Birds & Bubbles Hong Kong: What It's Like to Open a Restaurant Half Way Around the World
Sarah Simmons brings fried chicken and Champagne to Hong Kong.
I had no idea what to expect when I studied abroad in Japan my junior year of college. Because I'm the type of person who wants to be prepared for any occasion, I packed everything I could possibly need from high heels to hiking boots; making me instantly known among the host family community as "the American girl with all of the luggage."
Now, 20 years later, I'm once again living up to that title as we arrive at JFK airport with five giant bags weighing a total of 250 pounds. However, this time I've traded my shoes and sundries for celery salt, Steen's cane syrup, benne seeds, stone ground grits and rice. Yes, I am that person; the one bringing rice from the United States to Hong Kong.
This just isn't any rice, it's Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice. And just like the benne seeds and yellow course ground grits, it is a staple in the Birds & Bubbles kitchen.
Earlier this year, when I was initially approached by Drawing Room Concepts, a Hong Kong-based restaurant group, about opening a Birds & Bubbles pop-up at Isono, one of their restaurants in the Central area of the city, I was immediately intrigued. Since opening Birds & Bubbles in Manhattan, we've served a significant amount of guests from Hong Kong – the majority of whom tell us the concept would be a hit back home. This opportunity would give us a chance to find out first hand.
My business partner, Aaron Hoskins, and I thought long and hard about the challenges we'd face with being away from our restaurants for a month. And after weighing the pros and cons, we decided it would only be worth it if we could serve our dishes using these key ingredients that made them special.
After months of planning – menus and logistics – we landed on a plan to ship 130 pounds of grains from South Carolina to New York City, vacuum sealing said grains into 26, five-pound packages, and distributing these grains across all of our luggage for safekeeping to Seattle, where we'd spend a little over 24 hours before flying directly to Hong Kong.
The Seattle stop-over was all part of our strategy to break up what would've been a 30-hour plus trip, and begin regulating our sleep to adjust to the drastic time difference as quickly as possible. In an effort to kick-start the process, we stayed up all night and the entire five-hour trip from New York to Seattle finalizing details. Aaron worked to add extensive notes to the recipes for a kitchen staff who had never cooked southern food and quite possibly didn't speak English. Meanwhile, I resumed the tremendous undertaking of finishing the training for the front of house staff on the wine lists I've put together for our pop-up, a task that's been both exhausting and exciting.
Being able to design a list from the inventory spanning across twelve restaurants in a market known for its love of Champagne has been simultaneously both a dream and a nightmare. There are so many wines on their lists I've yet to try - like the Jacques Selosse Rosé Brut – because of the limited allocations in the United States. Simply being able to be in the same room with these rare-as-unicorn wines, with the possibility of tasting them, makes me feel like a little kid on Christmas.
However, combing through hundreds of wines to create the lists was an all-consuming task. It required manually inputting each wine into a database I created with each wine's relevant category, grapes, village, tasting notes and pricing information. The pricing was tricky as I had to work backwards from the restaurants' bottle list pricing to calculate the estimated retail price in US dollars so I could wrap my head around the costs in order to ensure I wasn't creating a list that was inaccessible. Making sure we held true to our strategy of offering a wide selection of approachable and affordable wines was just as important to us as the 130 pounds of grains we packed.
After all of the data entry and sorting and calculating and narrowing, I am confident we're presenting a well-balanced bottle list, an affordable by-the-glass offering, and my dream reserve list.
Once the list was finalized, the really hard work began as I started developing the training materials for the Hong Kong staff. Taking into consideration their limited Champagne knowledge and English as a second language, I tried to cover all of my bases by creating a number of tools for them with everything from a comprehensive deep dive to simple three word-descriptions for each wine, a history of Champagne and its production and a pared down version of the "Bubbles Dictionary" I've recently created for training our team in NYC.
With the wine training almost completed by the time we landed in Seattle, all I could think about is what time we get to sleep. Our goal was to eat an early bird dinner and be in bed by the time the sun went down. As we set out in search of the most American food we could find, we received a message from someone from the Isono team about the wines saying "they're out of the majority of the wines I've selected for the bottle list, so they want to know if it's alright to just go ahead with only the by-the-glass and reserve wine lists?"
At that moment, on a random corner in Seattle, I felt the life drain out of me. Weeks worth of work, in addition to the majority of the last 24 hours of my life, had been wasted on wines that weren't even available. Not to mention that offering a bottle list of only high end reserve wines was a contradiction to the entire Birds & Bubbles beverage strategy.
Thankfully, a quick call to our liaison and thirty minutes later, we determined that they did in fact have the wines – they were just being stored in another cellar. This was the first of what will probably be many moments spent lost in translation.
After a quick dinner of pepperoni pizzas, we returned to our rented Seattle apartment to rest. We planned to then wake up early in the morning and stay up until we landed in Hong Kong - part two of our time zone adjustment strategy. Unfortunately, the universe and the line-up of heavy metal bands playing outdoors at the club across the street had another plan for us. With drums beating and guitars shredding until the wee hours of the morning, what was to be a solid good night's sleep was merely a short nap. Despite being awake for 40 hours, we stayed committed to our plan and awakened at 5 am.
As I write this we're three hours into our flight to Hong Kong where it's now 11am. The light from my laptop seems brighter than ever with my fellow passengers fast asleep. I work my way through my inbox in an effort to catch up before getting behind again. Though we're confident in our planning, no amount of confidence can make it any easier to make all of the components for 20 dishes with new cooks in an unfamiliar kitchen. Nor can it calm the anxiety stemming from leaving our two restaurants for a month. Among the uncertainty, there is one guarantee, when we exit baggage claim in Hong Kong, I will once again be the American girl with all of the luggage.
Birds & Bubbles Hong Kong runs through August 13, 2016