From Lan Kwai Fong to Lahore, restaurateur Syed Asim Hussain tells Carolynne Dear how his expat childhood inspired his latest project, New Punjab Club
Black Sheep Restaurant group has more on its plate than usual. Dashing between a new opening in Wan Chai and brand new joint The Punjab Club on Wyndham Street, company co-founder Syed Assim Hussain is a man with quite a few missions – and slightly out of breath.
“Welcome to New Punjab Club,” he smiles, grabbing a water and sliding into a seat at the far end of his latest Soho eatery. This is the 15th, or 16th restaurant – depending on how you place the two newbies, the Wan Chai venue being Italian-influenced Osteria Marzia – to be opened by the group in five years.
A Hong Konger born and bred, Hussain spent a fair chunk of his childhood embroiled in Hong Kong’s fickle food scene. His father, Syed Pervez Hussain, owned The Mughal Room in the 1980s and the Hussain children were kept closely involved in the family business.
“We spent all of our summers running chores for dad and the restaurant,” laughs Hussain. “I remember calling dad from my boarding school in Lahore one year and asking if I could go abroad for a cricket camp in the UK for the summer, and he replied ‘what do you mean abroad? You are abroad, you’ll be coming home to Hong Kong as usual’.
“One year we spent the entire summer holidays as a sort of “cleaning crew”, we had to scrub toilets, help the dishwashers, push rubbish carts from Wyndham Street to the garbage depot in Lan Kwai Fong – and wash down the kitchens. We saw parts of Hong Kong other kids knew nothing about.”
Fond memories now, Hussain admits he possibly resented the work at the time, but says it laid foundations that grew into a passion for the restaurant business.
Food has been a strong thread woven through Hussain’s family history from when his family first arrived in Hong Kong over 100 years ago. The family’s home in the Punjab was at that time part of the British Raj, and many soldiers – particularly soldiers from the Punjabi Regiment – were sent across to Hong Kong, another part of the sprawling British Empire. Indeed around 2,700 Indian soldiers were present at Britain’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1841 and troops were continually transported to and fro until Indian independence in 1947. Hussain’s own great-grandfather ran the army canteens at the former barracks in Wan Chai.
The family is originally from Lahore, which was the capital of unified Punjab and now the capital of modern-day Pakistan, and this is the story Hussain hopes to tell in his latest restaurant, the story of unified Punjab. Today the area is split into two, east Punjab is modern-day India and the west lies in Pakistan. “But if you ask a Punjabi where they’re from, they’ll say Punjab first, India or Pakistan second. So it’s a beautiful story.”
Hussain describes his own father as “a very bad restaurateur back in ‘80s Hong Kong”.
“Yeah, we don’t talk about it any more!” he laughs. “You know, he was the cliched Indian restaurant owner of that decade – he jokes now about not knowing what was going on, but in truth he knew exactly what was happening, from staff machinations down to how many prawns he had ready for the following morning’s service. Restaurants at that time I would say were built out of scarcity, today they’re created out of abundance.”
Hussain started in the business young – he can remember trips to the wet market aged five – but at age six he was packed off to boarding school in Lahore.
“Yeah, it sounds a bit young now. But you know, it was fine, I went with my brother who was seven at the time. It was a very prestigious school (Aitchison College, ex-pupils include cricketing legend and former Pakistani president Imran Khan) and I have some great memories. Dad didn’t want us to lose our connection with Pakistan. He was Hong Kong born and bred, to the point where his Cantonese is better than his Urdu. He wanted us to have roots in our homeland.”
School memories include regular weekly forays into the world outside of the school gates. “I used to run away every Thursday night,” he laughs. “There’s an ancient road called the Grand Trunk Road that links Pakistan with India and runs just past the school. It had excellent dhabas (roadside restaurants) and I used to sneak out of school, stuff myself silly and then sleep it off overnight in a motel. A lot of the food on the menu here has been inspired by that time.”
The boys would travel back to Hong Kong every summer, times which Hussain describes as a love hate relationship. “We’d come back and all my friends were off travelling to different places or learning new languages or off to summer camp, and my entire summer would be spent working in dad’s restaurants. And dad was really struggling as a restaurateur too, so I think those summers have really prepared me well for the highs and the lows of the industry. It’s not all Instagram shots and rainbows and unicorns. Difficult times, but they are serving me well now.”
He admits things got more fun when he and his brother hit 16 or 17, with beers smuggled into the kitchen and late nights out with the staff.
From school Hussain followed his brother to the US to complete a finance degree and from there moved to New York and a career in banking. “In retrospect I think hospitality school might have been more useful, but there was a lot of pressure from the school, which was very academic, to do the right thing. I spent four-and-a-half years as a trader and you know what, it’s a very similar thing to working in restaurants – fast and furious and lots of information being thrown at you, a busy environment, quick decision making and so on. It’s an environment I do very well in.”
But he always knew he would come home to Hong Kong and back to the restaurant business, and so, nudged gently by his father, returned home in 2011. “I think my father was keen I should taste the success that had alluded him, so I think he’s kind of living vicariously through me.”
He then spent a year-and-a-half easing himself back in with a stint working for Dining Concepts, and then founded Black Sheep with Christopher Mark, now culinary director of the group.
The rest, as they say, is history and with an eclectic stable of 16 restaurants covering Vietnamese street-food to Argentinian steakhouses. So why did it take him so long to embrace his roots? “I think a lot comes down to confidence – and a bit of fear – about getting it right. In many ways it should have been the first restaurant that we opened,” he admits. “But having seen how much my father struggled with his Indian restaurant, I think that made me cautious. We’ve been talking about this for a long time, I guess it’s taken five years for us to develop it. The menu is a little nostalgic, the Mughal Room Makhani is a salute to my dad – the Makhani was the most popular dish on his menu. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved, from a culinary point of view, I’d say there is no better in Hong Kong. We’ve created a new genre within Punjabi and Pakistan cuisine.”
New Punjab Club, 34 Wyndham Street, Central, 2368 1223, blacksheeprestaurants.com