Luckily for high-end restauranteurs in Shanghai, the stock market turmoil seems to have done little to dampen appetites for quality nosh in elegant eateries.
At least this is the view of Australian-Greek chef David Laris, who, 12 years after opening his first venture in Shanghai, and many more since, is among the most celebrated Western chefs in China.
His restaurants, past and present, have amassed over 30 accolades. His first, Laris at Three on the Bund, got 17 awards. Another of his venues Le Sheng has won Best Shanghainese restaurant for the last two years, while 12 Chairs, The Fat Olive, and Downstairs with David Laris have all received tributes.
He’s also co-hosted an online cooking show with local celebrity Sarah Zhang. Dining with David & Sarah was geared toward the Chinese audience and featured his signature dishes with easy-to-follow recipes. Now he has 62,300 weibo followers (by comparison, Jamie Oliver has 7,400 and Gordon Ramsay has 1,800).
Laris has another six restaurants in the pipeline in Shanghai, Kunming, Chengdu and Hangzhou, and seems unperturbed by the summer’s stock market turmoil. He is now branching out into boutique hotels through Cachet Hotel Group (CHG), a Hong Kong-based company where he is chief creative officer.
Breaking into China has not been easy, says Laris. Back in 2003 when he first launched Laris at Three on the Bund, the restaurant was practically empty for the first three months. Of Chinese cities, Shanghai is arguably the most cosmopolitan but Western fine dining options were few.
“As a foreigner it was insanely difficult to open in China. It took a year and a half to get regulatory sign-off and six months to get electricity,” he recalls. Laris added that he was lucky to have local partners at the time, the ultra-wealthy Lim family who “also wanted to change the game in China”. They invested approximately $4.5 million in the 2,000 square metre fit-out – which included a massive brass-encased bar in the dining room, a room dedicated to chocolate and a seafood station.
“It was the first freestanding contemporary dining Western restaurant on that scale in China, and for a long time, no one got it,” he recalls. Laris had come straight from London where he was heading up Sir Terence Conran’s flagship restaurant.
“I was doing food nobody had ever seen before. My partners were worried but I had to say, trust me.”
All of a sudden there was a tipping point and “the floodgates opened”. Laris reckons his success lay in the fact he kept faith and “didn’t dumb it down for the China market, as others were doing”. A growing middle class with a greater appreciation for Western tastes, combined with food contamination scares and a new preference for imported ingredients, helped. At its peak Three on the Bund turned over Rmb45 million ($7 million) a year.
“I think we did fundamentally change the way people thought about dining, and China was ready for it,” explained Laris. “The hotels were doing hotel food and the local places were doing Chinese food. There was a call for something different and authentic. Our clients were starting to know their wine, their food, as they were travelling more. That upper echelon has grown into a big market, and now the middle-income market has enough global knowledge to want a special meal at a Western restaurant too.”
Nowadays take an evening stroll down the Bund and it’s a different story. International Michelin-starred chefs are jostling for space, with the likes of British chef Jason Atherton’s Table No. 1, French chef Paul Pairet’s Mr & Mrs Bund and Ultraviolet, and New York-based chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercato, all reporting waiting lists for a table. Bistro Franck is the latest newcomer and is hailed as the best French food in the city.
Mindful of the competition, Laris has now taken a different tack under CHG. The approach is to bring boutique hotels and trendy restaurants to newer markets like Kunming, Hangzhou and Chengdu, as well as developed markets like Hong Kong where he just launched steak restaurant Porterhouse.
“Nowadays in Shanghai or Hong Kong you have to invest a lot to stand out. In places like Chengdu which are up-and-coming, you simply have to bring an international standard, and you’ll kill it.”
The ongoing austerity drive and recent stock market volatility have not hurt his operations. “We’re not really feeling any pain at all. I was in China during SARS, then the economic crisis in Asia in 2005, and now this, so I’ve seen the market fall and spike many times. Restaurant bookings aren’t usually impacted, people still have to eat.”
As for the future, “I think the world should be in a good place, come end of 2016.” He should hope so too. Between now and then CHG is opening a host of restaurants and hotels in China. “The currency devaluations should all settle down by then, it’s a cycle.”
Michelle Garnaut runs a rival Shanghai-based hospitality business. She operates M on the Bund, The Glamour Bar and Capital M, and this month launched a chic cocktail bar called Glam.
“Overall the F&B industry is still pretty positive in Shanghai and the volatility and currency devaluations haven’t had much effect on us,” agreed Garnaut. “The whole Bund area remains one of the most visited spots in Shanghai, seeing thousands of visitors daily, ranging from a steady base of local and loyal customers who keep coming regularly, to regional, China-wide and international tourists and business people.”
Against the backdrop of roiling markets that knocked trillions off the value of Chinese shares, Laris and Garnaut might sound overly sanguine. But Andrew Hendry, Asia managing director of fund manager M&G Investments, concedes that certain consumer sectors in China could emerge from the bloodbath unscathed. High end dining is one of them.
Says Hendry: “In times of severe financial stress there are certain consumer sectors which actually improve. People tend to cheer themselves with little luxuries like designer lipstick or a nice meal out, but cut down on the big-ticket items. Good high-end Western restaurants in China are still relatively scarce, which could mean this niche will weather the storm.”
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