The Alan Yau factor: Wagamama to Park Chinois
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Wires hang like string from the ceiling, crude plasterboard stands in for walls, dust milled from the chaos covers everything and the room is busy with builders and suppliers hammering, sawing and fixing. This is a building site but in a matter of weeks, if London restaurateur Alan Yau’s dream is realised, it will be the setting for his most ambitious project to date: Park Chinois, a glamorous dinner venue in the heart of Mayfair.
Over the deafening noise of drilling and banging, Yau, clad in minimalist designer clothes, surveys the mess with a knowing smile. “Park Chinois is old-school values versus new money; champagne rather than vodka. This is about Alan Yau becoming older,” he says.
That afternoon, amid the paper piles in his Soho office, Yau shows me the architectural plans for Park Chinois, an idea that has been in the planning for years. When it opens this month, it will be the most flamboyant iteration of Yau’s ongoing dialogue, via food, design and architecture, with Britain and China and their complicated and contested histories.
There is more than a touch of Gatsby largesse to the blueprint. Over two floors comprising 15,200 sq ft, Park Chinois will seat 300 for dinner with room for 50 at the restaurant’s two bars. With each dining room structured around an “elevated U”, or raised platform, theatre and spectacle are the intended heart of Park Chinois. As the “proposition brief” explains, this will place “the diners on a stage where they become a player in the experimental drama”.
As nightclub culture wanes, it’s Yau’s bet (and he has decent betting form) that nostalgic romance is going to be the next big thing. Park Chinois is “not really a restaurant project”, Yau explains, “it’s more like an entertainment lifestyle project. Imagine a 1920s dance hall.” For two years Yau and his team have been trying to find the right music for such a space. “We started with an idea called electric swing but that would’ve limited [us] to the 1930s with modern instruments, so we’ve developed the haiku swing, a mixture of the Cotton Club meets Japanese haiku.”
In the evenings, the first-floor dining room will feature music from a singer and pianist and downstairs in “Club Chinois” there will be the Eight Clouds of Joy, a seven-piece band plus vocalist. “The most important thing is that it’s an old-school idea. Grace, charm, elegance. Not ostentation, fashion, sexiness. Old-school values deserve a renaissance.”
Will Londoners agree? What is certain is that Park Chinois will be scrutinised as closely as all Yau’s other projects. In the league of great London restaurateurs such as Chris Corbin and Jeremy King — the pair behind The Delaunay and The Wolseley among others — Yau stands out for his eclectic flair: one project a Turkish pizza joint, the next a Chinese gastropub. For all his achievements, however, he is little-known outside restaurant circles. This is deliberate. He shuns the limelight: colleagues are dispatched to awards ceremonies on his behalf; offers to appear on TV are routinely turned down; and he seldom agrees to requests for interviews.
Yau’s “hits” began in 1992 when he opened the first Wagamama in Bloomsbury and introduced London to healthy Japanese ramen and canteen-style dining. He sold Wagamama, by then expanding, in 1997 but went on in 2001 to open the achingly fashionable Hakkasan in a basement down a back street off Tottenham Court Road. “I wanted to prove I could do fine dining with Chinese food,” Yau explains. “When I first showed the plans to my Chinese bank manager, he said, ‘My friend, why would people spend double the money down piss alley on Chinese food when they can go to Chinatown?’” Hakkasan, when it opened, had a waiting list weeks long and won a Michelin star in 2003. This was the moment when the status of Chinese food in Britain was upgraded.
If Wagamama, with its shared bench seating and inexpensive menu, was a democratic dining project, Hakkasan was the opposite — you had to be rich to eat there and beautiful to work there. Nevertheless, both Wagamama and Hakkasan adhered to Yau’s restaurant template: design and service are as crucial as the food. “Doing amazing food is a given,” explains Yau. “You have to have that but you have to do more than that to justify existence in the modern food industry.”
Though Yau has exported his ideas around the world — he’s consulted for projects in Beijing, Moscow and Monaco — London’s Soho and its borderlands have been his natural habitat for the best part of two decades. In 1999, his Busaba Eathai restaurant on Wardour Street transformed the usually asinine sector of affordable Thai dining. The menu was curated by chef David Thompson and the ultra-cool interior was designed by Christian Liaigre (Yau sold the chain in 2008 for £21.5m). At Yauatcha, on Broadwick Street, Yau ignored the annoying daytime-only rule of most Chinese restaurants and made it possible to eat dim sum in the evening. The same year that he relinquished Busaba, he sold Yauatcha and Hakkasan for £30.5m. Recent projects include Princi, a Milanese style bakery in Soho, and Babaji on Shaftesbury Avenue, which has a wood-fired oven for making pide, Turkish pizza. In April this year, Yau opened Duck & Rice, replacing the Endurance pub on Berwick Street with a Chinese menu serving crispy duck and spring rolls alongside cask ales. A pub serving chop suey is quintessentially Yau — playful, ironic and taking the best of tradition without being enslaved to it.
For Yau, the past is a template to refashion and resist. He is both troubled and inspired by his own history. For years he fantasised about returning to Hong Kong but his experience opening a restaurant there was challenging. “It was like a romance,” he reflects. “Like in Cinema Paradiso when [the protagonist] returns to the village he left — there was no cultural dialogue any more. This was hard to reconcile, that my cultural Chineseness isn’t as strong as I thought it was.”
Yau was born in Hong Kong in 1962. His tailor father emigrated to Britain in 1965 to work in the Chinese restaurant trade. Yau’s mother emigrated three years later, leaving him and his two siblings with their grandparents. At the age of 12, Yau joined his parents in the market town of King’s Lynn, Norfolk. A teacher at his school replaced his Chinese name Yau Tak Wai with Alan and it stuck. Unable to speak English, small in stature, Yau received unwelcome attention from his provincial peers.
Though Yau is open and expansive, he resists speaking about his background. “It’s the darker side in a way,” he says. Yau’s reticence is understandable — a weariness with being defined as “other” and all the connotations that carries. “My history becomes the stereotype of the Chinese immigrant. Which it is but, I don’t want to reinforce it and I don’t seek sympathy. I don’t want to be the platform for that history.”
Nevertheless, the influence of his early life is inescapable. Yau’s family moved from King’s Lynn to Wisbech where they opened a Chinese takeaway. Working there in the evenings and at weekends, Yau first learnt how to run a food business. On leaving school he escaped the food industry temporarily — he read politics and philosophy at City of London Polytechnic and took up jobs at an engineering company and an interior design business but was soon drawn back to what he knew best. “I really hate the Chinese restaurant business but it continued to pull me in and I’m still here.” In 1988 he set up a takeaway business in Peterborough and he’s been opening restaurants ever since.
Nearly thirty years later, Yau remains ambivalent about the world he’s conquered. He announces his imminent retirement regularly, claiming to be one project away from leaving restaurants altogether. “I sometimes think I’m too old to do this, these big productions,” he says wistfully. “I really want to move away from the restaurant business to food technology.” There are plans, in the making, for some sort of cyber platform — something to do with “education”, “Plato’s Republic” and “democratising taste”, but he doesn’t divulge specifics.
He is tantalised and troubled by the unfinished business of fast food and speaks about the Wagamama days with affection. It was, he says, an “age of innocence and naivety” when there was no “weight of expectation”. He’s drawn to reaching large numbers. “I want to move out of this industry because I can’t really expand,” he explains. “The amazing thing about digital technology is that it can hit 50 million people overnight but change through restaurants is 10 years minimum.” There are plans for Duck & Rice to expand in central London and a branch of Babaji is set to open in Dubai next year.
The pace of Yau’s working life is frenetic and the pressure, at times, has taken its toll on his health. In early 2009, after a bout of Bell’s palsy, which causes weakness or paralysis to facial muscles, Yau took stock. “It forced me to find a way to keep stress levels [down].” Soon after, he flew to Thailand and trained to become a monk for eight months. “When I came back,” he says, “my mind was so clear.” On his desk, among the piles of plans and catalogues, are books with titles such as Transform Your Life, Tantra and How to Solve Our Human Problems.
In the noisy world of restaurants, spirituality and meditation are a ballast for the naturally reserved Yau. In person he is low-key to the point of being easy to miss. When we drop into Duck & Rice for a visit, he surveys the scene from the periphery, speaks quietly to a few members of staff and then we leave. Hardly anyone noticed he was there.
He claims to not have many friends. I think what he means is friends outside his immediate world who may “not tolerate meetings being cancelled, lateness and rearranging”. His work is almost all-consuming but in the Yau arena he inspires long, loyal relationships — many of his immediate colleagues have been with him since the Wagamama days, his sister Linda and wife Jale Erentok (they met when she was a customer at Wagamama) are central to his team, and suppliers who have worked with him for years speak of him with affection. “He’s the most creative person I’ve ever met,” says Ken Winch, a consultant who has worked with Yau since Hakkasan. “He has great respect for others’ thoughts and abilities and ideas, and people love to work for him.”
When he speaks, Yau has a slightly juddering delivery, his words unable to keep pace with his thoughts. Sometimes he drops phrases such as “core concept anchors” into his conversation and momentarily sounds like a management consultant but there’s usually substance behind the style. He can explain the rationale behind every detail in his businesses, whether it’s the choice of door hinges, the menu paper quality or the ceramic tile in the ladies’ loo. Interior design has captivated him for years.
At Wagamama, Yau adopted the architectural aesthetics of modernism that characterised the early 1990s but a four-hour heated discussion with designer Philippe Starck in 1993 led him to radically rethink his ideas. “Philippe said to me, ‘Why are you playing with minimalism? It’s a reductive process. There’s no energy, no semantics, no emotion,’” recalls Yau. Starck’s challenge set Yau on a new path. “I’m really interested in emotional architecture and how you can artificially manipulate a space to get a desired outcome. Turning a house into a home — this transition is about emotion.” To date, Yau’s restaurants, though distinct, have a consistent aesthetic — a limited number of materials, clean lines and restrained structures. “The expectation of the food has to be rationalised in every aspect of the restaurant — the ethnic lineage has to be there.” In Busaba Eathai, this was achieved by using dark Thai teak, at Princi it was brown Italian stone and at Hakkasan blue glass.
Park Chinois, however, is a different proposition entirely. “When I started at Wagamama I was working with [the architect] John Pawson, king of minimalism. To go from the interior as a white box to something so intensely decorative as Park Chinois is a huge learning curve,” says Yau.
Inspired by the French rococo period, Park Chinois’ interior “is not about a singularity of materials; it’s about the palette of materials in terms of what they create in terms of feeling and an idea — richness of colour, abundance.”
On a sunny September morning, eight weeks after first visiting Park Chinois, the restaurant is almost ready to open. No one is around when I arrive outside the builders’ entrance, so I push at the temporary chipboard door and find myself in an unlit, empty lobby with a vast fireplace, a black and white marble inlay floor and great swags of red velvet covering the walls. I press on through a plastic-wrapped double-door and trip into a room the length of a school hall with no windows. It could feel claustrophobic but, instead, it’s like falling into a David Lynch fantasy of a Versailles-styled speakeasy. It is hard to take in all at once. There are pillars covered with rustica mirrored tiles, moulded cornices, a gleaming black floor, golden candelabras and chairs upholstered in a pale blue floral fabric by French house Prelle. Asked about a ballpark figure for this project, Yau is sheepish. “I can’t tell you the cost. It would be very bad.” (His company, Aaya Ltd, does not disclose turnover; it belongs to a parent company incorporated in Singapore.)
Park Chinois’ interior draws from the long history of European and Asian encounters as depicted in literature and decorative arts in the 18th century. That this east-west encounter was as much imagined as it was ever real is partly what appeals. For Yau, authenticity and tradition are processes to be reworked, not practices fixed in stone. ‘This has been the most difficult project I’ve ever done,” says Yau, surveying the room. “The dichotomy is that I want this to be true to 18th-century French classicism but this cannot be a restoration project — it needs to be restrained, it cannot be parody or look tacky and that’s hard. The idea has to have a historical and intellectual grounding but it needs to go forwards, not backwards, to evolve. Never repetition, always evolution.” Behind us a French craftsman is painstakingly applying a third layer of patina to a door.
So visually sumptuous is the dining room that I almost forget to ask about the menu. Yau finds me a draft copy. It is printed on thick cream paper and laid out like a poem. This is the 30th version — every word and spacing is checked by Yau. It is the distillation of everything Yau thinks a restaurant should serve. “This is like an invitation to my house; it’s as if I were to host a table for dinner, it’s a journey of eating I’ve curated. Only dishes that are dear to my heart are on this menu.”
There are five sections — Peking Duck, Commence, First, Second, and Vegetable. Caviar, Yau has discovered, is the perfect accompaniment to Peking duck, so there are eight types to choose from. Whether diners will understand this juxtaposition remains to be seen but Yau is ambitious about changing expectations and habits. “I don’t know if people are ready for this but I want to see if they will eat Chinese food course by course.”
Yau invites me to a tasting session organised by head chef Lee Liang in the basement kitchen. First up is a double boiled chicken soup with angelica and Shaoxing wine — this tastes so good I surreptitiously drink half a bowl-full. Yau is happy too, so this goes forward; dishes that don’t pass muster are sent back for further development. Kamchatka king crab with homemade rice noodle is sweet, intense and luxurious while udon, pancetta, sea urchin with egg cooked at 65C is a delicious riff on classic carbonara.
We taste our way though dish after dish and when I’m about full to bursting, Yau informs me that there’s more to come, a Park Chinois high tea. Yau’s Italian pastry chefs have spent a year researching the secrets of afternoon tea and the results are before me. There are rows of delicate sandwiches made with homemade bread, silver trays covered with rainbow-coloured pâtisserie and a plate of the best scones I’ve ever eaten. “This is all about abundance and perfection,” says Yau, clearly enjoying himself.
Finally, at the end of a long day of talking and eating, Yau sits down and contemplates the dining room. “I’ll never try to do this again, that’s for sure”. I’m not sure he or I really believe him.
Park Chinois is due to open at the end of this month at 17 Berkeley Street, London, W1J 8EA, 020 3327 8888, parkchinois.com
Polly Russell is the FT’s History Cook and a curator at the British Library
More London glamour
The unfortunate name for Caprice Holdings’ latest and flashiest Mayfair opening comes from the piscine Frank Gehry light sculptures that will adorn the interior, along with Damien Hirst commissioned pieces. Located on Berkeley Square, the 190-cover restaurant will serve Japanese-inflected food, with night owl licensing till 2am, plus DJs.
Opens October 19. Berkeley Square House, Berkeley Square, London W1J 6BR. The reservations line will be 020 3764 2000, the website will be sexyfish.com
67 Pall Mall
Billed as a members’ club for “wine lovers”, and occupying a former banking hall in St James’s, this smart venue will be the place to go for unusual and prestigious wine by the glass, plus thousands of bottles will be housed in a “state of the art” library. Food comes courtesy of former Roast head chef Marcus Verberne.
Opens November. 67 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5ES, 020 3000 6767, 67pallmall.co.uk
Photographs: Niall McDiarmid
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