French chefs find a new haven in Hong Kong
Chef Hubert Goussard of independent French restaurant Figaro explains the appeal and pitfalls of Hong Kong for foreign restaurateurs
Self-styled ‘Wine Workshop and Kitchen” Figaro is one of a growing number of small, neighborhood French restaurants which have proliferated recently in Hong Kong.
“French dining in Hong Kong used to be limited to global superstar chefs like Ducasse, Gagnaire and Robuchon,” explains Figaro Chef Hubert Goussard. He adds, that in the last three to four years, more young French chefs like himself have moved to Hong Kong to run smaller restaurants, as a chance to showcase their skills.
“I worked in 3-Michelin-starred kitchens in France (Les Maisons de Bricourt – Olivier Roellinger and Le Petit Nice – Gérald Passédat) but I now want to prove to Hong Kong diners, that even in a small place, you can produce really good food.”
He believes the growing French population of Hong Kong (estimated to be 25,000) to be one important factor driving the emergence of smaller independent French bistros, in addition to a “millennial generation” preference for casual dining at lower prices- without compromise on food quality. “The rent is reasonable in this location (Sheung Wan) so we can offer better value and a more attractive price for our dishes,” he says.
Figaro is independently owned, but competes in an environment populated by large dining groups with financial power. “People like restaurants from these big dining groups, because their prices can be competitive and some of them represent well-known brand names,” says Goussard.
“The concept behind Figaro was simple: to create somewhere to eat French food, which was not too expensive, somewhere you could go often, not just for a treat. We appeal both to local connoisseurs and homesick expats. Some of our French customers just come to enjoy a plate of cheese. The small size of the restaurant means we also have a closer relationship with our customers and that is a positive.”
The competitive scene means a large number of restaurants are fighting for the same custom and the same staff. “Finding and retaining staff in Hong Kong is difficult,” says Goussard. “You train them, and then after two weeks they might leave for a small increase in pay.”
“We have to keep on our toes. You cannot relax because if you do, another chef will be better – and the customers will follow”
If a small restaurant becomes successful then it can face new challenges: landlords who increase the rent. “This happens regularly, and it is not just the rent on the restaurant premises that goes up in price,” says Goussard. “I have a chef friend whose landlord increased the rent on his apartment, when he heard he was doing well! You really can become a victim of your success.”
Set over two floors, Figaro’s regulars can choose to eat in the peaceful upstairs dining area, or to sit in the more relaxed downstairs bar and watch pedestrians climb and descend the Sin Hing Street stairs. Figaro Restaurant Manager Paul Hess thinks this configuration is part of its charm “Our French customers love it downstairs because it reminds them of Paris –the fact that the restaurant opens on to the street.”
Goussard relishes the dynamism of Hong Kong’s restaurant scene and the knowledge that he is cooking in the company of large numbers of international chefs who live and work in the territory. He also appreciates the ease with which to obtain virtually any ingredient.
“You can get your hands on the best quality materials from all around the world,” he says.
As the kitchen at Figaro is a small space with limited storage, Goussard goes to the local wet market as many as three times a day to source fresh vegetables for his menu. Fish, which he imports from his home region Brittany, is always cooked the day it arrives. “I would rather strike something off the menu, than use frozen products,” he says.
Three ways on display
Goussard favors traditional techniques (he avoids sous-vide) but has an imaginative approach: he particularly enjoys taking one very simple ingredient and presenting it in different ways on the plate.
One dish comprises carrots cooked three ways and complemented with a sharp, yet sweet passionfruit vinaigrette (which tastes like melted sorbet). The roasted carrot has a firm texture and strong pure flavor; a pickled carrot slice lends clear acidity to the dish and a musky cumin-scented carrot puree creates a soft textural counterpoint.
This sunrise-colored and elegantly plated dish meets an important criterion for Hong Kong chefs to consider: social media appeal.
“Presentation is even more important here in Hong Kong than in France,” explains Goussard. “Of course the most important consideration is the taste but I would say in Hong Kong, customers really respond to the appearance of a dish.”
“For example, if the presentation is amazing, with some kind of theatrical element, then word gets around and people want to experience it. Most of all, the dish must look good in a photograph. So I think about the colors and try to make a beautiful plate,” he said.
Social media works both ways for Figaro: the team recognizes that guests posting photographs of the dishes on the menu can draw people to the restaurant, but the team also posts daily updates on Facebook and Instagram to alert customers to their changing menus and new dishes.
Goussard appreciates the educated and curious guests who create the competitive gastronomic atmosphere in Hong Kong. “Diners here not only have a deep understanding of good cuisine, but they also bring high expectations for all aspects of the dining experience–food, service, décor, music, ambience and value. This makes my work challenging and exciting, which keeps me interested,” explains Goussard.
He also understands that the attention span of the Hong Kong diner can be short, so keeps inventing, playing with different ingredients and adjusting the menu. “We have to keep on our toes. You cannot relax because if you do, another chef will be better – and the customers will follow.”
Figaro: 2 Shin Hing Street, Central, Hong Kong Opening hours: Daily 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 a.m. Tel: +852 2757 1777.