Chefs Turn Bites of Big Apple into Global Export

By Collins, Glenn | International Herald Tribune, January 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Chefs Turn Bites of Big Apple into Global Export


Collins, Glenn, International Herald Tribune


As the economy in the United States sputters, New York restaurateurs are bringing their increasingly sought-after brands to the more robust economies of Asia and the Middle East.

At Mario Batali's luxe new Lupa in a gleaming tower on Queen's Road here, soignee Chinese diners, expatriate regulars and foreign tourists glide up escalators to their tables. They navigate past a four-foot-tall bronze of Romulus and Remus in this sleek $3.2 million restaurant of glass, steel and floral terrazzo. On the menu are bucatini all'Amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara.

Eight thousand miles away, in the original Lupa in an unassuming storefront on Thompson Street in the New York borough of Manhattan, dressed-down customers crowd the battered tables of Mr. Batali's thriving Roman osteria. Yes, bucatini and carbonara are on the menu.

If the two restaurants' decor, customers and locales are vastly disparate, their core menus and basic concepts are the same, as is another crucial element: the buzz and edge of New York City dining.

As the U.S. economy sputters and the European one reels, New York restaurateurs are exporting their increasingly sought-after brands to the more robust economies of Asia and the Middle East.

Mr. Batali has opened two restaurants in Singapore and two in Hong Kong, where Michael White also has an outpost of his Italian- food empire. Danny Meyer has Shake Shacks in Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar and, as of last month, Abu Dhabi. The chef Laurent Tourondel and the restaurateur Jimmy Haber own three BLT restaurants in Hong Kong and are thinking of adding more there and elsewhere.

"We've been approached by Qatar, Korea, the Philippines," Mr. Haber said.

Other New York chefs and restaurateurs who have already set up foreign operations include Daniel Boulud, in Singapore, and Jean- Georges Vongerichten, in Shanghai and Doha, Qatar. Zakary Pelaccio and Rick Camac are planning Fatty Crab restaurants in Southeast Asia. David Bouley has been approached about starting a restaurant in Beijing. Gray Kunz departed New York in 2009 to open a restaurant in Hong Kong, then stayed. David Chang said he has been sifting through inquiries about planting his flag in Asia and the Middle East.

"In the culinary world, New York is the creative incubator and has some of the best-known restaurants on the planet," said Sandeep Sekhri, who invited Mr. Batali, Mr. White and Mr. Tourondel to Hong Kong and now manages their restaurants. "Here, it is easier to market someone from New York -- they have name recognition."

Despite complicated feelings about the United States in the Middle East, "New York City is a very strong brand in its own right," said Hilary Baker, a vice president of M.H. Alshaya Company in Kuwait, which has opened the Shake Shacks there and in Dubai. "And it has a hip urban cachet that helps to define Shake Shack."

Even the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on many New York restaurants does not appear to have dampened the owners' ardor to proliferate, or the city's image overseas.

"New York's restaurant brand wasn't affected," Mr. Sekhri said, "because although the hurricane was widely reported in our media, there wasn't much coverage locally of what restaurants had to go through."

There are economic hurdles, like the frightfully expensive real estate in Hong Kong and some Middle Eastern locations. But considerable profit -- 13 to 15 percent a year, compared with an average 10 percent or so in New York -- is possible, Mr. Camac said after a recent Asian trip to scout locations for his Fatty restaurants. At the BLT steakhouse and burger places in Hong Kong, Mr. Haber said revenues have risen each year by more than 5 percent.

In the quest for faraway gold, though, restaurateurs must navigate a host of potential pitfalls, including menu mistranslations, cultural embarrassments, difficulties in finding ingredients and staff, and aggressive copycatting.

Foreign partners like Mr. …

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