Born in Saigon, Vietnam and raised in Hong Kong, Elizabeth Chu is undoubtedly one of the youngest and brightest restaurateurs in Hong Kong. The 27-year-old took over ZS Hospitality, which stands for kitchen god “Zao Shen” in Chinese, from her parents in 2017. Since then, the chairlady and her team have been busy making waves in the F&B industry with distinctive restaurant concepts, including two-MICHELIN-starred Ying Jee Club and two new openings in 2021, Whey and Hansik Goo—both of which received a MICHELIN Star in the MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2022.
“As Vietnamese-Chinese, I grew up having Asian food and developed a deep connection to its diverse culture. However, Asian cuisine has often been stereotyped as affordable takeaways or street eats,” says Chu. “I aspired to challenge this misconception by offering a fresh take to these under-appreciated cuisines.”
The opportunity came when she encountered chef Mingoo Kang, the chef-owner of two-MICHELIN-starred Mingles, during a leisure trip to Seoul in 2018. “I was very impressed and intrigued by how chef Mingoo ‘mingled’ traditional Korean flavours with modern techniques.” With a vision to introduce “hansik” (Korean cuisine) to the world, Chu partnered up with chef Kang to open his first overseas restaurant, Hansik Goo, in Hong Kong two years later.
As a millennial entrepreneur, Chu does not shy away from tapping into underrated cuisines. She met chef Barry Quek at his previous restaurant Beet, where his commitment to locally sourced produce caught her attention. “I believe Barry’s talent can push the gastronomic boundaries even further,” says Chu. “We aligned our vision to elevate and promote Southeast Asian cuisine and came up with this interesting concept of Whey, where modern European cuisine is reimagined with Singaporean flavours.”
On the heels of the MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2022 star revelation, we spoke to Chu about MICHELIN Stars, upcoming projects and the keys to running a successful restaurant business.
Was it ever your goal to open restaurants that operate at a MICHELIN-starred level?
We started ZS Hospitality Group out of a pure passion for food and we never thought one day we could be recognised by the MICHELIN Guide, one of the most prestigious culinary awards in the world. We do share the same values with the Guide regarding the essential attributes of a great restaurant, which include mastery of flavours, fresh and quality ingredients and consistency.
We also appreciate how the Guide has evolved over time, especially with the launch of the MICHELIN Green Star, to recognise sustainable practices and inspire more restaurants to embrace sustainability in their day-to-day operations. We will continue to strive for excellence and provide every guest with an exceptional dining experience.
What was your first reaction when you found out both Whey and Hansik Goo received a MICHELIN Star in the MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau 2022?
I was almost in disbelief when I found out the news for Whey and Hansik Goo as they just opened (and reopened) last year. Both restaurants were experimental concepts that have yet to be seen in Hong Kong and initially, we were quite uncertain about reaction of diners.
Now we are deeply honoured and grateful to be included in the Guide with so many elite restaurants and chefs who are also our friends. It is a huge encouragement to our team which motivates us to push beyond our limits and provide every guest with a memorable dining experience.
Of all your restaurants, which one is the closest to your heart?
If I have to choose, I would say Whey. I used to travel a lot with my family between my hometown Vietnam and Hong Kong, and to other Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore when I was small. While each Southeast Asian cuisine is unique, they share similarities including their use of tropical ingredients in cooking and the punchy and distinctive flavours developed from spices, herbs and seasonings.
The robust Singaporean flavours infused in Whey‘s dishes remind me of the fond memories of my childhood. In particular, I feel connected to the rich and aromatic seasonal clam soup with mixed herbs served at Whey. I could immediately associate its umami taste with the fresh shellfish dishes commonly found in the street food market in my hometown Vietnam, which is also one of the coastal areas in Southeast Asia with abundant seafood supply.
“The MICHELIN Star is recognition to our commitment in bringing innovative and original concepts to the table.”
What are your favourite dishes from Ying Jee Club, Hansik Goo and Whey?
Ying Jee Club’s stir-fried lobster with shallot and scallion: I love this dish as it showcases the essence of Cantonese cuisine using the freshest ingredients combined with skillful techniques and craftsmanship perfected through years of experience. The lobster by chef Siu always comes out with a crunchy exterior and perfectly cooked core.
Hansik Goo’s abalone juk: Porridge/congee is a very common dish around Asia. I always enjoy this heartwarming porridge that reinvents classic ingredients and flavours in an innovative way.
Whey’s “bak kut teh” pork ribs: I never imagined that the classic Singaporean pepper soup could be interpreted in such a contemporary way but still tastes so authentic, just like the original comforting soup.
In your opinion, what’s the key to running a successful restaurant business?
To be honest, I’m still learning how to manage my restaurants better as it comes with new challenges every day. It’s important to have a clear vision of what we want to achieve as it guides us through the process of accomplishing our goal.
A unique positioning helps the restaurant to stand out from the crowd especially in the ever-growing food scene in Hong Kong. Besides new ideas, food quality and consistency are the essential attributes of a good restaurant. We make very serious effort to ensure our restaurants are maintaining high standard in food and service.
Last but not least, I believe effective communication is critical to the success of a company. Whether it’s between chefs and front-of-house, restaurants and head office, or management and business partners, it’s important to strengthen the connection among all parties through open and efficient communication to work towards our common goals.
Where do you see ZS Hospitality by this time next year?
We are keen on expanding our presence in Hong Kong by introducing more exciting new concepts, reaching a wider audience and sharing our vision to more food lovers both in Hong Kong and from all over the world. Currently we have three new projects in development for 2022 in the newly renovated 8 Lyndhurst Terrace.
The first one will be a modern Italian trattoria concept in collaboration with Trippa Milano, a Bib Gourmand restaurant in the MICHELIN Guide Italia. Bringing Testina’s culinary vision to life is head chef Marco Xodo, previous chef de cuisine of two-MICHELIN-starred 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA Shanghai. He is ready to combine his craftsmanship and creativity to deliver honest Italian food with deep passion at Testina. The opening will be officially announced in January, stay tuned!