The wonder from Down Under

Restaurateur Wayne Parfitt landed in Hong Kong with his wife and baby daughter 26 years ago. Thirty-six restaurant openings later and he’s a firm fixture on Hong Kong’s fickle food map. Carolynne Dear sits down for a coffee and a chat in his latest venue

To be honest, my Hong Kong experience would be completely different without Wayne Parfitt. His Castelo Concepts chain of uniquely named restaurants has been peppering the background of my social life since the day I arrived here. I celebrated my 40th at Oolaa, my first junk was a Jaspas, my very first “Hong Kong ladies lunch” was in Wagyu – at the time I was a harassed young mother of very small children fresh off the boat from Sydney and was extremely flattered to have a bottle of champagne sent to our table by a group of guys in the corner. “Oh, that’s Wayne, the owner,” my new Bel Air buddies airily informed me. “Enjoy your lunch, ladies,” he called over. I have never forgotten it.

But that’s the kind of guy he is – great fun and he likes a drink and he likes a yarn. His restaurants reflect this – they’re not gourmet or Michelin-starred or trying too hard. We’re talking laid back, easy going venues serving generous portions of tasty food alongside large glasses of easy-on-the-palate wines.

“It’s a social business, that’s why I enjoy it,” he tells me as we catch up at St Barts, his brand new restaurant in Clearwater Bay. “People come and go, and then when expats realise all their friends have gone, they leave too. Not me, I’m constantly socialising, meeting people. It’s good,” he says.

An Aussie, he grew up on Queensland’s Gold Coast working in his parents pubs with his brother and business partner, Brian. He reckons the largest, Fisherman’s Wharf, took the equivalent of around HK$1million in today’s money over each weekend. “At 5pm we used to have to turn the beer taps off – we couldn’t keep up with demand. The girls used to count the money in the backroom with a guy with a shotgun standing at the door. They were good times,” he chuckles.

He met his wife Andrea in Australia – a Brit born and bred in Hong Kong, she was working for American Express at the time – and they came to the territory for “a couple of weeks to visit her mum and dad” in 1991. During the trip she was offered a job by a former boss, Wayne fell in love with the place, and the rest, as they say, is history. “And I’ll never leave,” he swears. “They can bury me in Sai Kung!”

His first foray into the Hong Kong hospitality business was Pepperoni’s, which opened to huge local fanfare in Sai Kung in 1992. “There really wasn’t anything western in the area at that time, so we stuck to a pretty simple menu,” he recalls. “Pizza, pasta, wine, beer, you can’t go wrong.”

Local expats living in Clearwater Bay at the time recall dashing into Sai Kung with the family the night it opened, the kids bouncing around excitedly in the back of the car as they bucketed along Hiram’s Highway.

A further restaurant, Al Fresco’s (now defunct), quickly opened opposite, as well as the first Jaspas, on Sai Kung “square” (still going strong and regularly booked out on weekends). He opened a Pepperoni’s in Stanley in 1993 and another in Central shortly afterwards.

It was at this time that he decided to venture into Vietnamese territory. “I was having lunch with eight mates, including my brother, and yeah, we were a bit pissed. Anyway, one said, hey, what about Vietnam? There’s nothing western over there. So the following week we all flew out to Hanoi. And he was right, there was nothing western, I don’t think you could even get cheese in those days. Mind you, by this point we’d sort of decided to give the idea the flick, but this guy was persistent so I thought, alright, why not? So I got all eight guys from the lunch to put in US$8,000 each and we took it from there.”

Today, Castelo Concepts owns 65 venues throughout the country.

The junk business came about equally as casually. “As a family, we love the water,” he explains. “My wife was brought up in Sai Kung and we all love messing about on boats, mucking around on the beach. So in ‘96 I bought a junk for the family. Anyway, I wanted to put a BBQ out the back on the top deck and everyone said, no, it couldn’t be done. So I said, bugger that, and put one in anyway. I wanted to be able to cook and socialise and have a drink with my mates. Well, we used to have these awesome parties and I thought maybe there’d be some traction in renting junks commercially with drinks and a BBQ. By now the global financial crisis had hit so I put in a tender for HSBC’s fleet of boats – the corporates were all selling stuff off at that time – and I ended up with six of them at $50,000 per boat. And that’s what became the junk business.”

A genuinely fun guy to be around, there’s also no doubting Parfitt’s business acumen – you don’t survive 25 years as a restaurateur in Hong Kong without a bit of nouse. Not content with renting out junks – and a Jaspas junk is a reliably epic affair, always plenty of booze, food and fun – he has now acquired a vacant lot on Pak Sha Wan pier in Sai Kung, from where his (and other) junks leave and return which he plans to turn into a restaurant. The Boatyard is on schedule for a summer opening – “it’s a bit on the back burner at the moment due to the new Queens Road venue” (more about that in a minute) – and will serve as an office for his wife’s new catering business – think high-end foodie solutions for weddings, parties and kids birthdays – as well as a breakfast and burger joint for junkers embarking from and landing at Pak Sha Wan.  

Located in a quiet area on the way to Sai Kung, the Pak Sha Wan venue will cannily only open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and its raison d’etre pure and simple is to capture the junk market. Customers will be able to moor up and have hampers delivered to their boats or hired vessels (just on the off-chance you’ve booked a non-Jaspas boat) and there will be “a cheap, straight forward, good quality restaurant and bar menu” for people either wanting to grab some breakfast at the beginning of the day, or drop in for a bite to eat or more drinks on their way home.

“I think people land, they’ve had a great day, but they wouldn’t say no to another drink, and they need to feed the kids.” Again, he seems to have nailed his market. As journalist and fellow restaurateur Steve Vines pointed out, if anyone can make a venue work in Pak Sha Wan, Wayne can.

In other moves, St Barts in Clearwater Bay has launched to great local acclaim and Zacs in Discovery Bay has just re-opened following a massive renovation – Parfitt describes it as “a gourmet, seaside pub”, with space for 450 people, “we take around 4,000 covers on Saturdays and Sundays,” he adds with a hint of pride. Echoes of the Fisherman’s Wharf days, maybe? “Perhaps,” he laughs. “But without the shotgun!”

Jaspas in Discovery Bay will close and re-open this summer as an Asian-inspired Mr Chow’s, Wagyu on Wyndham Street is receiving a full facelift in July, and Tai Hang Bar & Grill opened in mid-May. This last venture is his oldest son Jack’s project – he says his three kids, now all in their twenties, have always been involved in and enthusiastic about the business.

Educated at ESF Clearwater Bay primary and then the Australian International School HK until they were sent to Australia to board, they are now back in Hong Kong.

But the project that’s consuming his time at the moment is the intriguingly named Mr Wolf on Queen’s Road Central. He’s in the process of converting the space over Zara in the old Lane Crawford building into a 6,000 sq ft gastro pub with outdoor balcony.

“Listen, the names don’t mean anything,” he says. “We just make them up, keep them generic and then we’re not tied to a food-type. If you go to a Luigi’s, you expect Italian, but if you go to a Mr Wolf’s, well, you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

He’s also beavering away on a second Feather & Bone deli and a wine shop, both of which will be going in over the Clearwater Bay St Barts venue and currently slated for an end-of-May opening (at time of going to press). He’s also in the midst of negotiations over the former Cafe Deco space on The Peak – “if it goes ahead, we’re looking at an opening early next year,” he says.

So how does he keep a track on his empire? My pencil is already blunt attempting to list the line-up of new and renovated venues being fired at me.

“Look, it’s not all plain sailing. Every day is a challenge. We’re fortunate in that we’ve got great people working for us, some have been with us since day one” – the current employee tally across both Hong Kong and Vietnam is over 2,800 – “2016 was probably our most bruising year. Rents were sky high, expats were leaving and retail was falling off. Thankfully rents are easing now. And for all the openings, we have also had to close venues over the years, some just didn’t work out. But I think there is still massive growth potential in Hong Kong. New areas that weren’t viable before are popping up everywhere – Tai Po, Kwun Tong, Kowloon Bay, the Gold Coast. Would I ever move into China? Maybe, but I’d have to have the right partner first.”

Keeping tabs on changing tastes has also kept Castelo in the game. The group’s Wagyu beef comes from a herd of cattle Parfitt owns back in Queensland, milk is imported from farms in Adelaide, South Australia, and he has just developed a coffee blend unique to Castelo with a coffee company in Wong Chuk Hang.

“The Hong Kong market is definitely changing, when we started out I’d say it was a 60/40 western to Chinese clientele, now it’s probably 30/70. Without a doubt expat numbers are dwindling, but the young, driven, cashed up Chinese returning to Hong Kong after an overseas education is the driver. They’ve acquired western tastes, which is good news for our business. I also think that’s why demand for residences in areas like Clearwater Bay is so huge – they’ve come back from this western way of life with houses with gardens and cars and a bit of space and greenery and they don’t want to live in a walk-up in Mong Kok.”

St Barts Clearwater Bay is a case in point – on a sunny Thursday afternoon the modern, brightly lit restaurant is peopled mainly by bright young things in their 20s and 30s, sipping lattes and tapping on their phones having viewed the brand new adjacent residential complex, Mount Pavilia, currently selling units at upwards of $17,000/sq ft. Local estate agents confirm demand for the low-rise, lush and luxe complex has been huge – apartments have been “leaping” off the books. Opening a sophisticated western restaurant inside the complex has been another canny Parfitt manoeuvre, it seems.

Never one to sit still for long – “my office is wherever my phone is,” he says – he concludes the interview, standing to leave. This afternoon he’s off on his boat to check on Jaspas Beach Club, his private venue on High Island off Sai Kung.

“So do you want a photo?” he asks on our way out. Well yes, I say, I’ll contact your office, speak to your marketing team. This is the usual drill. “Are you serious? Why don’t you just take one now?” he asks incredulously. Because on-the-spot photography requests are always and unequivocally turned down in favour of professional, groomed shots, usually procured via a PR department.

“Oh my god,” he laughs. “Look, you’ve got your phone, do you want a shot or not?” he asks, grabbing a couple of waiters.

And that’s the way Wayne rolls, never misses an opportunity, never takes his eye off the ball, always enthusiastic, no airs and graces. I tell him I’m dining at Oolaa the following day, an annual Mother’s Day lunch organised by my children’s school. “Fantastic!” he laughs. “That’s a great event. I think I’m going to come along for a couple of hours. See you there!”

I’m already looking forward to it.