and sour tofu puffs with shiitake mushroom; and char siu roast pork and umami tomato.

Wok this way

Finding experienced Asian chefs is tough, but Cen and Woky Ko executive chef John Watson have not found it difficult to recruit skilled non-Asian chefs. 

“We get a lot of interest because chefs want to challenge themselves in other disciplines. John is actually a good example. He trained at Casamia (Peter Sanchez-Iglesias’ Michelin-starred Bristol flagship) and was most recently chef patron at No Man’s Grace in Redland. The last two chefs that left us went on to [Bristol fine dining restaurants] Bulrush and Wilsons, which says a lot. I enjoy working with young chefs and nurturing them.”

woky ko dishes

The pair have also had some success attracting experienced chefs looking to get out of London, a recent win being a former sous chef from Taiwanese group Bao.

“We only have three Asian chefs in the company, and that includes me,” says Cen. “It’s changed the way we work. We break down the recipes and look a what it is that makes them authentic. We then work out how we can get people to replicate that every time.”

Key to keeping things consistent is the prep kitchen at Woky Ko: Jing Xu, which produces most of the group’s stocks, sauces and braises. The subterranean space also takes the pressure off Cen’s tiny shipping container kitchens in Wapping Wharf and the equally diminutive one at Woky Ko: Sticks in St Nicholas Market.

Gearing up for more growth

Business is brisk at Woky Ko, with turnover across the four small sites expected to rise to over £1.5m next year. But like a lot of Bristol-based restaurateurs, Cen is constantly battling the city’s notoriously slow midweek business.

“If you are constantly relying on the weekends, it only takes a couple of bad ones to put you in a difficult situation in terms of cashflow. It is a problem, although we mitigate it by taking small sites,” he says. “We’re seeking to evolve the business so it has less of an impact. There are concepts out there that don’t struggle, just look at Loungers and Wagamama. We’re trying to get our customers to see us as an everyday experience, which means an accessible price point and quick service when required.”

Though his first foray into delivery did not go to plan, Cen acknowledges that takeaway and delivery could be a good way to sweat his assets and diversify his business. “We’re looking into it. It does appeal as last year’s growth was predominately in the fast casual and delivery sectors. It is the way things are moving. A lot of restaurants don’t like it, but it can’t be ignored. It’s like Blockbuster and Netflix. You ignore these things at your peril.”

While Cen will not rule out another opening in Bristol, he’s more likely to look outside the city for his next project. “I have unfinished business in Cardiff. I’m ready now. It would also make a lot of sense operationally since it’s not too far away from Bristol. I’m not out to create a huge group. I’m in restaurants because I like it and I feel Asian food is still underrepresented in the space I’m in.”

With Cen now a successful restaurateur, how do his parents view his career change? “At first they openly hated it and now they secretly hate it,” he laughs. “They’d rather I was still a lawyer. That said, they have been very supportive of me, especially when things haven’t gone to plan.”

On the plus side, Cen’s legal training has been far more useful than he anticipated, especially for running the rule over property and contracts. “You know where to look in the small print. But I still pay solicitors. They have professional indemnity insurance so if they get it wrong I have a comeback. If you do it yourself and mess it up
it’s all on you.”

Generation Next is a club for the rising stars in hospitality. For information on how to join or the next club events, contact jo.wattar@wrbm.com

Gen_Next_Footer-updated-copy

Related topics: Business

Related news

Spotlight

Follow us

Hospitality Guides

View more

Featured Suppliers

All suppliers

Free Email Newsletter

Subscribe to BigHospitality

The trusted industry reference point

Get the latest news & analysis from the UK hospitality sector straight to your inbox!