Over the past four years, Hong Kong’s dining scene has changed beyond recognition, with mid-range, focused, neighbourhood concepts catering to the city’s ever-expanding population of informed gourmands. At the heart of this evolution is Black Sheep Restaurants, arguably one of the most forward-thinking hospitality groups around, which has done more to revitalise Soho than the pair behind it have had hot dinners.
Helmed by Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark, Black Sheep Restaurants launched in 2011 with the 100-seater Catalan concept, Boqueria. At the time, people doubted that it would work; the Spanish wave hadn’t yet hit the city’s gastronomic landscape and the tapas joints that were doing well were all bijou offerings scattered along Wyndham Street. But that didn’t perturb Hussain and Mark. “We want to rattle the cage. We want to shake things up,” explained Hussain.
We want to rattle the cage. We want to shake things up!
“We don’t want to be trend followers, we want to be unique, and that’s where the name comes from…and also I’m not afraid of controversy, we love controversy.” Have you been the source of any controversy thus far? “None that we can talk about!”
Hussain grew up around restaurants in Hong Kong, but left for the bright lights of New York City, where he pursued a lucrative profession in finance. “I was on my way to a successful career in banking but I was constantly consumed with the culture of dining out and restaurants. A lot was happening at that time…there was an explosion of great neighbourhood concepts in New York, places like Parm and The Meatball Shop…and around this time I felt like maybe I made the wrong career choice, that I belong in the dining room. So I came back to Hong Kong and took up a year-long apprenticeship with a prominent restaurant group – by far the most challenging but at the same time humbling and gratifying thing I’ve ever done.”
It was during these twelve months that Hussain and Mark met. “My business partner, he’s been a chef in Hong Kong for a long, long time. He was also planning on doing something else…we would often go out for a glass of wine, which would become a bottle of wine, after service and just talk about ideas…and we felt like we could work together. When we started the idea wasn’t to change the world, it was to open one great restaurant and see what happened after that. And the rest, as they say, is history”
“We have very similar philosophies, but Chris and I are very different. Very, very different people. We could not be more different! Our interests, hobbies, the way we are in person are worlds apart. But we think that’s what makes this tick…we became business partners four years ago and I have found a best friend in the process…This is the cornerstone of our success – our partnership.”
The philosophies shared by Hussain and Mark are not necessarily those you would expect from a couple of restaurateurs. “We’re romantics, we’re in love with what we do,” something that becomes evident when speaking to them. “Restaurants are not about food, or service, or ambiance – restaurants are about how they make you feel…We try to tell stories.”
Restaurants are not about food, or service, or ambiance – restaurants are about how they make you feel…We try to tell stories.
And it would appear that people respond to Black Sheep’s restaurants as one might to a particularly well-told tale – with an emotional reaction. Hussain recounted, “I got a hand-written, three-page letter detailing how someone felt about Carbone…restaurants evoke a very strong feeling in people, it’s not transactional anymore.”
Certainly not where Black Sheep Restaurants is concerned. The group’s restaurants have captured the hearts of the people of Hong Kong and look set to continue to do so. “Last year was a big year, but I think this year will be bigger,” Hussain told us. “We have a few exciting spaces signed up in Soho. I can’t talk about concepts but what I can tell you is that it’s going to be very different from what we’ve done before. We’re going to keep rattling that cage.”