THE HEROES WE NEVER KNEW WE NEEDED
This portrait series is a celebration of the everyday heroes in this pandemic.
(Documented from a distance)
As part of our efforts to capture some of the impact of the coronavirus on Hong Kong’s F&B industry, we caught up with a number of friendly members of our community. We heard from chefs, restaurant owners, front of house and we were lucky enough to catch up with Jowett Yu the Executive Chef of one of the trendiest Chinese restaurants in town, Ho Lee Fook.
How did this situation affect you?
From a work perspective, there have been some positive things come out of it. One thing we had to do was to adapt to the current economic environment. We started doing delivery, something that I never imagined doing as the business model and our products are not built for delivery. In our case, the most important aspect of Chinese cooking is the wok a.k.a. “the breath of the wok”. That really intense heat doesn’t travel particularly well. But we needed to act really fast, as soon as the foot traffic fell, so we quickly made a new menu suitable for delivery.
The good thing is that restaurants in Hong Kong kept open this whole time and we have learnt how to navigate through this.
Did you have to take some hard decisions?
The goal for us is to look after our staff, most of them have families. This industry is not known for high incomes, so we had to find ways to mitigate the losses while avoiding making people redundant. Like most businesses we are still going through a week-to-week policy change depending on the situation, as things have been changing so quickly. Every day, every week, we are monitoring the situation on the fly. Who knows how this will go!
Did you find yourself in unpleasant situations in terms of angry customers?
This situation is new to a lot of us. For restaurant workers, supply chain, customers, collectively this is new – so we have to make sure that customers still come to the restaurant but we need to protect the staff at the same time. That’s the balance.
So we have our guests filling health care declarations on arrival, leaving their phone number, email, name and signing a disclosure that states they haven’t left the country or travelled for the past 2 weeks. Plus of course the mandatory temperature check and party size no more than 4 people (now has been extended to 8). This is an inconvenience for a lot of people, but we need to protect everyone as the common enemy is the virus.
In general I experienced loads of angry people – but mainly because of the uncertainty, people just don’t know what’s happening.
On the other hand my team have been extremely supportive and understanding of what is happening, which is something I am really grateful for. The situation is not ideal for anyone but they understand this is a difficult business environment and they are thankful they still have a job, and I’m thankful I still have a job!
On a personal level are you scared coming to work every day, and scared to bring the virus home?
In my business I can’t work from home! I rely on people, the guests, to get out of the house and come to the restaurant. My job is to provide an experience: a departure from their ordinary existence, a temporary disconnect from the realities they live in. That’s what restaurants are built for.
In order to do this, the minute I leave the house, I put myself in an unknown point of contact from A to B, spending my whole day with suppliers, customers, maintenance people. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but the best thing I can do is to protect myself and the people around me.
I wear a mask the second I leave the house and I wash my hands countless times a day, to the point that my hands are completely dehydrated!! But if that’s going to mitigate or minimise the chances of having contact with the virus, then so be it. This is how I make my living, I don’t have the luxury of sitting on my computer at home. It is what it is. It is the function of the economy, and this is where I fit in.
Will restaurants survive this virus? We will probably end up with half of them, maybe around the world.
The industry will change completely, not sure how?
Delivery and takeaway will be a permanent part of the business going forward – there is no other way.
Is delivery working?
It’s something, it’s some revenue, but it’s still not enough to make up for the shortfall as the business model is made on beverage sales.
Although I’m fairly hopeful for a pick up in business as the dining out culture is a big part of Hong Kong lifestyle. Mainly because the bulk of entertainment is done outside, as home kitchens in this city are tiny and ill-equipped. For me the key question is “can you make this at home?”. A lot of people’s favourite dishes are actually not as good when home made. For example the world’s most popular food: pizza. You need professional kitchen equipment to make great pizza. As long as this continues to happen, then chefs and restaurants are in business.
Also, most homes here in HK are not designed to host 6 – 8 – 12 people. So the only way for family and extended family to come together is these big round tables in Chinese restaurants. They play a big big part of knitting the social fabric of nuclear families as most of the entertainment is done at restaurants. In HK you can know someone for many years and have never seen their place, and there’s a reason for it: it’s just not possible to host!
So if that mental squeeze continues in Hong Kong, I am hopeful. How long we can weather the storm is the question.