Sandra Choi talking to Alan Yau during their meal at The Duck and Rice, one of Alan Yau’s newer ventures, a Chinese-English “pub” featuring the mouthwatering house special of Szechuan chilli chicken, tender aubergine and firm, fresh noodles.
Sandra Choi was employee number one at Jimmy Choo, the luxury shoe company her uncle co-founded in 1996 with Tamara Mellon. Choi studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins, while living with her aunt and Choo. In the more than two decades as creative director of the brand, Choi has guided it through numerous, often fractious private-equity transactions, as well as the departures of co-founders Choo and Mellon in 2001 and 2011, respectively.
Hong Kong-born restaurateur Alan Yau introduced London to Japanese noodles and canteen-style dining in the
early 1990s, with the era-defining ramen franchise, Wagamama. Through his subsequent ventures, including Chinese fine-dining restaurant Hakkasan and dim-sum teahouse Yauatcha – both of which have been awarded a Michelin star – Yau has redefined the status of Chinese cuisine in the UK.
Sandra Choi I was born in England, but my mum and dad had four young children; I was number two, and they couldn’t cope with us all. So I was brought up by my grandparents in Hong Kong. I was not doing great at school, so my parents said, right, responsibility over – back to mum and dad! And I was sent back to the UK with my younger sister. What about you?
Alan Yau My father was a tailor in Hong Kong so he came over here hoping to make a little bit more money. But the most popular thing at that time was the restaurant business, so he became a chef. I think my father is
an amazing cook. He worked as part of the third generation of the very famous Peking Rendezvous restaurant in St. John’s Wood.
SC My grandfather was a fisherman in Hong Kong and he got a boat in the 1950s, which landed in Liverpool. He worked there and kept trying to find a place where there was no Chinese food to start a business – he picked the Isle of Wight! Jimmy Choo was married to my aunt, so I moved from the Isle of Wight to London to live with my family. In our culture, when you live with family, you immediately adopt what they do and help out. So I ended up helping in the studio – and the whole thing fascinated me! How do you approach the design of your restaurants?
AY I get criticised a lot for my stuff being over-designed, but I look into the design side as a way to make the project more interesting. Quite apart from the interior, I want to look into the graphics, the uniform, everything else. In the restaurant business, the requirement to do amazing food as a product is a prerequisite. You have to do that to succeed. Lately, my main interests are in regards to the emotional architecture of the space – that I can feel the space. I can definitely feel if the space is negative, positive or flat. SC I think, yes, you’re selling a pair of shoes or a handbag. But I want to paint the whole picture – the music, the ambience, and the way that you display everything needs to feel right.
AY I tend not to eat in my own places. When you do that it becomes work. It becomes very stressful because for me nothing is ever right. I really don’t know how other people do it.
SC I sometimes pop into a store and announce myself. I don’t shop, but I do walk into stores – it is the shop staff who complete the experience.
AY I tend to believe in the spiritual side of things, particularly with hiring. If you put something good out there, it will attract the right type of people. Hiring or looking for a good chef has never really been the problem. My problems have really been more to do with funding. In my experience, money and creativity never get on because pitting the commercial production against what the baby requires, especially in the incubation stage, never works. During the incubation stage of a concept, you need absolute focus and a single-mindedness to push through with it.
SC I believe that if it’s meant to be it will happen. You go with the flow. If I don’t laugh and don’t look at everything with a positive perspective, I’ll probably cry. We work in a very ruthless industry. Why do you think you are so successful?
AY I’m not sure whether I’m that successful. I enjoy what I do and to be honest, I think that if I were less creative, I would have been a lot more successful. It’s because the people who invent things don’t make the money.
SC From my point of view, you have to balance the two. Without creativity, you can keep on going on the back of the brand, off its power, but somehow your audience will see through it. You have to tell a story that the world wants to hear and maintain what you are about as a brand. That’s key.
AY This is the Szechuan chilli chicken.
SC It’s very peppery. That numbing sensation is incredible.
AY Yes, but this is even spicier – a lot of people don’t understand this concept. So they ask the chef to water it down, water it down, and then the chef becomes used to people complaining about the heat and automatically puts in less chilli.
SC So authenticity is key.
AY Yes. I don’t care about how many people complain. Numbing is really the essence of what Szechuan cooking is about. Without the numbing, you’re almost taking the soul out of the cooking. And if you don’t enjoy that, then don’t have the dish. This is Cantonese roast duck. This place is called The Duck and Rice because to me, pubs should be about humour and irony. I don’t do much cooking at home. My ideal weekend is really to spend two to three days in Istanbul and we do that every two weeks. I’m actually thinking of getting a place there and spending maybe four to six months of the year in Istanbul. Since 2010, when I went into a temple in Thailand and was ordained as a monk, I feel as if my whole body sensitivity changed. I began to appreciate certain cities that are more compatible with my energy, or cities I feel alive in. The three cities I enjoy the most from that point of view are Bangkok, Istanbul and Las Palmas.
SC When I think about food and memory I think of my grandmother. She had seven children and she would provide a different breakfast every single day, seven days a week. She would think of different combinations of food to put on the table for lunch and dinner. The minimum number of dishes to put on the table is three! And that’s not including the soup. It made me want to open the cupboard and pull various ingredients together and make a meal – it’s about being resourceful and creative.
AY The most memorable meal I’ve had was in Takahata in Japan, a small town in the Yamagata prefecture. It’s famous for two things – organic farming and a breed of cow called Yonezawa Wagyu. I believe that this beef is the best beef in Japan. In Takahata, there is a butcher’s shop with the nickname of “one-cow butcher” because the husband and wife team that run the shop take one cow a day and they have a butchery in the front and a restaurant in the back, which they open for dinner. The dedication and the way that they choose to live their life and focus on a single product is incredible. To me, that is the kind of world that I think we should strive for: responsible agriculture and eating on the basis of quality. §
Yonezawa Wagyu is ranked alongside Kobe Wagyu as among the best beef in Japan. Characterised by its fine texture and intense marbling, it has a rich flavour and subtle, sweet fragrance.