Hong Kong restaurateur Asim Hussain says Lahore is a big part of his Michelin-starred restaurant

Updated 07 Jan, 2019 12:16pm

Sheharyar Rizwan

Asim talks about how New Punjab Club became the first Pakistani eatery to earn a Michelin star

33-year-old Syed Asim Hussain recently become the youngest restaurateur in the world to hold two Michelin stars.

In December, his ambitious and extremely personal Pakistani restaurant New Punjab Club was awarded a Michelin Star, just 18 months after it opened its doors in one of Hong Kong’s prime localities.

With this, the New Punjab Club is also the first Pakistani restaurant in the world with a Michelin Star. Hussain’s other Michelin honour has been awarded for his French bistro, Belon.

Hussain shared his excitement about the Michelin honour with Images in an exclusive chat over the phone from Hong Kong, "I feel very proud to have received two stars this year. I sort of expected it for the French restaurant, but to have the New Punjab Club recognised so early on is exciting.

Hussain continues, "It’s the first Pakistani restaurant to have a Michelin Star, and I was just telling my team that we have to make sure it stays. Initially, I was convinced someone was pranking us, or we got a call by mistake. I didn’t believe it until the morning of the awards. It was a cool honour for me personally as well. In some ways, it belongs to my father also, for the work he was doing with his restaurants in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Hong Kong. Still talking about it gives me chills; it sure is hard to believe.”

The New Punjab Club and Belon are just two of the 22 restaurants under the Black Sheep Restaurants umbrella that Hussain co-founded with his business partner, Christopher Mark, in 2012.

Hussain was born in Hong Kong, but spent his formative years in Pakistan when his father, businessman and diplomat Syed Pervaiz Hussain, sent him - at age five - and his six-year-old brother off to boarding school at Lahore’s Aitchison College.

“The key element in the story of the New Punjab Club is nostalgia, of which Aitchison is a very big part of. Everyone at the restaurant knows about the school; they’ve seen pictures. My Aitchison stories have now become their Aitchison stories. So, the 13-14 years I spent there, have helped create the New Punjab Club. The essence that comes from Aitchison is very aristocratic and regal. As a kid, I also spent a lot of time at the Punjab Club in Lahore, which is why I affectionately named the restaurant after it.”

Before opening up the restaurant, the duo already had 15 restaurants to their credit under their group. Yet, Hussain says it wasn’t easy convincing Chris to open up a restaurant that serves Pakistani and Indian cuisine. “Pakistani cuisine is white-labelled all over the world as Indian food. I had been talking to [Chris] about this and had a hard time convincing him. So, I took him to Lahore in 2016, and in a week I showed him around Aitchison, Punjab Club, Gowalmandi, Lakshmi Chowk and even Cocoo’s. I was trying to make him look at this the way I did, to show him that we could build a story around this.”

The research and convincing didn’t end at Lahore. “We then went to London. The city has neighbourhoods that have great Pakistani food, which is not white-labelled as Indian food. We saw great modern Indian restaurants like the renowned Gymkhana, Dishoom, and Indian Accent among many others. This was all part of my attempt to convince him that we could do this - we would tell an original, interesting and sellable story.”

The duo was lucky, and got Chef Palash Mitra, of London’s Gymkhana on board for the restaurant. In Hussain’s words, “Mitra is one of the best South Asian chefs in the world.”

Hussain talked about the hurdles they faced during menu development, “We couldn’t get the seekh kabab right; they weren’t the same as they are in Main Market, Lahore. I then realised the issue was that the diameter of the seekh in Lahore is larger than that in India. So, I got some seekhs from Lahore just for this.”

The young restaurateur is proud to have created a mixed essence of both his school and his hometown in his restaurant. “One special thing about the New Punjab Club is that it isn’t modern, it’s traditional. My father belongs to the generation that doesn’t throw anything away. When his restaurants shut down, they stored everything; including the tandoors he had brought from Pakistan. So I took those out, restored them, and have been using them here. The essence of Punjabi cuisine is in the tandoor, so anything that comes out of it, is the star of the show among the customers, be it protein or kababs.”

But the New Punjab Club isn’t easy to get into. It is a high-end, premium restaurant that, in Hussain’s own words, costs a person $100 on average. It is also almost impossible to get a table there, he says.

Another interesting aspect of the restaurant is the fact that the paintings displayed are works of some of the biggest artists of the South Asian region, from the legendary Saeed Akhtar to AS Rind and Mughees Riaz, to name a few. And all of these paintings come from Hussain’s personal collection. “The restaurant represents Pakistan, post-liberation. There is a whole theme to it that is regal and aristocratic. Waiters wear beautiful safari suits in the summer and short sherwanis in winter. I got them designed exclusively by Bareeze. When you walk through the doors, you’ll feel you’re not in modern day Hong Kong, but transported to some other place, in another time,” Hussain says, dissecting the ambiance.

Hussain is part of the fourth generation of his family in Hong Kong, that has been there for about a 100 years. His great-grandfather moved to Hong Kong after World War I. “My father was raised in Hong Kong. His first language is Cantonese, which he speaks better than Urdu and Punjabi, or even English. He had a burning desire to send his children to Pakistan. Today, looking back, they had correctly felt that we would lose our connection to Pakistan.”

Hussain appears to be a hardcore Lahori at heart. “Lahore is in my blood. If you meet me in Hong Kong and ask where I’m from, I’ll say Lahore.”

Sharing fond memories of Lahore and his school, Hussain remembers himself to, although do well in school, also be a naughty boy. “I got into a lot of trouble too. I remember running away when I was in class 7 or 8, to go to the zoo, Lakshmi Chowk to eat takatak, and even Cocoo’s Den with friends on foggy winter nights in A-levels. I would also go out to get qeemay-wali naan from somewhere on The Mall Road. All these things in some shape or form are represented in the New Punjab Club. Lahore is a big part of my identity, who I am, and what I do. In a lot of ways, the restaurant should have been the first to have opened up when I started Black Sheep Restaurants six years ago. But its story is so personal and important to me, that maybe back then, I didn’t have the confidence. It’s like a filmmaker making a personal film, or a writer telling a personal story. Maybe I needed the confidence to tell the story,” he reminisces.

After finishing school, Hussain went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study finance. After graduating in 2007, he says he wasn’t sure about what he wanted to do.

“Everyone else was working at an investment bank, so thought I should do too. I moved to New York, picked up a job and lived there for five years. But the pull to move back to Hong Kong started getting stronger and stronger.”

A serial entrepreneur, his father owned a restaurant called The Mughal Room, which remained very popular with the Hong Kong elite through the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I grew up in and around the restaurant. Every summer, my brother and I would go back to Hong Kong from Aitchison and work at the restaurant. This went on until I was 17. So, if I look back the seed was planted then,” Hussain explains how and when he found out he wanted to open his own restaurant one day.

“My father did okay, but I saw him struggling with his restaurants; he wasn’t doing well. This is, in some way, me picking up from where he left off, putting right his wrongs. I know, in some way it’s a continuation of the story he was trying to tell in Hong Kong in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In fact, on the New Punjab Club menu, one of the dishes is affectionately named after his restaurant. I’ve called it ‘The Mughal Room Makhani.’”

Finally having had enough of his investment banking job in New York, Hussain quit and returned to Hong Kong in 2010, with a burning desire to work in a restaurant and to pick up where his father had left off. This led to a two-year apprenticeship with a prominent restaurant group, which as compared to his finance job, he found difficult and humbling. “I was 26 at that time. It was challenging, difficult and scary, but deep down, I knew this is what I wanted to do, that this is where I belong. This is also where I met my business partner Chris, who was group chef for that group of restaurants. We talked about what we both wanted to do and I thought we had similar ideas. And rest, as they say, is history.”

Since the New Punjab Club opened its doors 18 months ago, Hussain and Chris have opened up six more eateries. Running 22 restaurants in only six years is no mean feat, but Hussain derived the motivation from his love for food, art and storytelling. “When you’re small, the goal is survival. The idea was always to bring personal stories to life. I think a lot of our restaurants are extensions of us as people, inspired by our travels, childhood memories, incidents, people, or a particular time in history. I look at these restaurants as story books; I almost have an abstract romantic view of how restaurants are created, I look at them as art pieces.”

With both father and son having experience with restaurants, one wonders why the father failed, and what the son has that the father didn’t. “We both have doggedness. You knock me down 10 times and I’ll get up 10 times. My father was a hard-worker and I learnt a lot from him, but he didn’t have mystique, magic, nostalgia and romance. That’s how I look at restaurants.”

Hussain claims to be a big foodie himself, of course, and says; even if he wasn’t running so many restaurants he’d still be travelling for food and trying out various cuisines. However, he has a hard time choosing what his favourite type of food is. “I travel a lot and eat everything. But the food at the New Punjab Club is very nostalgic. They say food memory is emotional, so that is what it is for me. It reminds me of Lahore, Aitchison, being a teen in Pakistan in the ‘90s. I’m a big eater and love eating. I always come back to Pakistani food.”

Besides running his string of restaurants and planning new ones, Hussain tries to play sports in the little time he gets in between. “I played a lot of sports since Aitchison, and music is also a big part of who I am, but this is mostly everything. I would be lying if I said I had other passions that I pursue.”

The future for his Black Sheep Restaurants looks bright, but Hussain still has no plans to come up with something in Lahore, or Pakistan. They recently opened up their first restaurant outside Hong Kong, in Shanghai, back in the summer. Their next stop is Paris. “I’m not sure about Pakistan. If we do something there, it’ll be something more ambitious than a restaurant. I have other compelling ideas for Lahore, Pakistan, in the hospitality business, something more ambitious.”