How Two Canadians' Izakaya Accidentally Changed Hong Kong's Restaurant Culture
Photo courtesy Lindsay Jang
Lindsay Jang, with her partner Matt Abergel, opened and runs the restaurants Yardbird and Ronin, and the brand Sunday's Grocery, in Hong Kong. She talked to us about their experiences opening Yardbird six years ago, and how the Hong Kong restaurant scene has changed since then.
I grew up in a Chinese restaurant in a small town in Alberta. The restaurant, Golden Capital, is still there in Sherwood Park. It's this super-cliché suburban Chinese restaurant: you can order a double cheeseburger with a side of lemon chicken. My whole family worked there. All my sisters, boyfriends, friends, random outcasts, we worked there. I was bussing tables at 11 years old.
After high school, I had scholarships for science and French, dropped out. Went to art school, dropped out. Went to management school, dropped out. Then in 2002 I moved to New York and studied theatre, then finally got a job at Nobu and my whole life made sense. That's where my partner Matt Abergel and I first entered the service industry, me at Nobu and him at Masa.
When Matt fell in love with cooking—he wasn't classically trained and he didn't go to culinary school—he was obsessed with Japanese food: how careful the cooks are and how beautifully they treat things. He totally fell for that food. When he moved to New York, he realized that what he was really looking for was to further his knowledge of Japanese cooking.
Matt and I worked like crazy during our New York years and Sundays were our only day off together. Three out of four of those Sundays were spent eating at Yakitori Totto. We just fell in love with yakitori and the fun, communal way you enjoy it.
It was just serendipitous that we both ended up in these really high-end Japanese restaurants. So we both sort of absorbed everything. He came from, obviously, the most expensive, crazy high-quality, smallest, intimate experience, and I came from Nobu, where the food is amazing but they're also well-known for being able to replicate a concept and build a chain.
We moved to Hong Kong in 2009 mostly because Matt, who's now the chef at Yardbird, got a job here. I had been in New York for seven and a half years, and we were just ready to leave.
While Matt was working as the Executive Chef at Zuma in Hong Kong, I was teaching yoga and writing the plan for what would become our modern izakaya and yakitori joint, Yardbird. Yardbird was written as our dream space, our dream experience. The place we wanted to go to on our Sundays.
It sounds arrogant, but it's true: when we opened Yardbird, we were kind of an overnight success. Now, six years later, we have two restaurants, Yardbird and Ronin, and then we're actually moving Yardbird in July to a bigger space with a little retail corner.
Still, when we opened that first restaurant, it really took some time for people here to get used to the way we did things. To be honest, we had no idea what we were doing when we opened. We made our own rules based on all the things we had experienced over the previous two and a half years in the hospitality industry in Hong Kong, and before that in New York. Things like not taking reservations, not using an included service charge and encouraging diners to tip instead, and having staff speak to you and engage with you as part of your experience.
That's all way more common now, but if you've been to Hong Kong, you know that the service industry is very much that: service. Hong Kong is still a two-tier class system. At that time, there was an idea in Asia that only the lower class took jobs in the service industry. People assumed you have to be somehow lower to take a job like that. Obviously, we don't believe that that's true, and we approached the service at Yardbird from a very Western perspective, where your waiter is just as human as you are.
I appreciate when people say they feel like they're in New York when they come to Yardbird, but it's really just an amalgamation of what Matt and I always wanted for our own space. I don't necessarily enjoy a white tablecloth dinner. I like to have fun.
I want my food to be delicious, and I want my waiter to talk to me, but I don't want them pulling the table out every time I have to go to the bathroom.
We also let our staff earn their gratuities. Usually in Hong Kong, restaurant owners charge (and then keep) a 10-percent built-in service charge. We did away with that and started giving it straight to the staff. So obviously, they were earning more money. And that naturally drove up how much people were paying for a really good bartender or a really good manager, or a good maître d. So in a way, I think we helped plant the seed for people to take hospitality seriously, to raise wages higher for service staff.
And of course, there was our no-reservations policy—which now in Hong Kong has spread like wildfire—and the whole "we will not seat you until your party is completed" thing, which took some time for people to learn.
It was a whole process of building our verbiage around managing people's expectations, because for many people those policies were extremely challenging. We'd get phone calls where people were screaming at us, "you'll never survive if you don't take reservations!" It was just ridiculous.
Probably the best story from that time when we first opened, and people started to figure out that they had to line up, or that they had to come at 6pm, we would get these groups of people—this was six years ago and we were a little naïve—sending their drivers and their maids to sit and hold these tables.
We would be like, "Are you ready to order?", and the drivers and maids would literally be sitting there obediently drinking tap water, not ordering anything, and then all of a sudden at 8pm there would be a full switch: these four people would get up and another four people would come and take their place! We caught on very quickly, obviously, and actually had to explain, "sorry, no, this isn't how it works. Thank you for trying, but no." It was crazy.
The thing is now that people are used to it, It's changed how people recreationally socialize with food.
Before, if you had an 8pm reservation, then you showed up at eight, sat at your table, you ate, and then you left. Now, people go, "oh, I can't make a reservation, but I want to eat around eight, so let's go at seven, we'll have a drink, we'll walk around and hang out." People have become more flexible.
They used to assume they weren't going to enjoy that moment where, God forbid, they would have to wait. And there was the whole 'Do you know who I am? I don't wait this long" thing, but people started to realize that part of the romance is hanging out, waiting for your friends, having a drink outside. People started to like that communal aspect.
Hong Kong liquor laws are kind of amazing in that you can drink outside on the street.
You'll notice now, on the street, that there are tons of places now where you see overflow from these awesome small owner-operated restaurants and people are just waiting outside drinking. So, there's been a big shift in the past five or six years, with a lot more owner-operated and chef-driven spaces that people can afford now, not just big restaurants from big restaurant groups, because people are starting to be fine with getting crammed into a tiny restaurant, and are ok with waiting outside for a table.
There are so many amazing chefs and restaurants here now. And I will say that Hong Kong is really pushing and trying and spending the money to compete on the global scene. Still, so many great chefs leave because they get signed to these big restaurant groups and realize that that sucks. Or people here see a restaurant succeed, and they just replicate it. But they don't understand that the buildout and fixtures alone don't make the experience. It's the people, the food, the music, etc.
Still, we have a lot of industry people here, and the food and beverage community is growing. It's nice to see. It wasn't like this 6 years ago. We support each other, help each other, share, hang out, bitch and whine. And that reminds me of New York. Except here we'll all go to Racks (a late night billiard place), drink, then head out for Korean fried chicken in Kowloon.
We would never take credit for the renaissance of hospitality in Hong Kong. I think we've just given people a newer perspective on how to enjoy dining, one that's not quite as polarizing.