Retail in Asia had the pleasure to interview Chef May of Little Bao about the F&B industry in Hong Kong. You have heard of her because of her mini-bao looking like burgers that she started selling at the Western Market before opening her own restaurant.
May Chow is a Canadian-born Hong Kong Chinese chef. She was named Asia’s Best Female Chef by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, and has used this as a platform to promote LGBT issues and help women find work in professional kitchens.
She is an icon so is the character on the merchandise available at Little Bao. Additionally, she was the recipient of the Local Champion Award two years in a row at the T. Dining Best Restaurants Awards for her three distinctly different establishments, Little Bao and Happy Paradise.
We met her to understand more about her way of running business in Hong Kong, and how she built her personal branding.
RiA: What is the common denominator of your restaurants?
May: Happiness and having fun is a key reason for us to create experiences for ourselves and others.
RiA: How would you define your cuisine?
May: It is very personal and unique to myself. I like integrating life experiences with my culture, art, travels. I want to tell stories and relate to people with emotions but most importantly it needs to be delicious.
There is a lot of exploration of Chinese cuisine but we can play around it with western ideas and executions. I like connecting cultures or dining similarities and showcasing them. We are equally inspired by the magic of Fried Chicken as much as we are inspired by a locally made egg noodle or the migration of Fukien cuisine that has influenced Taiwanese cuisine and Chiu Chow or how I could make a Caesar salad with only local ingredients and local Hong Kong inspiration or what is the magic behind the burger.
RiA: Your restaurants have a strong brand, but we believe that ‘you’ are the actual brand, how did you find your space in the contemporary cuisine?
May: I was lucky enough to be exposed to my Shanghai roots, to think about my identity of being Chinese, growing up in Hong Kong, encouraged to be individualistic by going to school in the US, knowing what it feels like growing up with undiagnosed ADHD, being loved by Chinese family unconditionally, the amazing exposure to the LGBTQI+ community in the US, the exposure to music, parties and being exposed to diverse and open minded individuals.
I cared not to fit in because I was rejected in my youth. So being different and creating my path became a thing for me growing up because I did not know how to succeed and did not naturally do well in a traditional setting so I had to thrive somewhere.
I created a vision, identity and work resonating all the ideals that I learned. I have never thought of what a chef should or should not be and always looked up at chefs who did the same. That allowed me to take more adventurous steps as well.
Instead of thinking why I was not as technical , I saw what was a gift I had and others did not. My gift is that I can see the unique connection between culture and food. I work to make people happy, push people to be adventurous in a friendly matter and sharing food and arts in an undaunting way.
I want food and creativity to be more accessible in Hong Kong and I made it my own mission.
RiA: How are you enriching Hong Kong F&B scenery?
May: We wanted to create something that resonated with people who grew up here to see Chinese cuisine in a fun and creative way. We also wanted to showcase those on global outlets to show authenticity.
We wanted to break the social norm of thinking Chinese food is just one way. I wanted to connect artistically not only through food but with art, music and conversations.
RiA: How do you see it evolving?
May: We are all fighting a global pandemic. We are lucky that we have survived. We are very proud of ourselves and being mindful about staff and career opportunities is equally as important to us as food. Therefore, having a sound business is a continuation to explore new opportunities and diversify our restaurants offerings.
I believe our core beliefs will continue to be the same. However, we will introduce high rotation of seasonal specials more than signatures for higher frequency of returning local guests, adjusting celebrations, maybe relatively less fine dining, more focus on coffee shops and neighbourhood friendly restaurants.
Elevating everyday dining out and simplifying the fine dining model is also a way to keep surprising local consumers who are always looking for new things. There will always be room for each segment and will have to adjust to different demographics.
Anything too labor intensive will be harder to sustain. Smarter ways to do high quality service is essentials. Also, diversify businesses now and not only rely on storefront sales is crucial.
RiA: How do you think COVID-19 is changing the Hong Kong F&B landscape and how are you working during these times? Any change in your business practice?
May: As an international hub, business will always be affected due to the limit of travel. On the business sides front, applying for subsidies, increasing business efficiencies, business diversification as well as re-negotiations on business terms with landlords are crucial.
We definitely have become more vigilant in our costs and reaction to the sudden changes in sales is more timely and elastic. In terms of creativity, more frequent changes and adjustment to attract or re-attract a more local following is essential. Its just re-understanding our business numbers and realities.
RiA: What is your favourite restaurant in Hong Kong besides yours?
May: We are so lucky to have so many amazing restaurants in Hong Kong. I could not possibly name one. Belon, Chairman, VEA, Neighbourhood, Seventh Son, Juxing Home, China Tang, Mono, Okra, La Rambla, to name a few.
RiA: If you had to name the food hub worldwide, which one would that be?
May: Oh Hong Kong is definitely up there. If not the best.