Serious business

Q&A with restaurateur Yenn Wong

The founder of Hong Kong's JIA restaurant group on going from start-up to listed company. Photos by MIKE PICKLES

What made you open your first restaurant, 208 Duecento Otto?

It was really just an opportunity. We saw this place that used to be for cold meat storage and was really dark. But there was something interesting about it. It was on the wrong end of Hollywood Road, so it was quiet yet accessible. Then people starting moving in, quietly and slowly. We opened the place, serving Neapolitan pizza. People didn’t really get it – they’d never had this style of pizza before. But now everyone talks about our Neapolitan pizza. We are quite proud that it was the first restaurant to serve it in Hong Kong.

Old Bailey, Yenn Wong
Mike Pickles

How are diners changing?

I do think more people are looking for a real story behind the food – the origins and the cuisines. So you can’t just pretend to be something and open a restaurant. It has to have depth. People are also aiming to eat healthier, although in Hong Kong taste still comes first.

Your newest restaurant is Old Bailey at Tai Kwun, the colonial police station in Central refurbished into an art space. What is the concept?

We picked Jiangnan cuisine because we really wanted to do Chinese food in this heritage space, to go back to our roots. And Jiangnan was a region of poets and art people. We feel this concept connects to this space dedicated to the arts.

Old Bailey, Yenn Wong
Mike Pickles

You’ve opened your first overseas restaurant, Duddell’s London. What has that been like?

It’s been very, very challenging. It makes you realise how efficient Hong Kong is. We thought London would be quite similar to Hong Kong, business-wise. But it’s been a learning experience. That said, business has been good and people love it.

Your company started out with JIA boutique hotel, which you’ve since sold. How would you compare hotels and restaurants?

In hotels, you get downtime, when people sleep and go out. But with restaurants, it is like you are putting on a show. Running a restaurant is not as complicated as a hotel, but it’s more intense. One wrong step could put customers off and they might never come again. Or you could have pleased them so much that you build a loyal relationship with them.

What is the most exciting thing happening in your restaurant group right now?

The most exciting part of this year was getting listed as a public company. This puts us in a place where we at least have a base value. Even though there is a lot of responsibility, having proper governance is not a bad thing. The status has also helped us get longer leases for our restaurant spaces, and banks are willing to loan us cash for deposits, which are often six months’ rent.

What’s a piece of advice that you live by?

My dad always told me to be responsible. I do take it to heart and try to be a responsible person, boss, colleague, mum and daughter.

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