Alan Yau - London miracle man
At the end of this month three modern icons - fast cars, striking
architecture and urban food - come together in a former Post Office by
the vegetable stalls of Berwick Street market in Soho.
The Igeni building, created by Richard Rogers, will emerge from the
cladding to house the offices of the design team behind the next
generation of Ford motor cars. But most of the ensuing publicity will
revolve around the ground floor and basement which will house Alan
Yau's latest and most egalitarian restaurant, yauatcha (sic), and
comprise a teahouse, a pastry shop and a basement serving dim sum from
1000 to midnight seven days a week.
Even to those who know him well, which I expect is only a small number,
Yau is a phenomenon among restaurateurs. He was the man who conceived
and created Wagamama, the original noodle bar chain which under other's
management has now spread across the south of England and most recently
opened in Sydney, Australia. He then spent £2 million converting a
National Westminster Bank on Wardour Street into Busaba Eathai which
now boasts sales of over £3 million a year on an average spend of just
And Yau is, I am delighted to say, the proud Chinese restaurateur who
read my article in January 1997 lamenting the lack of any Chinese
restaurants in London to match those of Singapore or Hong Kong, and
persuaded his backers to spend £4.5 million on converting a former car
park in an otherwise dreary cul-de-sac behind Tottenham Court Road into
Hakkasan, which on a busy day serves 800 customers, making it probably
the second biggest grossing London restaurant after Nobu (although
having secured an initial rent of £8 a sq ft and the best sites are now
commanding £40 a sq ft) Hakkasan must rank as the most profitable.
Over lunch at Fino restaurant, Yau talked but certainly did not behave
like the big businessman. He had just flown in from Moscow where he had
his arm twisted to act as a consultant to Shatush, a Chinese
restaurant, which some Russian night club owners said they were going
to open and model on Hakkasan whether he helped them or not. And he had
just had a phone call from a successful Canadian property developer who
wanted to franchise Hakkasan. "I replied that I don't believe
restaurants can be franchised successfully but that if he had the
passion and the money he could easily copy Hakkasan - as long as he
does not use my name." The smile at the end of this comment seemed
But even cool-as-a-cucumber Yau cannot hide his enthusiasm for yauatcha
and not just because Tim Yip, the Oscar winning costume designer
responsible for the film 'Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon' will design
the waiters' outfits.
What particularly excites him is that he and his approach to good value
food for all were sought out by Ford. "J Mays, Ford's director of
design responsible for cars like Jaguar and Land Rovers, wants to move
his disparate design teams into an urban environment similar to the one
that their customers live in. And he wants them to enjoy good quality,
urban food which they can afford every day whenever they want it."
yauatcha gradually emerged as a vehicle for Yau's personal and
professional dreams. " I am Cantonese and therefore I have always
longed to open a tea house because drinking tea, and sharing food
whether it is a pastry or dim sum, is, we Chinese believe, the most
informal social banter that there is. It is our equivalent of going
down to the pub."
Yau even finds the proximity of the fruit and vegetable stalls highly
propitious. "My parents, who brought me up running their Chinese take
away in Peterborough and Kings Lynn, have now gone back to Hong Kong.
They get up every morning, go to the market to buy food for the rest of
the day, and then go and meet their friends in a teahouse to share
breakfast. It is what I hope will happen at yauatcha."
But however similar the food may be - and Yau has hired Stephane
Suchata, a top French pastry chef, a master dim sum chef from Singapore
and Hsieh Chih Chang, a tea mistress from Taiawan to ensure
authenticity - what Yau's parents find difficult to understand, despite
their obvious pride, is quite how their son can be so successful at
delivering what is so basic to so many.
It is a question which baffles him. The only time Yau seemed lost for
words was when I asked him directly to explain his success. What
finally emerged were some obvious factors if no blueprint.
"You must begin with the end in mind and then be prepared to devote
time, energy and passion to make it happen. Hakkasan took three years,
yauatcha two and a half and did include three complete redesigns and
three different sets of fees from Christian Liaigre, the interior
designer, and will now cost £4.2 million. I suppose if I have a
particular skill it is the ability to walk into a building and envision
how it will operate successfully, not just where the customers will sit
or where the kitchen will be but where, crucially for example, the
waiters stations and the electric terminals can fit. Space planning and
a sense of ergonomics are crucial."
There are other strands. Yau is not surprisingly a control freak albeit
one maturing gently after the loss of Wagamama and the less than
successful Anda on Baker Street. When he was offered the Busaba Eatthai
site by a potential partner his response was "only if I am in charge"
so that, again in his words " I could make the place not just work but
Yau is also aware that not only is he living through the golden age of
the restaurant but that he has been operating at a time when all thing
Asian, and particularly Asian food, have become ultra-fashionable.
"There are really only four different food styles which can easily
traverse the globe: Japanese sushi, Middle Eastern mezze, Spanish tapas
and Chinese dim sum and when I began there was the infrastructure to
make Asian food successful - after all sushi and dim sum have been
around for centuries - but not the individuals to glamourise them. But
then in the 1990's along came Nobu Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, David
Thompson in Sydney who elevated Thai cooking to a new level and Su-Sur
Lee who did the same for Chinese food in Toronto. Asian food is
visually exciting, healthy and fresh." In Yau's hands it can also be
But the most fascinating aspect for Yau is making these individual
restaurants work. "By Christmas there will be a staff of almost 500 and
I want the whole to gel," he explains. And this despite an aversion to
franchising or developing a Hakkasan brand. "What differentiates
restaurants from retail is that if you want to maintain quality a
restaurant must have its manufacturing and retail units under the same
roof and ideally as close together physically as possible. That is what
so many chefs don't appreciate when they try to become restaurateurs.
Outside the kitchen there are just too many strings to be pulled. They
should stay cooking or do what Ferran Adria does with El Bulli and only
open for six months a year, running it not as a business but as a way
My huge regard for Yau only fell at the end of the meal when I pressed
him as to why he was flying out to Hong Kong the following day just
before yauatcha was due to open and most of the menu was, as he
confessed, 'still in my head'.
"I have been approached by one of the big property companies to look at
a site for a possible restaurant. Personally, it is a huge compliment
to be invited back into the heart of the dragon as it were to see
whether I can set up my kind of Chinese restaurant over there."
This return to Yau's spiritual home would be a fitting tribute to all
that he has achieved for London. As far as he is concerned, the success
of Hakkasan has been twofold - in offering the best possible Cantonese
food to Londoners and providing the Chinese community with a taste of
What has most surprised Yau about this is that the average spend at
Hakkasan is the reverse of most other restaurants in that it drops
substantially at the weekend. "During the week we have customers who
order dim sum, then items from the a la carte menu and drink cocktails
and wine. At the weekend we get Chinese families who only drink tea and
only order dim sum and spend about half as much as those during the
But this is a further tribute to all that Yau has created. His vision
of Wagamama has converted thousands of teenagers to the pleasures of
eating out and to eating healthily. No other restaurateur has created
restaurants where so many will queue for so long, have fun and leave
wanting to return. Personally, I hope that his Hong Kong trip comes to
naught - Britain still desperately needs him.