They Belon Together: A Chat with the Founders of Black Sheep Restaurants
When Chris Mark and Syed Asim Hussain announced plans to open a Chinese restaurant in Soho in 2014, they were ridiculed in the local media. “‘Why would you open another Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong?’ we were asked time and time again,” recounts the high-octane Asim, who goes by his middle name. “One publication even referred to us as Beavis and Butt-Head. I’m still trying to work out who’s who — I mean, am I Beavis or Butt-Head?”
But they had the last laugh. Ho Lee Fook, their buzzy Chinese fusion restaurant on Elgin Street, is now a magnet for hipsters, bankers and out-of-towners. Ask for a table between 7pm and 9pm and you’ll be met with a friendly but invariably frustrating “that will be a one-and-a-half-hour wait.”
“There’s a lesson in that,” says Asim. “If you really believe in something, it’s important to stick to your guns and stand by your convictions. Things often seem foreign to the critics and consumers, but we’re okay with that; we’re okay with rattling the cage; we like to do that.”
Ho Lee Fook is just the tip of the iceberg that is Black Sheep Restaurants, the dining empire the pair founded in 2012. Chris and Asim have created some of the city’s most popular venues, including bold New York-style Italian restaurant Carbone in Central, Vietnamese bistros Chôm Chôm in Soho and Le Garçon Saigon in Wan Chai, and the steak-frites sensation La Vache!, also in Soho. This year they’ve added two more gems to their trove of food concepts: Belon, a neo-Parisian bistro on Elgin Street, and Maison Libanaise, a Lebanese restaurant adjoining the escalator in Soho.
The pair met in 2011 while working at a steakhouse in Lan Kwai Fong. Hong Kong-born Asim had just given up a finance gig in New York and moved home to start an apprenticeship in the restaurant business. The seeds for a career in food, however, had been sown much earlier. Asim’s father was a restaurateur in Hong Kong in the 1980s and his son’s first job was as a dishwasher in his Indian restaurant, Mughal Room. The 13-year-old, who attended boarding school in Pakistan, would come back during his holidays and scrub crockery. “While my friends were at summer camps and tennis clinics, I was cleaning dishes. I hated it at the time, but now it all makes sense.”
Food was a central part of Chris’s upbringing, too. Born in Canada to Chinese and Italian parents, he grew up in a neighbourhood full of immigrants. “From a very early age I was exposed to tons of ethnic foods. They always fascinated me.” His grandfather owned diners in Toronto and Chris entered the restaurant business in his teens. Before Black Sheep, he was the executive chef at Dining Concepts.
Diners have extremely high standards, but they also want food that is approachable—food they can consume regularly without pomp and circumstance.
Belon is a partnership with Australian chef James Henry, who manned the kitchen at Bones, a now-defunct Parisian bistro that specialised in fresh seafood and charcuterie. “James came to Hong Kong and we had a lot of sake one night,” grins Asim when recalling how they met. Their principles and values aligned, says Chris, and talk of a culinary collaboration in Hong Kong followed.
Right from the start they were adamant that Belon should be modern and unpretentious. “The idea was to do elevated Parisian food in a setting that’s not stuffy. It was never going to be a three-star Michelin restaurant,” says Chris, adding that he usually rejects invitations to the latter. It’s hard to imagine Asim having the patience for a polite, multi-course degustation either. “We went to one recently and it was so boring that Chris and I ended up taking half-hour bathroom breaks just to get away from the table,” says Asim. “It was a nine-course meal and three hours long. People just don’t want to consume at restaurants like that anymore.”
That’s not to say people are content with food of a lower calibre. Right now, says Chris, there are two phenomena at play in Hong Kong’s dining scene: everyone considers himself or herself a foodie, and people are eating at restaurants more than ever before. The result is that diners have extremely high standards, but they also want food that is approachable—food they can consume regularly without pomp and circumstance.
It’s fitting, then, that Belon’s signature dish is the humble roast chicken. “I’m most excited about that dish—a roast chicken is the best test of a great French chef,” says Chris, noting that the birds are slow-cooked in a custom-built, wood-burning rotisserie. Most of the produce and protein on the menu comes from farms in the New Territories, and there’s also a focus on local seafood. Chris describes the food at Belon as “a little more feminine than traditional or classic French food. There’s a lightness to it.”
James embraces the nose-to-tail food philosophy. As an admittedly unadventurous eater when it comes to offal, I’m curious to know whether Chris and Asim believe there’s a genuine appetite among diners for the less conventional parts of an animal—or whether the majority of diners see nose-to-tail as a passing fad. “Nose-to-tail, and indeed French cuisine, is all about extracting the most gastronomic value out of things—the most texture and flavour out of every element,” says Chris. “It doesn’t just apply to animals. It could be about extracting flavour from the peels or tops of a carrot. It’s all about using different techniques to eat in a way that is sustainable.”
It’s no secret that Hongkongers love French food, but what of Lebanese?
“Lebanese is one of the great cuisines of the world and we feel it is very underrepresented in the Asia-Pacific region,” says Chris. Staples at Maison Libanaise include house-made pita, pickled vegetables, baba ganoush, hummus, grilled meats, pan-fried haloumi and the signature dish—pan-fried and roasted sea bream with tahini, walnut and parsley salad.
Filling a gap in the market is reason enough to start a business, but the fast-talking Asim offers a more melodramatic raison d’être for Maison Libanaise: “Chris won’t admit this, but he had a Lebanese girlfriend in the ’80s who broke his heart and moved back to Beirut, so he wanted to pay homage to her.” Chris rolls his eyes. Asim grins. Their brotherly dynamic is entertaining. “We often disagree on things,” says Asim. “We argue, debate, bicker, even fight, but there is something in this dynamic that makes it work. I think a big part of our success is the synergy between us.”
With two successful openings this year and another restaurant in the works, it would seem Beavis and Butt-Head have become more like the Batman and Robin of Hong Kong’s dining scene. As for who’s who, we’ll let them fight that one out.