30 January, 2015
Influencers

Man of the Month: Syed Asim Hussain Founder of Black Sheep Restaurants

30 January, 2015

Sometimes at Sassy HQ a decision comes around that requires a vote. And that’s exactly what happened when we started developing innocent crushes on some pretty inspirational guys shaking up the local scene around town. From cute tech gurus to suave restauranteurs, the list of men on our Sassy Radar surely but slowly started to grow and the same names kept cropping up. We’re quite an inquisitive bunch and wanted to ask them a million questions so thought what the hell, let’s do this, let’s feature an awesome man every month on the site… and Man of the Month was born. First up is Syed Asim Hussain, Founder of Black Sheep Restaurants, avid CrossFit fan and well… all round handsome hunk.

How did you get started out in the restaurant business?
My family owned a restaurant in Hong Kong when I was growing up and I always enjoyed spending time there. My first job as a teenager was at the restaurant as a back waiter – it was tough work, but I loved being a part of that environment. I didn’t realise it at the time, but now I am convinced that hospitality is in my blood.

I studied finance at University and was on my way to a great career in banking, but something just didn’t feel right.  I was living in New York at the time, and found myself consumed with the restaurant scene and culture of dining out. I just had this instinct that I belonged in the dining room, but I didn’t have any real experience. So, I left my job and moved back to Hong Kong to take on a year long apprenticeship with a prominent restaurant group… it was really humbling and slightly terrifying to give up my comfortable job, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done. My friends and family thought I was crazy. Eight restaurants later and they still think I’m crazy…

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What are your favourite dishes from Chom Chom, Ho Lee Fook, La Vache and Carbone?
My favourite dishes change a lot, but right now I am really enjoying Chef Jow’s steamed kingfish at Ho Lee Fook and this new lamb tenderloin with apple chutney on the market menu at Boqueria. We also just started doing this phenomenal vegetarian lasagna at Carbone. It’s off the menu, but if you ask our Maitre d’ Jack nicely, he might do it for you. And, of course, Circus burgers…I’ve been having a lot of those lately.

Is it tough to stay healthy and fit when you work in the food biz?
It can certainly be tough to stay healthy in this business, but I try to keep a balance between food for fuel and gastronomic pleasure. We do biweekly tastings at all the restaurants where we sit down with the chef and try most of the menu.  When I am eating on my own I try to choose lighter dishes in each restaurant, like the grilled meats at Boqueria or antipasti at Motorino. I also try not to eat late at night or drink too much in the early part of the week, which is not easy given we all often sit down for a glass of wine after service…

Working out is a big part of my life… this is how I keep my sanity. I have always played a lot of basketball and squash and still play at least once a week. I also do a lot of CrossFit and yoga. My workouts are constantly evolving. Currently, I’m addicted to working out at Ultimate Performance.

I love having a Banh Mi from Chôm Chôm after a good workout. I am not sure if that is “healthy”, but it’s pretty damn good…

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What’s your ideal weekend in Hong Kong?
I am married to what I do so it is hard to find free time even on the weekends, but when I can I like to go to the races in Sha Tin on Sunday afternoons. My family has been breeding race horses in Hong Kong for a long time.  We’ve been going there since I was a kid and it’s something I have always enjoyed.

The proximity to amazing beaches and hiking trails is truly one of the greatest things about living in Hong Kong. Stage 2 of the Maclehose is my go-to hike,  and I love spending the afternoon at Tai Long Wan beach disconnected from the chaos of the restaurants.

What’s the best date you’ve ever been on?
Now putting that here wouldn’t be very chivalrous, would it? (At least we tried!)

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What are your top tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Thoughtful execution and unwavering commitment. It doesn’t matter what idea, product or service you are building, it all comes down to sticking to your convictions, not compromising on your values and executing consistently at a high level. What makes us great is all of us show up every day ready to fight and we are madly committed to what we do.

Do you have a daily routine? What do you do on a day-to-day basis in your job?
Restaurants are living, breathing things. They are constantly changing, imperfect environments. What makes what we do wonderful and challenging at the same is that there are no daily routines. For me, perhaps the only constant is waking up in the morning and going through the reports from the night before. I also try to spend to spend as much time as possible with my team. I normally have at least three to four one-on-ones a day… normally if we are working on a new project (and we almost always are) I spend a lot of time with the architect, designers, contractors and our internal team to get the place ready. After service, it is not uncommon for us to be sitting down around a table till ungodly hours of the night, licking our wounds from the day, scheming how to be better tomorrow…

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Where in Hong Kong do you go for grooming?
This decrepit Pakistani barbershop in a dimly lit corner of Chung King Mansion. It is gloomy and hopeless, but reminds me of the barbershops around my boarding school in Pakistan. The chai is pretty good too. Can’t put a price on nostalgia…

What are your favourite local hangout spots (apart from Black Sheep restaurants!)?
My hangouts are built around rituals. I love Yardbird for late night yakitori — we have a lot of respect for Chef Matt and his crew. We do a lot of one-on-one lunch meetings at Sushi Sase – Chef Moto always takes care of us. For birthdays and celebrations, we go to 001 for Japanese whiskey. My business partner Chris and I have a once a month Peking duck lunch planned around a secret ritual.

We also do a lot of team karaoke nights. There is a video of Chef Tony (La Vache! and Burger Circus) and I singing (screaming) ‘Hey Jude’, eyes closed, four hands on a mic at an ungodly karaoke bar at an ungodly hour…

On Monday, we are taking the entire team to Mavericks for our annual Black Sheep Restaurants party. Austin is a great chef and you can’t beat the beachside location.

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What are your favourite local boutiques and stores in Hong Kong?
I am a big fan of G.O.D. and love how Douglas Young has made seemingly archaic parts of Hong Kong culture new and interesting again. Their work is very introspective, but humorous at the same time. For clothes, I think The Armoury has great menswear and the WOAW store is great for gifts, tech accessories, shoes and really cool socks. I also have a lot of respect for the work my friend Max does at his design studio A Work of Substance

What’s your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
It’s hard to have spare time in this in business, but travel is a big part of who we are and what we do. I love discovering subcultures and finding ways to express them through our work. Chom Chom is the product of a trip we took to Hanoi a few years ago where we discovered this amazing convivial culture of people getting together in the evening after work for street snacks and bia hoi.

When I do have time, I also love to cook Pakistani food with my favourite person: my mother. She’s often not in Hong Kong but we are very close. We make a pretty mean Chicken Karahi

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You’re a pretty suave dresser, how long does it take you to pick out your outfit in the morning?
Am I a suave dresser? I just throw on whatever is on top of the laundry basket.

Tell us about your first crush and first kiss?
My first crush was a family friend of ours. She was 30, I was 9. I was convinced it was true love and I wasn’t afraid to tell everyone… my family still jokes about it till this day. I have always been foolhardy. Now that I am slightly more mature, I’ve learned to be a bit more coy. I don’t kiss and tell.

Your biggest dating disaster?
I went to an all-boys prep school in Pakistan, a very Catcher in the Rye/Lord of the Flies-esque situation. Most of the tips I got were pretty disastrous. Thankfully my fraternity brothers at Carnegie Mellon brought me up to speed real quick.

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What are you future plans for Black Sheep Restaurants and where do you hope to be in 5 years time? 
We are a very aspirational bunch and I see us doing a lot more than just restaurants. I am not sure about 5 but in 10 years, I hope that Black Sheep will be a great global HK-based hospitality group. What is more important to me, however, is where the people that have been a part of this journey with us end up. I want our chefs and managers to become successful restaurateurs; I want our waiters and cooks to become Hong Kong’s hospitality leaders of tomorrow…

Growth is exciting, but we are also very focused on our existing restaurants. We are wary of our quick success — we want to build institutions, not create trends. I want to create dining experiences that become a part of people’s Hong Kong memories. Whether it’s a weekly lunch, a work dinner, a date, a birthday or an anniversary celebration, I want Black Sheep Restaurants to be a part of those memories for people in Hong Kong.

All photos in the article above were taken by the extremely talented Nicola Lemmon, who’s recently moved back to sunny Australia!

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