The Directors of the up-and-coming Hong Kong design studio tell Tamsin Bradshaw about the realities of juggling a restaurant and a design business – and how the two feed into each other.
October 8th, 2018
Kevin Lim and Caroline Chou have been busy. In the past year, the couple, who serve as Managing Director and Design Director of multidisciplinary design studio openUU, have had a baby, they have worked on a range of commercial and residential projects, and they have also opened a restaurant. The eatery, called Mean Noodles, draws on the concept of speakeasies. Hidden in a side street in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan, it opened in autumn 2017 – right around the same time as their daughter was born.
How are they balancing a growing design business, parenthood and managing – not to mention cooking for – their own noodle bar? One year on, we chat to them on site at Mean Noodles, while watching Lim whip up a feast of laksa, yen ta fo hang (Thai pink noodles) and coconut layer cake.
Kevin, as well as being a trained architect, you’re a trained chef. How did this come about?
KL: As a kid, I always liked cooking. If my mum was preparing dinner, I’d go in and see what she was doing. It really changed when I went to college and was living out of home. In my fifth year of college [at Cornell University’s School of Architecture, Art and Planning], I moved out of the dorms with my brother [Vincent Lim of Lim + Lu] and two friends. Our place was a little far from everything, so at night, we cooked at home. I got a bit more experimental. So I decided to do an internship at one of the local restaurants post-college. I did about six months there, and I liked it a lot. That’s when I decided to go to Cordon Bleu. Then I went to Blue Ginger [the Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore]. That’s where I developed some of the flavours I’m working with here at Mean Noodles.
So what inspired Mean Noodles?
KL: My grandfather migrated to Malaysia and I used to go there three or four times a year. That was where I developed a passion for Southeast Asian food, particularly Malaysian food. Noodles are comfort food for me, so I really wanted to bring what I experienced in Malaysia to Hong Kong.
Here in Hong Kong, I wanted to do something authentic in terms of noodles. There are some other Malaysian restaurants, but often they cater to Hong Kong tastes. With Mean Noodles, we’re trying to be an educator, and to be authentic and bring some of the things you see in Malaysia here. Having said that, I’m a bit more experimental with the appetisers and desserts.
How do you balance your restaurant and your design business?
CC: The most challenging time was last October, when I gave birth [the restaurant opened around the same time]. But it all turned out okay. We have two full-time staff at openUU, and they were amazing when I was on maternity leave.
A year on, I feel like we’re more efficient with our time. Kevin’s only in the office for a few hours in the morning [before he heads to Mean Noodles to start cooking] and a few hours in the afternoon [between stints in the kitchen], so we have to use our time well. We get a lot done during that time. When he’s gone, I work on other stuff, and then we regroup later on.
KL: It’s obviously exhausting [running between Mean Noodles and openUU], but when I’m at the restaurant, I’m just cooking and taking orders, so it really takes my mind off things. When I go back to the office, I feel refreshed and I see things from a totally different point of view. In a way, cooking’s very meditative. Whereas when you’re at the office all day long, at some point, you just can’t think anymore.
We see that in the offices we design. With some of them, we’ve designed these breakout spaces, because we understand you can’t work for eight hours straight. The office may want you to, but it’s not realistic.
What have you learned from owning and operating your own restaurant?
CC: A lot of the kitchen makers, they don’t know what works in terms of kitchen operation. With the past couple of restaurants we’ve worked on, we’ve had to change the whole layout they put together.
KL: They’ll put everything in quickly based on the requirements you give them, but in the end, a lot of chefs will complain. So we take the equipment sizes, and we re-lay it all out based on what’s going to suit the restaurant operator’s needs.
Do you think having Mean Noodles has helped openUU to get hospitality clients?
CC: Owning and operating a restaurant makes us more credible, and I do think we’re transitioning into restaurants and hotels. Whereas before, we were doing more offices and warehouses.
What is openUU working on now?
CC: We are working on an 80-room hotel in Hong Kong’s Tin Hau for [serviced residence provider] Ascott. We’re also working on another hotel in China: we’re working on three F&B outlets there. And a couple of residential projects; one just started construction and one will start in November.
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