Hong Kong’s private kitchen restaurants make the best use of prime real estate, combining efficient layouts with reliable appliances to keep guests well fed and happy, writes Rebecca Lo

Private kitchen restaurants exist in one form or another all over the world. Enterprising chefs who dream of manning their own restaurant often test the waters by opening tiny venues to serve whatever they fancied making. Some may discover they need to expand to bigger premises, while others prefer to keep their operations small and homely.

In Hong Kong, it is common for rents to triple overnight in urban areas – often forcing the relatively low margins of F&B outlets to vacate premises in search of more inexpensive spaces. As private kitchens’ reputations are gained through word of mouth, the harder they are to find, the better. Yet they must balance the challenge of allowing multiple staff to work in often cramped quarters with all the right appliances and accoutrements to prepare a delicious meal. That is what makes the design of their successful kitchens worth investigation.

Phyllis Loo and Sheila Wong are friends who both used to live in Shanghai and frequented Willy Turllas Moreno’s restaurant El Willy. They loved his version of contemporary Spanish cuisine highlighting Asian ingredients and wanted to bring the concept to Hong Kong. After opening FoFo by El Willy in upscale Central district, they thought that a more exclusive restaurant would suit chef Alex Fargas’ various activities.

“It is like his workshop and laboratory with a dining table,” says Loo. “FoFo Privat can be booked for private parties. We have a roof that is for the exclusive use of our guests.”

FoFo Privat can seat 40 people across two floors in one of Central’s rare low-rise buildings. OpenUU, an up and coming architectural team consisting of Kevin Lim, Eddy Kim and Edward Kim, designed the space to harmonise with FoFo by El Willy, but with its own characteristics. As one of the two large tables look directly into the open kitchen, the space was kept light and airy. Glass screens sandblasted with FoFo’s signature graphics are placed strategically and storage cabinets are incorporated into the walls.

“The open kitchen is very important as it fosters a closer connection to the chef,” explains Loo. The kitchen is barely 15 square metres; the counter between it and the dining table is used as a passing line with plating on the surface below. The kitchen is arranged in an efficient U-shape with some specialised appliances for tapas and other signature dishes. Deep fryer, four-hob induction cooker, salamander, vacuum packer, slow cooker, fridge, wash up sink and prep sink are laid out in a ring along the walls for the maximum space to allow staff to crisscross during busy periods. “We have up to three chefs working nightly, plus a dishwasher and two staff on the floor,” says Loo.

Plump penguins and pigs

“FoFo is Spanish for ‘chubby’ and conveys a happy, cheerful place,” says Wong. “We wanted to keep a lot of open areas for a bright look. Decorative ceramic penguins and pigs are our mascots and carried over from FoFo by El Willy.”

In contrast, Magnolia is a ground floor space in Sheung Wan – a more traditional yet rapidly modernising area – that does triple duty as a restaurant, catering space for Go Gourmet and team-building centre for corporate firms. American Lori Granito started Magnolia as a three nights per week private kitchen restaurant after closing Central’s popular Bayou more than a decade ago.

“I didn’t want to run a restaurant again,” Granito states. “In Hong Kong, a restaurant takes over your life. Magnolia is not about putting bums in seats. I can open it with only 10 people and they have to eat what I make.”

Known for her Louisiana home cooking, Granito finds that ribs, gumbo and pecan pie are what her guests come back for time and again. She inherited the 80 square metre kitchen in the two-storey, 420 square metre space already equipped with four cooking stations set against opposite walls. Its previous owner ran a cooking school for team building and, while Granito prefers gas over electric hobs, she has made them work. A central stainless steel work area lets staff prep food while others stir roux or check on cornbread in the oven.

What you see …

One of Magnolia’s features is that guests with a booking are invited to arrive ahead for cocktails and canapes. They can observe their food being prepared as they head upstairs for one of three dining rooms that seats a total of 56. “I like the idea that people have to come through the kitchen,” says Granito. “It gives them security to see how their food is made.”

As many of Magnolia’s dishes require a lot of slow cooking, the kitchen activity is in its latter stages by the time guests arrive. “Our stove top and oven are what we rely on the most for frying and baking,” she says. “We keep separate fridges labelled for different ingredients so that no one would put a pie beside onions. I’m very sensitive to how things taste and separate fridges make things easier with all that’s going on.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Miele Private Lounge’s workshop is a very private kitchen that caters to Miele’s VIP members by offering cooking classes and wine dinners with guest chefs. The German appliance manufacturer felt that it should have a place where its customers can fully understand how its products function in a relaxing and fun environment.

The workshop, one-third of the space that also includes a salon and lounge, is a bright 250 square metre open kitchen designed by FAK3. Equipped to softly sell Miele’s latest cooking and refrigeration appliances, its off-white colour scheme is punctured by splashes of red on the dining chairs surrounding a central table to seat 20.

“We have worked with the brand for a long time and understand its products,” says Miho Hirabayashi, director with FAK3 who worked with partner Johnny Wong on the project. “All of the cabinets were custom designed and manufactured to encase Miele’s products. It is not obviously a showroom and the appliances are hidden until you need to use them. The space is neutral, with grey tile flooring in a stone pattern. The mirrored ceiling gives it a dynamic, distinct look and echoes the long table below.“

Hirabayashi says the space is easy to maintain and looks fresh.

“Since different chefs will work with groups of students, the kitchen had to be flexible enough for different people with different specialities. We put basics such as the sink in a certain place and heating elements close by. Cold storage is in a separate room. As it’s a demo kitchen, not much storage is necessary.”