We’re speaking with Andrew from A. Wong today. Andrew is from London and perhaps, even though everyone is familiar with you and your brand, a short introduction. Who is A. Wong?
That's a good question. I think it’s one of the hardest questions to answer for any chef, but we're a Chinese restaurant. We opened about eight years ago now, which is very nice that we survived so long. What we kind of do is that — we just, nowadays, it's about evolving a menu which basically shows Chinese food in a slightly different light.
You know, the fact that China is a very, very large country. It has 14 international borders and it has a population of 1.4 billion and increasing. So it's just about showing that the culinary diversity that exists throughout the country, and at the same time, allowing our kitchen team to have some fun with those parameters, which actually is very, very broad.
You're one of the most sought after restaurants in London actually. And I know that because I see the data behind it. I can see that there's a lot of pressure on your reservations platform every day. What makes A. Wong so attractive? What’s the magic? Why is it always so fully booked?
Well, that’s a really difficult question. When we first opened, I remember that all we actually wanted to do is just have a few customers come into the restaurant. You know, I remember the first night my wife and I just kind of looked at each other and we just kind of prayed that that would get one or two customers and, and things kind of evolved and, you know, we never used to have a reservation platform. We used to use a book — a book and a pen — until we started hanging out with you guys. This was interesting because the book used to be about that thick by the end of the year with people’s additional notes in saying it.
But, you know, I think there's something very special about Chinese food. It doesn't matter what kind of style of Chinese food, a lot of the dim sum techniques, a lot of the roasting techniques, it's just very difficult to recreate at home, which is why I think people are so eager to go and eat it when they can. And I think, especially in comparison to the kind of cuisines like Nordic cuisines, for example, the flavour profile is so different and it's so umami-heavy that, particularly chefs anyway, I think after chefs have spent the whole week dealing with very kind of subtle cuisines, they want to have a blowout on something which is really spicy or really heavy on flavour. Really fermented kind of rich umami.
I think that's the real attraction to it, which is why on every Saturday night you go into in Chinatown, in London, you'll see half of the London chefs there.
You've kind of made Chinese cuisine a bit more… I don't want to call it high-end, but a bit more… is fancy the right word? There's a bit more spice to it than just traditional Chinese food.
Well, you know, the thing you have to remember is that I grew up in a Chinese restaurant, so my parents had a Chinese restaurant, and in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Chinese food was very, very traditional. It was very, very kind of one-dimensional. And all we do is basically celebrate that but, at the same time, entertaining ourselves at the same time and being a little bit more creative and kind of shining a light on the things that I think other people haven't necessarily shown the lights on.
Because, you know, China has a 3,000-year-old gastronomic history. Over 3,000 years of gastronomic history. And there's a lot more to it than a lot of the menus that you see from around the world. And we can only put maybe 40, 50 items on. But there's a lot more to it than a lot of the kind of standard 40 dishes that you see on 99%t of menus.
The last time I was in London, I took a walk of shame next to the restaurant because it was so crowded. I didn't even feel like going in.
We need to see you. And so we need to see you soon.
I would say Scandinavia — just to put focus on the whole corona outbreak — like Scandinavia started to open up right? We’re no longer in lockdown.
Actually, restaurants in Norway opened three weeks ago, restaurants in Sweden, as you know, have been open at all times, but now people are starting to go out again. And restaurants in Denmark opened last Monday, right? You're telling me that you're still going to be locked down for another month?
Yes. We're going to be locked down another month. And we started on the 21st of March. So it's a long lockdown. I think you also need to look at every country individually. I mean, if you compare Denmark, the death toll is, I'm assuming, very low.
I was talking to someone in Australia the other day. The entire country has only had 114 deaths. Whereas in the UK, you're talking about 40,000, nearly. It’s a very different problem, depending on how many casualties you're getting. And the weird thing is that obviously, we've been hearing about this — well, I've been hearing about this — probably since the end of last year, right, because we have colleagues, we have family, we have friends in Hong Kong and in China. So this started a lot longer than March for us.
And actually, every country is dealing with it differently. And no matter what people are saying about who's right and who’s wrong, actually, there is no right and there is no wrong, you know. Politicians are making it up as they go along. Restaurants are making it up as they go along. Chefs are making it up as they go along because nobody really knows what to do. It's almost like going to Las Vegas, you know, you're going out there, you're throwing your chips down and you just hope that you get something good out of it.
What are you going to do next month?
You know, actually, in a funny way, I’ve been working six, seven day weeks now for maybe 16, 17 years. So, you know, sitting on the sofa, doing a lot of reading and research and just talking about work, instead of doing work, actually I don't really mind it. I can just sit on a sofa and talk about doing work for probably another few months until I get really bored.
But you know, it's really nice, we work with the school of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London. And we have various projects around the world and it's really nice to just have some. To basically sit down while everything is shut and just basically kind of recalibrate where we all as a business and see all the things that we've done right and also see the things that we've done wrong because there are many things that we've done wrong, but sometimes when the ball is rolling, it’s very difficult to sit down and just kind of reassess the situation.
So it's been really nice to sit here for the past few weeks and really get information, look at the industry as a whole, and try to reevaluate how we make ourselves a better restaurant and a better business at the end of this.
Actually, a lot of the chefs have contacted us in the last month asking us for advice. And I usually tell them, we can tell you a lot, but I think the best advice comes from people that have been in the game for so many years like you, right? So feel free to share some thoughts with us. Like, what have you reflected on?
This question has been asked to me multiple times over the past two and a half months. Every journalist, every person in the industry, is asking the same thing. And all I can really say is that there is no right way of making a success out of this because actually, no one's really gonna win from this. The whole world as a whole is losing from this.
But if there is any advice I've been telling myself, it's that no matter what we do as a restaurant or a set of restaurants, it has to be a better version of the past and it can't be just a mediocre memory of what the past used to be. I think customers deserve better than that. And I would never disrespect our guests and give them something which was half baked, just because we were going through this pandemic.
A lot of people are doing a lot of things. Some of them, from what I see, are just knee-jerk reactions, they're just kind of like, “we have to do something”, but I've learned the hard way over the past two or three gates, which is basically just because you're busy, it doesn't mean you're working — number one — and it doesn't mean you're going to be making money. Now you could be making yourself really busy and you could be losing money.
That's the reality of it. I’ve definitely learned the hard way. And I don't want to get in a position where I’ve basically been running around, doing loads of stuff, and at the end of the day, put myself in a financially worse situation for my staff and for the restaurant, at the end of lockdown.
I've been talking to a lot of chefs, a lot of restaurateurs, lately, where some of them highlight that they need to continue to stay faithful to their brand and therefore they are not going to do anything drastic to change and adapt.
And others are saying, you know, we’re going to adapt completely. A good example, I spoke with Matt Orlando from a restaurant Amass here in Copenhagen the other day. He took Amass and basically cut it in two. He took his fine dining restaurant and one side is staying fine dining, with lower prices, but still high quality. The other side will be called Amass Fried Chicken and wine bar, right?.
So you suddenly have a fusion of two places in one. And before, people like you would probably be afraid of changing something so drastically, like putting a wine bar into your fine dining restaurants at the same time. But it seems like that's where the trend is going, also shifts in our rethinking.
You know, as I’ve said, this is a prime example of something where it's very, very individual to the location and to the individual restaurant and brand. I mean, if you transfer that same kind of thinking to London, it doesn't work because restaurants aren't big enough, square-footage wise. They don't have massive gardens outside where people can sit outside. Per square foot, our restaurant is a 1,800 square foot restaurant.
Now, if you put social distance in into that and you cut it into half, you're going to have to sell either really expensive fried chicken, or you're going to have to somehow have a queue going out your door 24 hours a day in order for you to just be able to pay your staff and pay for the chicken.
So, you know, it will work in some places, but I think diversity is one thing, and that is basically celebrating the entrepreneurial-ship of chefs, which I think is great. But especially in London where your rents and your staff costs are so high, I think — number one, you do have to continue that entrepreneurial spirit, but also you need to think about the economics. As I said, just because you have all the seats taken in your chicken shop, which you've converted, you could be losing so much money that your fine dining restaurant on the other side won't be able to reopen in five or six weeks’ time. So, you know, it's different courses for different horses, and as I said, you have to separate it.
You have to separate economics from the entrepreneurial spirit. And I really, really admire those that have got that entrepreneurial spirit, but specifically for London, it's not always applicable.
London has a rumour of being a knife fight. A lot of people are talking about London in financial matters and business as being a huge knife fight between an overcrowded market of restaurants that are doing the same or doing different things, which is pretty amazing and unique for London, right?
How do you see that development going further? Obviously we might have not seen a lot of restaurants closing their doors yet, but we’re still going into some kind of financial recession. What does that mean for the restaurant industry in London, maybe in the UK?
I think you, first of all, have to look at it in terms of what it was before. COVID-19, right. And before it was a bit of a mess and I'm sure a lot of your followers are probably people in the industry, so they don't need me to tell you this, but the margins are tiny.
Tax in the UK is 20%. Rents are extortionately high. Margins are very, very small and, you know, am I ever going to sit there and say that competition is a bad thing? Well, no, because ultimately it’s a good thing because it pushes us all. But I think, as a restaurant industry, there are underlying problems such as staff costs, rents, VAT, food costs, and basically everything is geared towards the fact that if you want to do something special as a restaurant, you have to compromise quality.
And the ones who don’t, basically have to eat into their profit line, to the point where it might be zero. And that's the reality of it. So, you know, at A. Wong, for example, we have to almost go into the business with the understanding that the profit line is subsidiary to creativity. We have to sit back and we have to accept that, okay, we want to put this on the menu, we want to put that on a menu. And it's more than just “we want to get a 60% GP or 70% GP". It's like, we want to introduce this ingredient to our guests and that’s the defining thing. Now, afterwards, we can talk about the GP and the costs and everything after that.
Now, if you're a restaurant that runs strictly on GPs, on mathematics, where every day you start your day by looking at a spreadsheet, it's a very dangerous game. And actually, I think they're the ones who are going to suffer more because they don't be able to see the problem beyond the spreadsheet. And the fact of the matter is, the things that are going to say restaurants, I think, isn't just purely economics. It's about relationships. And it's about your affinity with your guests that you built up over however many years that you've been open and it's that warmth and that sense of responsibility to the community, which will determine whether or not they come to support you or not in the coming months.
I see the industry has also started to discuss things like, guests, in general, need to understand what it costs to actually serve them food, because for the last, maybe five, 10 years, there has been an under-appreciation of the craft that you guys are doing, the quality of the product, and it seems like we are competing on prices now. At least we have been the last years.
Do you think that will change a bit now?
Yeah, I completely agree. I think it will definitely change. And I'll tell you the best way that you can test this, right? You go on to an app and you deliver some takeaway tonight, whether it be fried chicken or a pizza, or your local takeaway.
You get that food and check how much you have to pay to feed your couple, or you as a small family and you look at the price and then look at what gets delivered. And then you compare that to a restaurant where you go and there are 20, 30 staff looking after you and they're using premium products and you're sitting in a dining room, which is comfortable with nice furniture, with everything looked after.
You look at the place comparison and I'm sure what you'll find is that, okay, you have to pay more for that. But you're not playing a massive amount more if you compare if you take into consideration the costs that go into the experience connected to going to a restaurant. And I hope what the customers will see is that when you're charging 40 pounds for a wagyu beef dish, or if you're charging 15 pounds for a chicken dish, a lot of that money isn't going to the restaurant. It’s going to the farmer, the producer, it's going to the actual cost of the ingredient.
And I think, especially in London, a lot of people forget that. A lot of people when they go to a Chinese restaurant, especially, or they go to a Chinese takeaway, pay for something and they don't necessarily connect that price to the cost of an ingredient. They just connect it to some arbitrary value, which they think is making a business owner rich.
Maybe you and I need to consider joining forces and put a one-pager in the newspaper in the UK to highlight that. I think it would make sense to really break it down and show the actual cost and the rest of the supply chain and what that means, because it seems like, as a guest, you don’t know that part of the story, right?
You only see the star chef and you hear about him in the media and how well he's doing, so you have the perception that he's doing really well. But the honest truth, and you maybe can correct me, is that he's doing well and he's happy, but he's also living in a tight space, financially.
Absolutely. You know, I think this is why you see a lot of chefs who have to diversify into doing media and they have to do that. It’s fine to do TV. Actually, chefs as a breed, in my opinion, don't particularly enjoy that side of things. If you look at the most talented chefs in the world who have gone on to become media icons, the way they started out [inaudible] and they started off because media, TV, consultancies, these are the things that actually pay the bills at the end of the day. Your restaurant is almost like your passion. It's like your passion.
And it's like your shop window. Your shop window to show people what you do and how your brain works in a way that you think creatively. And that doesn't necessarily always equate to a bank balance and it really doesn't.
And I think if you're talking about percentage-wise, I always think the difference between one and 2% can really make a difference between being able to pay for your kid's tuition and not being able to pay the kids' tuition. And that 1% can be eaten up by an extra kitchen porter, or it can be eaten up by your staff breaking too many plates in one week. Or the customer stealing the toilet paper every week in the toilet. You know, the 1% can get eaten up very, very quickly. And it is the defining difference between a chef having a living and not having a living.
What does all of this mean for A. Wong? What's next? You've been reflecting upon the whole situation and you've had some months to really think about both the creative side and probably the economics of running your business, right?
What does that mean? What are you cooking on?
So, as a restaurant at A. Wong, I'd always projected that I wanted the restaurant to become smaller. When I say smaller, I don't mean obviously cut it in half. What I mean is that I always wanted to take tables out and I always want to take tables out in order to give the guests more luxury and give them more time with our staff to talk about the food, but also talk about Chinese history.
Talk about the inspiration behind the dishes and talk about Chinese culture as a whole. And in a weird way, social distancing is almost forcing it onto the agenda, in a sense that we just have to do it now. So in a weird, strange way, it's basically just accelerating the plans that we put in place anyway, beforehand. And, you know, offering an experience where the guest feels comfortable — and when I say feel comfortable, that's not just about the chairs, it's not about the temperature of the room, it’s also about this idea of cleanliness, and now people go into a post-COVID-19 or a COVID-19 post-lockdown era where people talk about sanitising gloves, masks, and all that is is an extension of the psychology of a guest.
And basically, our job as a team is to basically reassure our guests to make them feel and forget about those problems while they are in our dining room. And the PPE and all that stuff is just a part of that.
I think you said pretty clearly before that what actually needs to save restaurants is the relationship and the warmth to the guest. That probably from our perspective will also be the.
You know, the restaurants that really, really, really dig into the guest experience and the guest relationships, and start to become much more personal with guests, to build regulars, make them come back, make them share your brand with their friends and network, that will probably be the most important thing a chef needs to do post-corona, right?
I think you're exactly right. And if you look at Noma, for example, who opened the burger joint. The important thing to gather from that is not necessarily what they're selling, right? It’s the fact that what he was saying in the press was that what he missed most during the lockdown, wasn't a particular type of cuisine. It was the affinity and a commonality.
And I think that is the defining thing which is important to draw from. And that is ultimately what people are going to miss. And okay, the offering needs to be good, but what people miss more than just the product is the idea of a relationship. That idea of going somewhere and feeling special or transporting them to a different place where they, all of a sudden, begin to question things about Chinese cuisine and Chinese culture and Chinese history.
And that is the magic behind restaurants, which is why even in Hong Kong, where for the last 18 months now they've had demonstrations, COVID, and now they're having more demonstrations, still restaurants have managed to maintain, to be open. And some have closed, admittedly, but still, the majority of them are open because there was always that demand for that experience which you can’t recreate at home or even in someone's house. It’s the magic of what restaurants are.
What does that mean for you and A. Wong because, obviously A. Wong was already famous for being very personal, right? You guys are really good at the guest experience and building up the relationship and telling the story of Chinese cuisine and traditions.
How do you improve that? How do you go from here to the next level?
Well, the immediate proposition is what is going to happen with social distancing and guests feeling comfortable with or without masks and gloves. Now that is the immediate largest problem — how do we still excite our guests, through our narrative and through our interaction, maybe with this PPE equipment on.
And the biggest thing, which I referred to previously, is that I don't think masks and gloves will make guests feel safe.
[What makes] guests feel safe is that sense of warmth with the staff and a lot of the psychological stuff that goes around in a dining room. I think that's what really makes people feel comfortable within the dining room and feel safe.
And now if we add that with the proviso that guests need to take responsibility for themselves as well, in the sense that they need to be responsible for the wider audience that they interact with. So if you do have symptoms, you just don't go into a dining room. If you have friends or people that you live with who are showing signs, you have to be socially responsible to not go to a dining room where there is that possibility of you having no symptoms yet walking into a dining room with potentially 30 people in.
I think once you put that with the normal procedures of hygiene and cleanliness, together with the psychological kind of reassurance that we'll try to work to as a team to make guests feel comfortable, I think that is what will still maintain that guest experience without making it feel really sterile and feel like a hospital.
I think it's also about educating the guests on how to navigate or how to go out in the new normal. How do we make sure that guests do not have this fear of going out? Before I was talking to a lot of chefs who basically didn't have the concern around the fact that some people might be afraid of going out eating right, especially at intimate restaurants and so on, even with social distancing rules and so on.
Now, what we see is, at least in the countries that are opening up, we see that restaurants are quickly reaching. index 90 of what they were before. So people are definitely showing a thirst and hunger to eat out again and get the emotional side of going out dining. But they're also afraid that that number will decrease in the incoming weeks, even though guests can travel like they could be, thereby meaning that they would have more money to go out locally.
Restaurateurs are also afraid that the trend will drop again after people have kind of like had that experience. What do you think will happen in the UK?
For the people who don't live in the UK, I think it comes back to the messaging and guidance that a lot of people get. So up until this point, all the media in the UK has been very much geared towards staying at home, because if you go out, you're going to infect someone else and we don't have enough beds in the hospitals to look after you. And that's been the messaging very much clearly from March (2020) onward.
Now the economy needs to get rolling again. Now, the kind of messaging in the UK is kind of: Stay at home if you can. If you can work, go to work. If you can't go to work, don't go to work. And so the messaging is slightly changing and the UK, in general, is a little bit confused at the moment and for a lot of the population who require this step-by-step guidance, they really need clear messaging. And the only way that you can get it is — number one, either from the media, so they have very clear guidance. “You can go out now, whatever,” or it's kind of like herd mentality, right?
So it's like, “oh, I walked past this restaurant. Loads of people are going out now. Let's go out too.” And I do maintain that in London and I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that people in Denmark may be a little bit more…
No, the opposite, actually more aware and maybe slightly more… I don't want to say the word intelligent, but in London, the feeling I get is that people just forget things so quickly. I always talk about this thing with all the people I talk to nowadays, I love the way that, well, it's ridiculous, pre-COVID-19 everyone cared about plastic and the environment. And now I'm looking at all these restaurants, all the packaging is plastic.
The straws are plastic. Everything is plastic now. So why does no one care about the environment anymore? And it's because the general public, there is this innate, biological survival — so basically we need to survive, so we need to just look after our own interests — or it's just forgetfulness. It's just like, “oh, we don't know anything about plastic anymore.
Oh, it's all right. We're not driving our car so we can produce plastic.” So is that thing in the public domain where people do forget about things very quickly. And I'm pretty sure if restaurants started to build up momentum and people started to see people in restaurants, they will just very, very quickly just go, “oh, I'll follow them into the restaurant too.”And it's the restaurants that don’t have that kind of feel to them and don't have that buzz about them, they're the ones that are going to find it slightly more difficult to build up their clientele again.
So that the new rules of running a restaurant and I think people will quickly come back to, you know, when things get to normal, people will start to think again about being sustainable. After this whole takeaway mess with plastic boxes everywhere and so on, people will probably be a bit more sustainably-minded and environmentally minded. But I do think that we've seen a huge setback, just like you're pointing out, right? It’s crazy.
Yeah, number one, I think it was an environmental thing. But it's not really a setback. What it is is a reality check. A reality check to show that people often say that they care about certain things, but there is an innate human need for self-survival, and how that transpires into everyday life, is they come across as being hypocrites or selfish.
But the one thing lockdown has shown, actually, is regardless of how much plastic is produced, actually, the biggest contributors to the ozone layer are air travel and petroleum.
I guess the sky is blue in London, too, right?
You know, my daughter pointed out a star the other day and I thought it was an aeroplane. I thought it can't be an aeroplane. It must be a star.
It's even amazing that she's going to experience that in her lifetime. I mean, remembering back to, for me at least at the start of the 90s, I remember the sky had a different colour to what I saw before corona, right? And now it feels, again, it feels normal, kind of.
It is the best way I can describe it is outside our restaurant, we have these trees which are owned by the government, and for most of the time they were pretty dead before the lockdown, and over the last few months, somehow this tree has blossomed into a jungle, to the point that it's almost covering the whole of the outside of our restaurant now.
Nature is a beautiful thing. When you see these things in real time going, oh, well, this is this how much we can affect the growth of just a single tree, how does that affect the globe as a whole, is pretty mind-boggling
As a side note, just while we've been talking, I have received a few requests. I'll read them off for you. A few people are asking me about doing another session with you to discuss the mental health of being a chef.
I think that was because of what you said at the beginning. About how to continue to be creative as a chef and making sure that your team also stays creative when you're not working. The economics of running a restaurant and how you continue to build guest relationships and how you use them.
Of all those questions, I think the biggest one is that idea of, how do you stay creative?
And this isn't just for chefs, this is for people in multiple industries. And I think creativity, people have to break it down into a clearer demarcation. Creativity is not something that some people give to you. It comes from within. When you wake up in the morning, you have the choice to either scratch your bulls, turn on the telly and do nothing, or there's something in you that says, "You know what, I have these questions in my head that I would like to go to pursue. What I see from the team and talking to other chefs, is that people who just want to scratch their bulls and turn on the television, they're going to do that anyway.
Right? And to me sitting there telling them about how to be creative is a non-question, because if you require that guidance to basically pull you through every single hurdle, then you're just not designed to be creative anyway. It's those people who wake up in the morning and have those questions. Every morning I wake up and there are loads of questions running through my head. It doesn't have to be related to food necessarily. It can be related to web design. It could be related to Superb, to do with data.
How would this be useful? How would that be useful? You know, I always put myself in the shoes of the guest going, “if I was using this platform, what would I like the staff to know about me before I came or not knowing about me? What would I feel uncomfortable with?”And all these things are questions that I have in my head on a daily basis. And I think that is what spurs creativity. It's just questions.
There's not just a switch or magic wand that goes, “this will make you creative”. It's something in you where you just want to ask questions.
I will leave that as the last word. Andrew Wong, you're still an amazing personality, you’ve always been. So I’ll just quickly say that if people are interested in you, they can go in and follow you and check out your restaurant A. Wong.
I saw you also cooking and you continue to share a lot of insights and I think you have a lot of things on your mind. So I would definitely do that if I was one of the people listening here. Thank you so much for your time.