Head Baa Man

Syed Asim Hussian, Co-Founder of Black Sheep, Hong Kong’s most intriguing F&B chain, talks to Gafencu about the success of his restaurants and his role in it.

With your family already successful Hong Kong restaurateurs, did you always feel destined for the hospitality sector?

I have always felt like that. This business is in my blood and in my bones. My brother and I started working in my father’s restaurant when he was just 12 and I was just 11. Even at that age, I knew this business was all about looking after your customers and that’s always been how I’ve seen it. While outsiders often seem to think the restaurant business is all about fine wine, beautiful people and virtuoso music performances, it’s really not. It’s about you coming to my house, and me taking good care of you. If I look after you well, then you’re going to come back.

Black Sheep
Black Sheep Restaurants Co-Founder Syed Asim Hussain

At university, you studied finance and international relations, rather than anything hospitality-focused. Was that a deliberate move?

If I’m honest, finance was a sort of a mistake, I fell into it because my university was primarily known for its business and engineering programs. As I had no aptitude for engineering, I naturally gravitated toward the business school. As to international relations, well that was more out of personal interest. To this day, global affairs and international politics continue to fascinate me and I still read every issue of The Economist from cover to cover.

After graduating, you worked in New York as banker. How did that experience shape your subsequent career?

Well, as I graduated in 2007, the financial crisis hit its height not long after I started work and banks were soon looking at cutting staff numbers. As I really didn’t want to be fired from my first job, I decided then that I had to be the best at everything I did – even if that meant, sometimes, being the best bagel runner. That is, basically, how I survived at the bank.

There was, however, something interesting happening in the restaurant world at about the same time. The traditional 7pm-11pm fine dining market was stagnating and people were just not spending as much on eating out as they used to. This, of course, was partly down to the fact that banks and consultancies had slashed their entertainment budgets. As a result, though, you started to see a number of restaurants emerging where the emphasis was on providing great value for money. I was on the sidelines of this but couldn’t help thinking what a great concept it was, while wondering if the concept could be replicated in my own home city.

This is what then led you to co-found Black Sheep Restaurants?

While I knew I was going to return to Hong Kong and test out this new idea, initially I had no intention of launching out on my own. My plan was to come back and relearn all the things I thought I needed to know. This led me to take up an apprenticeship with a prominent Hong Kong restaurant group and that was my life for about 18 months.

Although I had a vision of how I wanted to progress from there, for quite a while things failed to fall into place. I was then fortunate enough to meet Chris Mark, the guy who ultimately became my business partner. During our first encounter, he was actually quite disparaging towards me, even going as far as telling me he had lost money when he had bet I wouldn’t continue my apprenticeship after the first day. After that, though, we seemed to click and we soon realised we shared many similar ideas and had a similar approach to business. The rest, as they say, is history.

Black Sheep

Black Sheep seems to pride itself on its embrace of a wide range of different cuisines, so how do you ensure they all remain authentic?

Honestly? We don’t try to. We have a creative resource, which is Chris and myself, that’s a blend of nostalgia, curiosity and pure fantasy. Whenever we try new things, it’s always that creative well we draw on. I also think that ‘authentic’ is something of a dangerous concept in this particular business. While we may have travelled to the home regions of many of the cuisines we have on offer, what we serve up is our interpretation of the various dishes and cooking styles we have encountered.

How do you gauge which particular dishes will be to the taste of Hong Kong diners?

I don’t. And I don’t much care either. We try to stay well away fads and short-term trends. We want to produce a menu that stands the test of time. Truly great restaurants are passed from one generation to the next and we hope that, long after we’re gone, Black Sheep will still be around.

Black Sheep

Are there any prospective Black Sheep projects that you’re free to talk about?

The plan, right now, is to open six new sites in Hong Kong in the coming months, as well as one in Europe. That’s all I can really say right now. My hope, though, is that another explosive year is on the cards for the Black Sheep family.

What do you think is the biggest misconception diners have with regard to how the restaurant industry works?

I think, with the rise of social media where you eat, as well as where you shop, have all becomes part of people’s individual brand. Sometimes, though, people fail to understand that a passion for consuming something is not the same as having a passion for a particular business sector. Essentially, loving to drink coffee is very different to being passionate about selling coffee.

Black Sheep

How have the long hours affected your personal life? Was it difficult to meet someone who tolerated the demands your business had on your time?

Basically, you have no personal life. We’ve been successful because we’ve sacrificed everything for the business. If you want a personal life or want to be able to take time off whenever you feel like it, then this is not the industry for you and nor are you likely to create a truly great company.

Finally, what other advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s a mad pursuit and you have to be a little bit crazy to choose it as a way of life. Secondly, if you feel you have to ask for advice, then you’re too normal and you probably shouldn’t be doing this. Beyond that, true excellence lies in doing everything – even the smallest of things – correctly and consistently. It isn’t being a ‘nine’ one-day and ‘three’ the next, it’s about being at least a‘7.5’ every day.

Thank You

Text: Bailey Atkinson

Rajasthan Rifles hits the bull’s eye with its Anglo-Indian cuisine

There’s one thing to be said about Black Sheep Restaurants – they don’t seem to shy away from experimenting with super-niche cuisines. And the Anglo-Indian cuisine on offer at one of their latest restaurants, Rajasthan Rifles, is as niche as it gets.

While Indian cuisine has taken the world by storm and is readily available in most cities, from Osaka to Oakland, it’s mainly the ‘butter chicken’ variety of mainstream Indian food that is served in most restaurants. But as any true lover of Indian cuisine would know, India’s famous culture of diversity is nowhere more manifest than in its rich and wide-ranging culinary heritage of which Anglo-Indian cuisine is an integral part.

Rajasthan Rifles

So what is Anglo-Indian cuisine? Simply put, it’s an amalgamation of English fare and Indian food, that came into being during the colonial era when India was still being ruled by the British. One of the first places that these two cuisines met was in the army. In the 1920s, the British Indian Army stationed in the subcontinent started accepting officers of Indian heritage and the mess halls started creating a unique kind of cuisine that would serve both palates.

Rajasthan Rifles, set in The Peak, takes its inspiration not just from this particular cuisine, but also from the mess halls that they originated from. Borrowing heavily from army hall vibes, the restaurant features stark minimalistic decor, complete with such details as rattan chairs and lockers underneath banquette seats that give a knowing nod to colonial times.

Rajasthan Rifles

Moving on to the menu then, Chef Palash Mitra, of New Punjab Club fame, has been tasked to curate it and, given his long experience as chef at the London-based Anglo-Indian cuisinary Gymkhana, he seems more equipped than most for the job at hand. Eager to test his expertise, we started with the first course, Keema Anda Pau, the Indian equivalent of burger with scrambled eggs and slow-cooked mutton, served here with buttered milk buns and finely chopped onions, chili and lime. A staple snack sold by street vendors in India, here the dish is elevated by the savoriness of the minced meat combined with the mild sweetness of the buns. It’s a simple enough dish, but it made us even more eager to find out how the rest of the dinner would shape up.

Rajasthan Rifles

The next dish to come tablewards was Chicken Tikka, a dish almost synonymous with Indian cuisine. Perhaps as a flip side to that, any Indian cuisinary worth its salt is sure to offer chicken tikka on its menu, and frankly, we had thought we’ve had all the good, bad and ugly versions possible of this item. But that was before we tasted the rendition at Rajasthan Rifles. Chef Mitra expertly enhances the flavours of the chicken by marinating it in yoghurt, ground chillies and mustard, and then chars it just enough for the exterior to be smoky while the inside is juicy and tender. However, in a bid to be as authentic as possible to the Indian palate, it’s unapologetically spicy and made even more so by the tart coriander chutney.

Rajasthan Rifles

The other indubitable highlight of the evening was the Salmon Sizzler, featuring seared Bakkafrost salmon served with fries and vegetables. Here again, the fish was charred perfectly on the outside, while the soola spices added a spicy undertone to its tender texture that almost literally melted in our mouth.

Those looking for vegetarian options, meanwhile, may try the Dum Aloo Gunpowder, a special potato dish that would be quite a common item in officers’ canteens of yesteryears. As anyone au fait with Indian cuisine would tell you, any dish with the intriguing-sounding ‘gunpowder’ condiment tends to be on the spicy side, but Rajasthan Rifles’ potato curry is disarmingly mild-flavoured, despite the sprinkling of the potent gunpowder.

For dessert, we tried the Lemon Posset, a velvety lime-flavoured cream served alongside a generous helping of grapefruit, cherries and other fruits, all simply simpatico with the citrus notes of the dessert. By this time, though, it’s hardly a surprise to us, because we had come to expect nothing less from Rajasthan Rifles, which has not only taken a careful aim at representing the ‘East-meets-West’ culinary tradition, but has also hit a perfect bull’s eye.

Text: Suchetana Mukhopadhyay

Master Chefess Angie Ford serves up flawless fillets at Buenos Aires Polo Club

As canny carnivores the world over know only too well, when it comes to quality and flavour, Argentinian beef could well be a worthy contender for the World’s Most Magnificent Meat Award, should such an accolade ever be up for grabs. Its particular allure lies in its leaner, Pampas-grass-fed meat qualities, which also contains a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids than its grain-fed counterpart. In plainspeak, that means you can tuck into your medium-rare steak with relish without worrying that your heart might give way before you have chance to polish it off.

Buenos Aires Polo Club
The equestrian-themed interiors at Buenos Aires Polo Club

While the beef is rightly renowned the world over, in Hong Kong, the number of Argentinian steakhouses offering such prime cuts is well below the figure for those offering the American or Japanese pretenders to its throne. Thankfully, Black Sheep Restaurants – the Hong Kong-based hospitality group – saw it fit to right this particular wrong with the launch of the Buenos Aires Polo Club a few years back. While the group has already made a number of cuisines quite its own – including Lebanese, Greek and Italian – this was its first foray into celebrating Latin America’s love of sumptuously-served slabs of prime cattle.

In keeping with Argentina’s famously macho culture, the Central-set Buenos Aires Polo Club occupies a decidedly masculine space, complete with well-worn leather banquette seats, sports memorabilia and equestrian-themed artworks filling up almost every surface. While the interior of the restaurant proper has manly accents, its kitchen space is decidedly more feminine, a clear sign that Angie Ford, its Canadian head chef, is intent on making her mark in this relatively chap-dominated field. 

Buenos Aires Polo Club
Chef Angie Ford is at the helm of the kitchen at Buenos Aires Polo Club

Arriving in Hong Kong via Sydney, Chef Ford’s experience of South American cuisine comes from her many years of working under celebrity chef René Rodriguez at Navarra, his award-winning, Ottawa-set South American fine dinery. In particular, she brings with her a mastery of asado, a style of open-fire cooking that is popular throughout Latin America. 

Keen to experience her expertise for ourselves, we tucked straight into the first course – Fries Provenzal – disarmingly simple Argentinian chips (in the British sense), doused judiciously with duck fat, with their savoriness enhanced by garlic and parsley. It may not be healthiest of appetisers, but it’s 100-percent finger-licking-good – for once, literally – ensuring all thoughts of temperance recede as soon as its aroma arises.

Buenos Aires Polo Club
Spinach and Provolone Empanadas

To follow were Spinach and Provolone Empanadas, lovingly served with salsa criolla dip. While the house-made empanada dough was suitably crunchy, it was the sheer joy to be had from the spinach, cheese, onion and garlic filling that ensured we were wholly enamored. While the empanadas were exquisite in themselves, dipping them in the accompanying salsa sauce occasioned a truly transcendent tanginess even further.

As if conscious of meat-intent sentiment, the Chorizo Sausage was next to make its way tablewards. A decidedly decadent combination of pork, beef and spices, it was an explosion of savoury meaty flavours with our tastes the more than willing ground zero.

Ribeye Steak

All of that, though, was but foodie foreplay prior to the climatic arrival of the evening’s culinary centerpiece – the Ribeye Steak, served medium rare as per the chef’s recommendation. Knowing the perfect fit with her long-honed open-fire grilling skills, Chef Ford makes a point of opting for prime cuts of grass-fed General Pico Black Angus beef, slightly charring their crust, while trusting the tender meat within to win over even the most capricious of diners. Served with a single onion on the side and deputising three contrasting condiments – chimichurri, salsa criolla and Malbec mustard – as its cheerleaders, it’s very much the steak that calls the shots. An engaging bit of attention to detail – and our particular ‘wow’ moment – accompanied the serving when we were granted the opportunity to select an individual steak knife, with the restaurant boasting more than its fair share of ornately-shaped sharp objects from as far afield as Pakistan and Brazil.

Buenos Aires Polo Club

While a generous portion of Pampas-fed prime meat occupied much of the space we’d naively reserved for dessert, it was impossible not to be intrigued by the Malvaviscos, with its sundry charcoal and marshmallow sticks in tow. As soon as the charcoal was ignited, the marshmallows were toasted and the first bite was taken, it was clear that the steak would have to make way for at least a medium serving of this astonishing afters. This was down in no small part to the layer of coffee-flavoured ice-cream that lurked unannounced below the toasted marshmallow – surprising, enticing and impossible not to want to experience again. A bit like the Buenos Aires Polo Club itself.

Buenos Aires Polo Club, 7F, LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Central. 85223218681. www.bapoloclub.com

Text: Suchetana Mukhopadhyay