How are you finding lockdown 2.0?
I'm trying not to be too resentful about being closed but I'm frustrated. A Wong [in Victoria] is all about momentum. The first closure set us back and this second closure will set us back even more. The whole stop start thing is so disruptive when you’re constantly trying to improve what you do.
How’s the restaurant doing?
It’s tough. The Government say there’s help available with the furlough and grants but it’s all peanuts in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t touch the sides. Luckily, it’s not about the cash for us. The worst thing is the disruption. We’re in a weird position here because the lease for A Wong is coming to an end soon. We need to make it as good as it can possibly be so we’re in a good situation for our next step, whatever that might be.
Will you move the restaurant?
I'm not sure. The whole building is going to be redeveloped. The pandemic might delay it a bit but it’s definitely going to happen. And that’s okay. I like the fact that the end of the project has always been in sight.
You’ve closed Kym’s [in London’s Bloomberg Arcade] after just a year. What happened there?
Running a new restaurant at the best of times is hard. It’s been an incredibly challenging year for everyone and in Kym’s case the numbers just didn’t make sense. There was no decision to be made. Carrying on would have been a recipe for disaster. Chris (Miller, the founder of White Rabbit Fund and Wong’s partner in the project) and I are still on good terms. He's amazing at what he does. I've learnt a lot from him.
Were you happy with the restaurant?
Yes. We wanted to show London that Chinese roasting was something really special, and I believe we achieved that. It’s also worth noting that a number of specialist Chinese roasting places have since opened. I have learnt from the project too. It’s made me realise my own strengths and limitations. I'm anal and I’m a micromanager. I come up with ideas but I'm not brilliant at the operational side. I'm a bit all over the place. I'm a chef, basically. A Wong works because I'm there to improvise until it somehow all comes together.
Have you considered pivoting to delivery or meal kits in lockdown?
The problem is that there are a lot of places around here that do takeaway a lot better than we could do at the moment. If we did it, I'd want to do it well, and that would involve a lot of R&D. We did dabble with takeaway when A Wong launched but at the end of the day our food is not well-suited to delivery.
What are you doing about Christmas bookings at A Wong?
We're booking people in from early December and hoping we can accommodate them. The only way we can do it is to hustle. We roll the dice and have a punt at what we think will work. What else can you do? The Government has no idea what it's doing. All we can do is make an educated guess about what we think will be best for our business and go with it.
And you’re having some building work done…
We're creating a covered outdoor terrace that will give us an extra 10 covers, which will allow us to space our tables further apart in the restaurant. I want to make a feature of the outside area, and we might even put up some Christmas decorations, which we've never done before. Hopefully it will be ready in time for reopening.
You have done some work with SOAS University of London into the effect of Covid-19 on Chinese hospitality around the world, tell us about that
We recently submitted a grant application to study the effect of Covid-19 on Chinese hospitality around the world. We'll be looking at racism, generational differences and the connection between Chinese food and pandemics and how that has affected the Chinese community. Like my first project with SOAS (which saw Wong analyse ancient Chinese recipes) it will feed the menu at A Wong. For example, I might explore ingredients that are taboo without actually using them. You can do a dish that examines why Chinese chefs use shark fin and what they do with it without actually using shark fin.