For many in Hong Kong, Peel Street is either the place for a civil dinner or the place to immerse yourself in a night of debauchery. Although the strip has been dubbed as the “new Lan Kwai Fong,” the vendors wrapping the 200-meters possesses a sense of community that the original Lan Kwai Fong never did. When I asked JP, who works at Mamma Always Said, on how things were right now for the hospitality industry after the third COVID-19 wave, he described the situation, referring to the surrounding restaurants as “neighbors.”
The first two restaurants to your left walking up the steep-ish strip are owned by sibling-duo Alexis Offe and his sister Laura. Although originally from France, Offe has lived across Asia since the age of eight and considers Hong Kong home. He graduated from École Hotelière de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland in 2014 – the land of Godivas, Patek Phillipes and top-notch hospitality schools. When interviewed by his university early last year, he explained, “I always wanted to open a restaurant, it was just a matter of time.”
You’ll notice that both of these restaurants possess an earthy and sophisticated vibe – just enough for a mark up, but not enough to intimidate the masses. When I ask Offe whether the “relaxed, trendy vibe” was intentional, he echoes the importance of community and says that he and his team wanted “ … all our restaurants to have that neighborhood vibe where people feel welcome at any time of the day.”
And, this sense of community is carried into the restaurant and behind the counter into the kitchen.
Head chef of BEDU and Mamma Always Said – Corey Riches
Corey Riches, originally from Australia, is the head chef overseeing the kitchen operations for Bedu and Mamma Always Said. We met at the Meraki Group’s recently opened Mamma Always Said. Have you done an interview before? I ask. “Many” he responds, slightly unenthused.
Riches was born and raised moving around Australia and abroad, “My parents were hospitality people,” he explains, listing just under 10 places that he’s lived in the land of Down Under. “They ran nightclubs. Things like that. They just decided they wanted to move cities or didn’t like their jobs.” When asked whether it was watching his parents that motivated him to enter the industry, he quickly responds that it wasn’t. “I saw the hours that my parents worked … I never really saw my parents as a kid. So they were always working for like 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. … I saw how unforgiving of a career it could be.”
Although unforgiving, when Riches hit a crossroad between choosing to enter the military or going into the hospitality industry, he chose hospitality as his “backup” and found that he actually enjoyed it a lot. “I enjoyed the fun, how busy it was. And then, when we moved back to Australia, I ended up getting a part-time job washing dishes,” he explains. When describing what his experience was like in the kitchen back then, he explains that the chefs would always “try to be like pirates … very rugged, rough around the edges, especially Australian chefs.” But, he enjoyed it. Although strict and, as an apprentice, “horrible to watch,” he labeled the atmosphere as “freeing,” “direct” and “relaxing.”
It was also these apprenticeships that made Riches grow, although this is only able to acknowledge in hindsight. “Every day it was just something more that I was in trouble for,” he recalls. “I would do training during school in the morning, then I would go to work at about 3 p.m. and wash dishes, and any time I had between washing dishes I had to prep. Then one of the apprentices got fired, and the head chef offered me the apprenticeship … I thought it would be easier,” he admits, but “I was there from like 3 p.m. till midnight to 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. a shift … So that was hard.”
When asked whether he wavered and contemplated quitting during this stage and going into the military, Riches rationalizes it, saying it was going to be the same. “I’d get yelled at. I had to clean things a lot. 80% cleaning and then 20% cooking, actually. That’s not what I expected. I thought I’ll just be cooking, doing my thing, I’d walk out and say ‘clean the kitchen guys.’” “But,” he pauses, “like anything in life, there’s things you dislike about what you’re doing. But then the positives outweigh the negatives. So I come back to that. I enjoy the positives.”
Riches consciously adopts a methodical and logical approach in his work. When I ask about how his philosophy for cooking grew to be “step by step, day by day,” he explains that it was a saying that used to be yelled and “beaten” into him. “But it’s just an easier way to learn,” he says. “If you say ‘step by step, day by day,’ then you’re not getting upset about ‘oh maybe it’s not 100% perfect right now.’”
At another stage of the interview, Riches elaborates on this, explaining, “It was a struggle, I wasn’t one of those people who was naturally gifted at cooking, I was always the dumbest person in the kitchen, I was the slowest, I had no understanding of anything and they kept yelling at me. That’s when I got really fed up with the people who would say ‘I’m naturally gifted’ because you know what? It’s just time and effort.” Riches later realized that “if I actually put in the time and effort, I can be better than that person,” labeling being constantly told that you’re the best at everything, “a trap” since “you can never grow.”
He also admits that this incremental approach wasn’t one that came naturally to him. “I’m one of those people who wants to achieve too much at the beginning, so I always have to remind myself.”
Although subtle, there’s a creative side to Riches which he allows to take reign while creating new dishes – the exact dishes listed on the menus of the popular Meraki restaurants. “Australia is very freethinking in the kitchen and very open to mixing,” he says, explaining that he’s not the type of chef that enjoys creating dishes on a whiteboard with variations planned out. “I kind of just like to have fun. I mean, in the end I just look at an ingredient that I really wanna use and then I think ‘is it possible to use it?’ … and then I grow the dish from that ingredient my way.”
“Do you have a vision in your mind when you’re creating a dish?” I ask. “Yeah, subconsciously,” he answers, labeling himself “arrogant” in that sense.
However, it is this strong-headedness, or what Riches terms as “arrogance,” that arms him among an ultracompetitive hospitality landscape. “Hong Kong has big restaurant groups, and they control a big part of Hong Kong … A lot of big groups that own more property than people in Hong Kong do … For me, it then becomes ‘How do I compete with a big fish like that?’ … and because I enjoy the competition, it makes me better. I don’t want to fail.”
The gastronomic journey continues
From how to stand out among the competition to how to cope with and adapt to both social unrest in the city and a pandemic, Riches’ gastronomic journey has been continually filled with ups and downs.
City dwellers often inherently possess a sense of entitlement because they’re spoiled for choice. Creating food for them is a problem Riches has faced in both Melbourne and Hong Kong. “It can be frustrating,” he explains. “It’s frustrating when you’re giving your everything, and cooking is giving your heart and soul to the guest in reality. Because you sacrifice your time, your energy, creativity and everything goes into this.” Positive and undeterred, he continues, “but it’s also a good thing … it keeps you on your toes and keeps pushing you to be better.”
Riches believes this feedback is useful from anyone. “You find that some people really give you helpful advice. And it could be anyone, could be a lady in the morning who has a better idea on how to prep.”
However, Riches says the guests’ feedback carries the greatest weight. Anyone that has been to Mamma Always Said likely has seen the XO fried chicken wings. This dish was initially contested by several members of the Meraki team who expressed uncertainty over the dish, but due to Riches’ philosophy and approach, the now incredibly popular item remains.
“It’s just rationalizing what’s the best for the guest at the end,” Riches explains. “I’m not cooking for me or the owners, I’m cooking for the guests. I always pick what I want to cook, but it’s always for the guest and that’s a very important part of cheffing, because you can’t get caught up in what you just want to cook … but what the guests want.”
Humility and pragmatism are traits Riches seeks among others in the Meraki team, and for him – the food quality always comes first. “There’s always room for improvement anywhere, nonstop,” he says. “If you back yourself [even if the food isn’t great] because everyone has an ego, then it’s not going to be the best product.”
“The staff that have stayed the longest are always the ones that have a willingness to learn,” Riches explains, pointing out that this is the most important trait for finding new people to join the team. “I really want the people who are very interested in learning.”
Describing the challenges the pandemic posed for the city and hospitality industry in Hong Kong, Riches explains that it was poorly handled at the beginning. “But I think [the government] is getting a better idea of what they need to do now,” he says. He explains that by shutting everything down, more people congregated on private property which made it harder for the government and police to manage. “If they keep things the way they are now, temperature checks and capacity limits, it’s better for everyone and the economy.”
When explaining what is next in store for him, Riches says “My biggest thought right now, is building the team, getting structures in place so it feels more secure with the menus, staffing and their growth”
Meraki is sure to offer the platform to nurture this type of growth. “At Meraki we believe in teamwork and collaboration,” Offe says. Everyone from top to bottom is immersed in the process. “So everybody is working in the same direction and there is no confusion of who we are and where we want to go.”
And for Offe, that’s simply why it works so well. “When you have hardworking, forward-thinking and humble chefs like ours working towards the success of a concept, the only outcome is something amazing and creative.”