Here's our 360 conversation with May Chow on her Little Bao philosophy and what it takes for young chefs to succeed internationally …
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On Cooking Philosophy
Anton: I’m quite fascinated and how were you able to break up with the scene and maybe you can share with…
May: The younger people…
Anton: The younger people on how do they like you mentioned you were mentored by Matt (of Yardbird). You got a break in—what were the…
May: Yeah. I think it’s really interesting because I was always curious. Like I looked back—I actually wrote a diary when I was working at Bo Innovation. I didn’t just look at if you really want to open up your own restaurant and have your own style, you cannot just think that if you copy someone’s recipe and you keep enough recipes that you will also be as successful.
I think one of the biggest problems when one person works for another person for too long. Whatever they cumulate, if you work for Joel Robuchon for 10 years, when you come out and you cook like Joel Robuchon. You don’t have your own style.
I was more interested in— when I was looking them– I used to look at as I was a businesswoman. I would look at what was his customer based, how does he do a service, what is his story, how does he do his tasting menu and then how does he cook it and how is he trying to … what music is he playing and how is he attracting people to work for him. How was he allowed to … He was working with Hongkong Tourism Board. He was travelling a lot. He ate a lot.
I think one of the things is like I think as a young chef especially, I know we don’t make so much money when you’re young. Some people go by a bag. Some people do this or that. You really need to spend a huge part of your salary which is already hard… to eating. Eating at very good restaurants that have different styles and things like that.
When you’re working, you’re supposed to be working. Your mentor is not supposed to teach you 10 different things every day. You might be in one year only learn five to ten.
What you need to do is you need to eat at other restaurants. You need to go online. You need to research. You need to know what other people are doing.
I think what’s most important too is that we’re not competing in Hongkong. Not always totally. Matt and Alvin are mentors to me. I didn’t work for them for very long. I work for Matt for three months. I work for Alvin for a year.
What they taught me is how they saw the world and how they saw what food was to them. You need to know what the philosophy is.
I used to ask the chef at Yardbird all the time. I mean, do you know the story behind what you’re cooking? And they always don’t know. One of their signature’s dishes is Korean Fried Cauliflower. I asked someone, “Do you know why it’s so genius?” Because Korean Fried Cauliflower means KFC, which is Korean Fried Chicken and it tastes like chicken and they coat it with the Korean chilli sauce. It’s a vegetarian dish and he made his signature dish the cheapest food cost as possible.
May: Those things are all genius but I know a guy who was cooking and didn’t know the story and I was like, then you don’t know how you’re doing because how hard it is to cook cauliflower. How hard it is? You’re just putting batter and frying it. But it is the concept that seems to work.
I think young chef needs to know the story when they’re working, to ask questions but not ask questions just on the recipe but what is he trying to do, what story is he trying to say, how is he communicating. I think all these things are important.
Work at smaller restaurants. Work with people who have vision and copy them until you have your own. I think that’s all of it.
Anton: That’s it.
May: Imitate the best.
On Building a Millennial Team
Anton: Yeah. But I ate there for our wedding anniversary, it what’s really good. But I think how were you able to get the young chef because the vibe of the young people here included there was really good. How were you able to create that like teamwork?
May: I usually talk about one is like you have to believe in what you believe. When we first hire, of course there’s going to be people like, “I know things are always done this way in Hongkong.” I’m like, “Well, if you don’t like it you have to go because you don’t buy into my concept.”
I think the other thing is like… young people want things that are very different from older people. Maybe if you’re older you want health insurance. Young kids want a title, an experience and they want to learn from someone who’s also young that they can relate to. Young people want to hang out with young people.
When eight of your staff is young, they’re going to be like, “May, I have a friend that wants to work here.” He’s also going to be young. He’s not going to bring me a 60 years old guy so they attract each other.
I think what’s really important is that you need to make sure your core is genuine, nice, positive, have positive intentions when they’re cooking and they don’t influence bad things. If one person is very negative, if only you have three people, then the negative person will affect the other two. It’s my job to remove the negative person and finds someone positive.
Once you have a very core group of very positive, young and inspirational people then you will attract more. Nowadays because we work very closely with Vans, Nike— we travel a lot. Every time I travel even very early on, I took it out of my expense like they might say, “May, you can bring one chef.” I always bring two because I want them to see what I saw when I was at motivation when I travel so that they see. Its like, “Whoa! What is this.” They didn’t know that chefs could be here. They think that’s very important to know what level you can be here.
I think a lot of times when chefs they’re young, you ask them, “Do you know Asia’s 50 bests? Do you know Michelin Star? Do you know anything?” They don’t know.
Anton: They don’t know.
May: They don’t know. It’s important to give them the drive to want something and including competition I think.
On Restaurant Strategy
Interviewer: Did you run business strategy in the university?
May: I did hotel management. I think I was also naturally interested in business. When I look at restaurants, I think Matt is a very good time. Everyone is all they can by is like, “Do things for Little Bao. Don’t do things for May Chow.” It’s not about you. The restaurant is not about you.
That’s the difference between if you want an artist, like my restaurant is very commercially successful to the mass market because every decision we make was based on what is best for Little Bao.
The more we were doing it— of course we inspire our own style but I don’t do things for my ego. I always do the best for the team and the best for everyone.
Anton: You don’t consider this as a chef driven restaurant?
May: I think that what’s really interesting was that in Hongkong it’s really hard to open a restaurant period. I mean if you look at people that are like Gaggan or World’s 50 Bests. Even Alvin, he spent seven years not making anything and at 30 years old with no money that is not your first option.
I think it’s very interesting to win this award now because I’m only 32 and I’ve only own the restaurant for three years. I think that Little Bao was not a chef-driven restaurant. It was about branding business, doing really good quality food with the specific story, specific music, specific lifestyle all integrated into a brand and that was about Little Bao is about.
I think what progressed later is that because of Little Bao’s success and also I opened Second Draft and now I’m opening Happy Paradise. Happy Paradise could only be opened today and not three years ago because Happy Paradise is a new restaurant I’m opening is very progressive. We’re doing a new style of Cantonese food. Technically it’s very high. We’re using a lot of chef and everyone needs to, it’s paid better and everything. I couldn’t have done that three years ago.
It’s a progress. I think as a chef you’ll see how varied I can be maybe in 10 years time. I think it’s a little bit early to say how chef driven or how award winning I am. I think I have a long way to go.
On What's the Secret of her Success
Interviewer: How do you think are your new trending lifestyle? How did you get this huge?
May: I think same with the power point. I was very rebellious when I was young. I think I have ADD. I was always interested in extracurricular activities and never in school. So to me like learning, I wasn’t really interested in learning in a traditional context but like for example, I read a lot.
I read anything from politics to Science to music to hip hop music, hip hop culture to things like that and then I live it. Every five years of my life, I was a raver. I sang Karaoke with my friends in Hongkong. I used to go to a lot of music festivals. I used to follow Djs. I used to go to these parties where all the gig guys would dress up and it was very progressive and very modern. I love arts.
When all those things come together, I wanted it to be part of everything I do. I’m not just a chef that’s interested in the kitchen. I’m interested in everything about the restaurant including what’s invisible in the restaurant. Like you said, like why are these kids interested? How many things, am I just doing my style and I do it, how am I inspiring them?
I think it’s like all these different things that make them feel like, this is a very interesting, awesome like experience and that comes from my life experience wanting to experience all these things when I was very young. I was always a traveler and curious.
On Fun Dining vs. Fine Dining
Anton: But do you this millennial fine dining will take over fine dining scene?
May: I think things will change. Everything’s interrelated including politics, basic salaries and things like that. If you look at fine dining back in five, ten years ago, when you go to Paris everything’s like… there’s fifty dots on every dish. Nowadays, it’s very realistic.
You go to like Septime or all these restaurants out, they open four days a week. They don’t even open on weekends. They only open week days. They’re like, “Weekends are too annoying for me. I like weekdays. Weekends I want to be with my kids.” Then because the salary is too high, they simplify the presentation. They’re like we only have four components. Because of that, people are more creative when you’re in a certain context.
I think what happens to fine dining was that a chef could get anything. Like in Hongkong, a French chef could get any French ingredient. You ask some French chefs, they’ve never been to one market because they never had to.
I think when you’re spoiled you become just doing the same thing all the time. I think the new way is that they like to challenge themselves and they want to do a new style. They want music. They want loud music. They want a different interior. They want to go hangout and have drinks. They don’t want like this kind of service where in the traditional side it’s like, “I’m more important than you and you should be serving me and this wine and this varied soup…”
There’s always with me a part that’s like amazing about that and there’s with me the younger chefs that we want to do something else. Of course, because of the trend I think from David Cheng to all these people that showed up to have all these different styles for a restaurant.
That made it cool.