Syed Asim Hussain On Building A Restaurant Empire And What's Next For Black Sheep Restaurants
Last October, Syed Asim Hussain lost someone very dear to him. His cousin Syed Muhammad Hussain Shah, five years his elder, had been climbing near a tributary of the Indus River in the mountainous Balakot region of Pakistan with his two young sons, ages 10 and 12, when the children accidentally slipped and fell into the rapids. Muhammad went after them and was able to push his sons to safety, but he was swept away and believed to have drowned.
Muhammad and Asim had been as close as brothers since they were children, when Asim was sent from Hong Kong to Pakistan to attend boarding school at the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore. Muhammad, his mother’s sister’s son, was a positive influence on Asim, who suffered from asthma and other serious childhood ailments, and whose life, away from home from age 5 to 18, could easily have gone in another direction.
“I often say that in so many ways, he saved me,” Asim Hussain, now 36, recalls, seated in a private room at the Buenos Aires Polo Club in Lan Kwai Fong, one of the 30 restaurants he now operates as part of the Black Sheep restaurant empire that he and his business partner, Christopher Mark, established in Hong Kong nine years ago. “He was the cooler, older cousin, so a lot of his interests became my interests. For example, he was a really good basketball player, so I started playing basketball.”
Going by the book
When news of the accident reached Hussain and his mother, Nina, they flew to Pakistan to join a rescue mission, against the wishes of his father, the prominent trader and investor Syed Pervez Hussain, who was concerned about the rapid spread of the coronavirus there. Although Muhammad’s body would not be found until months later, 30 people from his family joined the search at the time, and all of them became infected with the virus. Two of them died. Hussain tested positive upon his return to Hong Kong in November and spent 20 days in Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung; even though his symptoms were minor, his infection was severe.
“It was a really, really painful experience,” Hussain says now, pulling out a journal he carries with him everywhere, and turns to a handwritten page. “I wrote this letter to myself and I called it ‘Lessons the fall of 2020 taught me’. If you had said to me last September that things were going to get crazier, I would have just laughed at you. And then this happened.”
One of the long-term neurological manifestations seen in Covid-19 patients who have been hospitalised is cognitive impairment, which is something that troubles Hussain, given that his ultimate success as a businessman with an unapologetic reputation for courting chaos and taking risks is reliant on his ability to rally the support of his troops, who number just under 1,000 workers today in what is arguably the buzziest food-and-beverage organisation in Hong Kong. Among them are more than 75 chefs, 30 delivery riders and walkers and 25 guest experience specialists whose job is to engage with patrons and surprise them with personal touches at every possible opportunity—what Hussain likes to say is Black Sheep’s “superpower”. This requires constant attention to detail while shifting gears thousands of times each day.
Hussain, dressed in his signature thin-knit black turtleneck and carrying a water bottle marked with the logo of Batman, says he knew even in January of last year that the coronavirus was going to take a devastating toll on the industry. He quickly drew up a playbook of safety protocols, which he distributed freely to restaurants around the world, an example of restaurateurs banding together that was hailed by international media including CNN and The New York Times. That a man with a self-avowed desire to save the world would wind up contracting the virus was a cruel irony, particularly for someone who had worked so hard to keep businesses open and his financially strapped workers employed—successfully thus far.
“If you asked me my greatest accomplishment in life, I would say this—we’re still here and with not a single redundancy,” Hussain says.
Building an empire
Black Sheep’s portfolio includes restaurants that specialise in an eclectic array of cuisines, from the high end “neo-Parisian” Belon that serves dishes like pigeon pithivier with carrot and cabbage, to the deeply personal New Punjab Club that is an homage to Hussain’s heritage and the original Punjab Club in Lahore, to the bare-bones Burger Circus with its addictive diner-style hamburgers. Hussain and Mark, who met a decade ago when both were working for Dining Concepts, where Mark was a partner for some of its restaurants and the culinary director for the group, decided to create Black Sheep in 2012 because they shared a vision for restaurants that could be not just places to eat, but vehicles for storytelling. Each restaurant at Black Sheep is described internally as a “story”.
Some spin a slightly twisted yarn, winking at a specific place or period: a wall of waving lucky cats greets guests as they descend the staircase of Ho Lee Fook, the saucily named Elgin Street venue for Asian fusion food that was inspired Hong Kong cha chaan tengs and New York’s Chinatown hangouts from the 1960s. The Anglo-Indian-themed Rajasthan Rifles on The Peak is an imagined rendering of a mess hall of the British Indian Army.
Others feature dishes designed to recall sensations from trips abroad, like the imported New York red-sauce power-spot Carbone, the consistently stellar coastal Italian specialist Osteria Marzia in The Fleming hotel, and the super-Tuscan Associazione Chianti, which faithfully recreates the delicate brown butter chicken from Florence’s Trattoria Sostanza. Newcomers to Black Sheep restaurants are often surprised to learn that so many of the city’s most in-demand tables, seemingly competing for their wallets, are actually owned by the same company. Once in the know, they themselves compete to become Black Sheep’s best customers with the hope of being selected to join its secretive VIP membership club, called the Black List.
Black Sheep, which was profitable for its first eight years, had close to US$70 million in revenue in 2018 and was aiming for US$100 million by the end of the decade. Before the pandemic, Hussain and Mark had plans to expand overseas in a breakthrough that would have been the envy of Black Sheep’s detractors in the notoriously competitive Hong Kong dining industry. “We were on the cusp of eternal glory,” Hussain says in a characteristic moment of hyperbole. Instead, the company lost HK$25 million in the first quarter of 2021—which is more than Black Sheep ever made in any profitable quarter—and faced pleas from its financial advisors to cut personnel. But Hussain insisted Black Sheep would not retrench.
“It wasn’t a real option in my heart,” he says. “We very proudly talk about all these values that we believe in. If we’re doing this at the first sign of danger, then we’re not really who we have been saying we are.”
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Taking a risk
Hussain is man for whom any number of signs of danger would not be enough to deter him from taking a risk in the name of glory. Of course, one man’s love of chaos can be another’s recklessness. Black Sheep moved forward with several projects last year, including a pseudo dive bar, The Last Resort, that serves fried chicken and drinks; an upscale teppanyaki experience called Crown Super Deluxe; and an eight-seater omakase counter, Sushi Haru. Forthcoming projects include an ice cream parlour to open this summer; a third outpost of the popular La Vache! entrecôte restaurant, this one in the Pacific Place shopping mall; a Sichuan restaurant in Alexandra House, and its most ambitious new venture—a complex of restaurants and bars being developed in Tai Kwun’s historic Magistracy building, in which Hussain plans to turn a spot near where Ho Chi Minh faced imprisonment in the 1930s into an old-school British chophouse.
“I seldom get stressed when we’re opening new restaurants, but I’m stressed about this one,” Hussain says in early April, while giving a tour of the building in advance of a pop-up event called Primavera ad Amalfi that would feature a temporary restaurant, Osteria Positano, with a menu of salt-baked seabream and pastas prepared tableside in the manner of an Italian beach club.
“It’s not about things going wrong,” he says. “I have a silly amount of belief in myself and the team. But I want to build something that’s still here long after you and I are gone. I think that’s what success looks like in a city that is obsessed with newness.”
The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which is the custodian of the building, is a demanding landlord, and Black Sheep’s creative and projects teams are working closely with Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Office on all of its plans, which include another Anglo-Indian restaurant, a 40-seat gin garden, a British cheese and port shop, a whisky bar and several private dining rooms. Joyce Wang, who designed the interior of Belon, is also working on the Magistracy projects.
I have a silly amount of belief in myself and the team. But I want to build something that’s still here long after you and I are gone
— Syed Asim Hussain
“A good restaurant is a custodian of culture,” says Hussain, who gave copies of a HKU Press history of the Tai Kwun complex, Crime, Justice and Punishment in Colonial Hong Kong, to his creative team while researching interesting anecdotes about the Magistracy building. “We’re trying to tell the story of a time, a place, a cuisine, a culture, a concept. We really have to tell the story of the building.”
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The dream team
Members of Hussain’s family have lived in Hong Kong for five generations, most likely having first arrived with the British Indian Army. Some left, and some settled here, working in government services and the stewarding of cargo before the Second World War, when many fled Japanese occupation and moved back to what would become Pakistan upon the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947. Pervez Hussain was born in 1948 in Pakistan, but his family returned to Hong Kong a few years later, and as a boy, he dreamt of a career in public service, fighting dictatorships. But after the death of his father at a young age from lung cancer, he instead went into various businesses, primarily trading commodities like saffron and rice (later, when one of his childhood friends came into power in Pakistan, he would serve for a few years as its ambassador to South Korea).
Pervez Hussain also opened a few restaurants himself as a hobby. His first, The Mughal Room on Wyndham Street, was frequented by Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong before the handover in 1997, and his wife Lavender, whose stinging criticism of Hussain’s murgh pasandra was framed on the wall, as well as high-ranking police officers and the chief justice. Asim and his brother, Syed Haider Yahya Hussain, older by one year, worked there in the summers when they were kids.
“When they used to come for their holidays, I made sure they cleaned the bathrooms and threw out the garbage,” Pervez Hussain says. “When Asim was young and still in school—I don’t know whether he’s told you this or not—he had a kidney problem. He now has one kidney only. He suffers from severe asthma. So maybe that has made him more of a fighter. I mean, all my kids are fighters, but he’s the strongest of them all.”
Asim Hussain went on to study finance and international relations at Carnegie Mellon University and then moved to New York City to work for a brokerage house, but after several years he found himself longing to return to Hong Kong. When he moved back in 2011, he began an 18-month apprenticeship with Dining Concepts that saw him working with the finance and marketing teams in the daytime and serving guests at BLT Burger in Harbour City, Craftsteak in Soho or Bistecca in Lan Kwai Fong at night. “By the time I would leave every night, after closing the restaurant down, I’d be shell-shocked,” he says. “I would take the Star Ferry home and just be, more than anything, physically tired. I often say that you have to be a little bit broken to work in hospitality.” It was at Bistecca where he began to work closely with Mark, originally from Canada and nearly a decade his senior.
“A lot of people are attracted to the restaurant business and most don’t make it once they realise it’s not as glamorous as they think, and they just fall to the wayside,” Mark says. “So I didn’t expect him to hang around too long.” But they hit it off. Mark was ready for his next challenge, so they decided to create Black Sheep. Hussain and Mark borrowed about US$1 million from friends, family and restaurant investors to finance their first restaurant in LKF—and the only one that has failed—in partnership with the New York City tapas spot Boqueria. They shared one laptop for two years and spent their free moments seeking out real estate deals to open more restaurants, expanding with Motorino for Neapolitan pizza and then their own concepts like the bustling Vietnamese street food kitchen Chôm Chôm, often working on six or seven projects at a time. Hussain is in charge of all things creative and business; Mark is responsible for culinary development.
“Not to oversimplify things, but I would say that we have sort of like an engineer and marketer dynamic,” Mark says. “You need the engineer to come up with a really good product and then you need someone to communicate what it is and make people appreciate it.”
In Black Sheep’s corporate office on Arbuthnot Road, a team of people work to ensure every guest feels appreciated, keeping notes on preferences as mundane as whether they prefer still or sparkling water and as personal as their anniversaries and whether they’ve recently received a promotion. Every person who makes a reservation is googled, and every day the senior management team receives a list of those they must make a point to personally greet. In fact, Black Sheep employees are banned from even using the word “customer”.
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“We try to build a story,” says Malique Goldin, who came to Black Sheep via the luxury fashion industry, having worked for Louis Vuitton for more than a decade, and is now director of partnerships. “If a man tells us it’s his wife’s birthday, but he didn’t prepare anything, we’ll make sure that something special happens. Even if we can’t make a cake all of a sudden, maybe we can get a celebration happening.”
Lots of Black Sheep regulars have experienced the company’s overarching culture of hospitality, even in small ways. Every home-delivery order, for example, comes with a hand-written thank you note, sometimes with a complimentary beer or a packet of Italian candies, each specific to the restaurant. But close friends of the house will experience a level of attention that rivals the legendary New York establishments of Keith McNally or Danny Meyer. For their tenth anniversary in December, Tabish and Shezaf Dar, longtime friends of Hussain, were treated to a dinner at the Greek taverna Artemis & Apollo that included ten of their favourite dishes from ten different restaurants. Deb To, who is considered to be Black Sheep’s No 1 “most loved” guest, mentioned at some point that she likes fried chicken, so Braden Reardon, the executive chef of Carbone and Buenos Aires Polo Club, invited her to come by and try his recipe.
“When I got there, he brought me into the kitchen and showed me how he made it,” she says. “We just sat in the kitchen together, eating his fried chicken. It’s never been on the menu. It was just something that we tried out.”
To, a native of Australia with a wild streak who works in tech start-ups, had been a fan of Black Sheep long before she met Hussain, crediting its staff for keeping her in Hong Kong for the past decade. At Buenos Aires Polo Club recently, a bartender served her a whisky sour in a frosted goblet engraved with her name on the side and a message on the bottom that says “call me a bogan”, which is Australian slang for a boorish person, but to To is a term of endearment. She recalls having once lost her wallet and the entire restaurant calling all the clubs where she had been, although it later turned out that she had accidentally kicked it under her bed. (“I was so drunk,” she says.)
“They’re incredibly attentive—borderline creepy sometimes,” To says. “They’re like, ‘Oh, we saw you here’ or ‘Oh, we saw you there’, and I’m like, it’s not even a Black Sheep restaurant, which is even creepier. But they’re super lovely, and not just to the people who are frequent diners. That comes from Asim.”
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Hussain will say little about the Black List, the VIP programme that counts fewer than 150 members, other than that prospects must be sponsored by multiple people within the organisation before they will be considered. Deb To suspects her inclusion had less to do with how much she spends in Black Sheep restaurants than the fact that she hangs out in them all the time and always makes sure to say thank you to everyone.
Jack Gonsalves, easily the most gregarious Black Sheep employee as group maître d’ of the luxury restaurants and himself a Hong Kong dining institution, arrived in the city from Bombay in 1992 and took a job as a junior waiter at Va Bene, where he was promoted to assistant manager after six months. “I always say it was because I was running the race with nine blind people, and I was with one eye,” says Gonsalves. “The rest were blind because they had no ambition, but I had something to prove.” Seven years ago, he jumped to Carbone before it had even opened, where he now greets people day after day, always remembers their names no matter how many years have passed since he last saw them, and always serves them a shot of “Jack-cello”, the house take on limoncello. “It’s like you’re coming to my place,” he says. “It’s a family place, and that’s what people want.” He sees something of himself in Hussain.
Lead by example
“He’s a fearless leader,” Gonsalves says. “He has a lot of belief in himself and he makes others feel the same.”
Says Goldin, “He’s like no one I’ve ever worked for before. Once people are in Black Sheep and they get it and they fit, we drink the Kool-Aid.”
“He’s mercurial, dynamic, passionate,” Mark says. “I think both of us can come off as being a little bit intense and that can be intimidating. But I would describe Asim as actually quite a loving person. People might not pick up on that right away.”
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Perhaps the least expected thing Hussain reveals about himself is that his greatest ambition is public service, and in typical shoot-for-the-moon fashion, he even mentions becoming the prime minister of Pakistan. Education and healthcare are issues he cares passionately about, and his experience creating a fund for employees to apply for interest-free loans to better themselves has inspired him to ponder how he can help a country with a population of 220 million, more than half of whom are under the age of 25. Most do not have access to a marketable level of education.
“What I love most about what I do now, on an elemental level, is building communities and looking after people,” says Hussain, who is also a director of the non-profit Care Pakistan that builds schools across the country. “When I am doing this well, I am at my happiest. I feel that public service gives me a bigger canvas and I have an opportunity to make a deeper impact in a larger ecosystem.”
Hussain’s father believes there is a parallel between the restaurant business and politics. “The basic thing is to serve properly,” he says. “If you can’t serve somebody who’s paying you, how can you serve others who are not going to pay you?”
Despite its terrible year, Black Sheep recently signed a joint venture with a family office to open four restaurants in London beginning in 2022, realising Hussain’s dream of international expansion. Still, if he took Black Sheep from 30 restaurants to 30,000, with Motorinos and La Vaches all over the world, he wouldn’t be satisfied unless he considered it training for something larger.
“Life is easy when you know what’s important to you,” he says. “We’re running a marathon. We’re at mile marker 20 and everything burns and hurts. I think the worst thing we can do is to stop now. All signs point to how we’re in the home stretch. Not only in the home stretch, but in pole position. Just have to keep running. Can’t stop now.”
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- Photography Amanda Kho
- Styling Perpetua Ip
- Grooming Gloomy Kwok at Makeupbees