From establishing the FANCL skincare empire to opening her own restaurant group, Michelle Ma-Chan could fairly be termed a renaissance woman.
A champion of contemporary fine dining, she counts the restaurants Arbor and Épure, as well as the patisserie Dalloyau, in her portfolio, with a further two openings scheduled for this month. We talk to Ma-Chan about her inspirations, aspirations and the changing tides of gastronomy in this fast-paced city.
The day before our photoshoot, I touch base with Michelle Ma-Chan and her team to go through a standard rundown of what’s to be expected. “I’m trying to memorise all the answers for the video,” Ma-Chan admits. “I want it to be perfect.”
She arrives the following morning, subtly adorned in a tailored, neutral- tone attire and delicate jewellery. Her entourage follows with bag upon bag of her best-loved ensembles and trinkets, but her eyes visibly light up at the array of luxurious fabrics and glittering gemstones brought along by our style team. A statement, structured black scarf catches her eye and she fingers the label gently. “I wouldn’t have expected this to be Armani!” she says with a laugh.
As she settles into the dressing room, I notice her face is already immaculately prepped. She explains that as her skin is quite sensitive, she prefers to use her own make-up. Indeed, throughout the day it becomes apparent that her aspirations for a flawless experience, not only for herself but for everyone, is a driving component of her personality.
“If I can’t make sure it will be good, I’d rather not do it,” she declares. “The best professional advice that was given to me is to always put quality before profits. You must always question whether or not you have the ability to deliver top results. No company can be sustainable unless the quality is good. With that, business opportunities will come naturally.”
When it comes to amassing authority such as hers – and in more than one industry – a certain precision is necessary. It’s this, I suspect, that’s been key to her success in the multitude of projects she’s put her mind to over the years. “When I was younger, it was challenging to manage staff who were older than me, because I didn’t look like a tough businesswoman,” she says. “They eventually understood my level of focus and ability throughout the years of working together, but it definitely took time.”
Prior to founding Gourmet Dining Group, Ma-Chan and her husband, Christopher Chan, are most often credited for being the powerhouse couple who raised FANCL, the Japanese cosmetics and dietary supplements company, to the level of prominence and recognition that it now enjoys.
“It’s strange to consider, but there are undeniable similarities in the way I run the two businesses. Both are people oriented and focus on service. We’re fortunate enough to have had more than 25 years of experience in FANCL and it helped us set the course to recruiting the right people and developing a solid team. Providing staff training and service has been our main priority and this has, I hope, translated into our restaurants as well.”
The restaurants under the couple’s group will be familiar names to gourmands across the globe. ÉPURE, the elegant French dining destination in Tsim Sha Tsui, is helmed by the revered Nicolas Boutin as executive chef and achieved its first Michelin star in 2017. When their second restaurant Arbor opened in 2018, chef de cuisine Eric Räty and his team snapped up a Michelin star within a year of operation, followed by a second star one year later. To possess a grand total of three stars under one’s belt without prior restaurant experience is no easy feat. So, what ignited this journey?
“A few years before I founded Gourmet Dining Group, I noticed that, unlike other international cities such as Japan, Paris, New York and London, the choices of great culinary destinations are relatively limited in Hong Kong. One of the reasons for this is Hong Kong’s unique rent situation. The rents here are so high that many restaurants are unable to allocate funds in the same way as comparable establishments in the West. Most restaurants have no choice but to end up sacrificing quality in order to save costs. My hope was to overcome this obstacle by sustaining restaurants with the same consistent high quality as destinations overseas, all while providing exceptional value for money.”
When I travel, I find the best way to understand a new culture is through its food. Food is truly a universal language. It’s the best way for people across the world to connectMichelle Ma-Chan
Ma-Chan is personally – and ardently – involved, when it comes to choosing the culinary artists who will lead her teams. “They have to be passionate and creative, with their own unique flair. At the same time, they also have to be able to design a menu that will match the market and consumer preferences, to keep the business sustainable. Good leadership is an important quality, too, as they need to be able to guide the kitchen team well.
“Chef Nicolas Boutin honed his skills at some of the finest establishments in France, including the three- Michelin-star Maison Lameloise and La Maison Troisgros,” she says. “As for chef Eric Räty, he was under the watchful tutelage of Hans Välimäki of the now-closed Chez Dominique, which was previously deemed one of the best restaurants in Finland, with two Michelin stars.”
Even with the guidance of such esteemed hands, the past year has been tough to navigate. “No one could have predicted the pandemic,” she says, sighing. “But as a restaurant owner, it is my responsibility to protect our staff and make sure they have a stable income.”
The Gourmet Dining Group was swift to implement strategic dining solutions to combat the consequences of changing regulations. When dine-in dinner service was banned, the teams at ÉPURE and Dalloyau pivoted to serving ready-to-eat French cuisine, and lunch hours were extended to provide greater flexibility for diners. Over at Arbor, a Nordic-Japanese afternoon tea set was launched, while an innovative home-cooking kit proved decidedly popular.
At the height of the pandemic, takeaway options were made available at all three venues to enable customers to enjoy their dishes in their own homes. “I’m incredibly grateful that our staff were willing to work hard to maximise opportunities during these difficult times.”
When asked to share a revelation about owning her own restaurants, Ma-Chan is humble, but determined, in her response. “Before I opened my first restaurant, I didn’t quite understand how long the working hours of restaurant staff tend to be. Of course, the cost of running a top restaurant, rent, food cost and salaries are also very high, but things change a lot in this industry on a day-to-day basis. Surprisingly, I also learned that a few of the team were uncertain of how far they could advance in their positions in the restaurants. I hope to change this mindset by providing an environment where they can truly develop their career paths.”
Earlier this year, Ma-Chan was awarded the title of Chevalier of the Mérite Agricole, which was bestowed on her by the French Consul General in recognition of her tireless commitment to promoting French gastronomy. When prompted about the accolade, she’s modest and endearingly bashful. “It was never my intention to aim for recognition or awards. I just appreciate great food. When I travel, I find the best way to understand a new culture is through its cuisine. Food is truly a universal language. It’s the best way for people across the world to connect. I always aim to try as many restaurants as possible, even when my schedule is tight. After experiencing so many cuisines, I certainly believe that French cuisine is one of the best in terms of sophistication and execution.
“In the beginning, one may consider fine-dining portions too small and the prices too high. However, once you take the time to understand the immense effort it takes to create each individual dish, you’ll start to view them as if they’re works of art. The more I learn about the delicacy of French cuisine, the more I want to support and promote this culinary culture to the people of Hong Kong.”
We also touch on the visual and physical aspects of her venues, the calibre of which transport guests into scene not unlike those in a fairy tale. Peppered with ethereal sweeps of art and designed with the intention of recreating enchanting natural woodlands, both Arbor and ÉPURE are venues that celebrate the wonder of all senses.
“Chris, my husband, has the expertise, enthusiasm and a very high standard for interior design. In that sense, he’s in charge and has contributed a lot when it comes to the conceptual elements of our openings. Of course, I also have my input of ideas and suggestions when we sit down to plan the direction of the restaurant, but then I’ll leave the rest in the very capable hands of our internationally renowned designers at Yabu Pushelberg.”
In defiance of a turbulent year, Gourmet Dining Group’s two new venues, Ami and Wood Ear, are set to open this month. “I like to open different kinds of restaurants to fit a range of customers and lifestyles. Recently, consumers are turning towards a more relaxed dining affair, but they don’t want to sacrifice quality. Our two new establishments were created for this purpose, representing a dynamic but cosy bistro experience – a place to unwind while enjoying great food with a touch of fine dining.
Spearheaded by chef de cuisine Eric Taluy, previously of Le Taillevent and L’Essentiel, Ami is the group’s idea of fine bistronomie in Hong Kong. Equally at home in haute cuisine or casual dining, Taluy had this to add, “Delicious simplicity is anything but simple. A chef must extract every last drop of quality from every ingredient.”
Their adjoining project, Wood Ear, an ultramodern whisky bar, is a state-of-the-art saloon that will carry more than 400 rare whisky labels, sourced mainly from auctions and private collectors. In stark contrast to the notable bottles, however, Ma-Chan hopes to create an unfussy yet intimate setting, a relaxing place that she hopes whisky aficionados will seek to return to time and again.
We often ask our cover personalities to name three people that they’d invite to a dinner party – anyone at all – a question that often provokes stimulating debates about celebrities or innovators. Ma-Chan, however, delights us with a wholly unorthodox response.
“I’d invite a Chinese chef, a mother and an underprivileged teenager. Chinese and French food represent two of the world’s top cuisines. Having a Chinese chef experience French gastronomy would be so fascinating to witness. It might even inspire the chef! That’s what cultural exchange is all about. Secondly, I consider motherhood to be one of the world’s toughest jobs, so I’d use this opportunity to thank a mother for her contributions. Lastly, most underprivileged children will most likely not have had the chance to try fine dining. I think it would be a unique learning opportunity for them to see just how far food can go when it’s treated like an art form. That’s partly why we’ve worked with charities over the years to host student events at ÉPURE.”
Towards the end of our photoshoot, Ma-Chan produces a bottle of 2014 Domaine de L’Arlot Les Suchots Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru with a flourish, saying, “One of the most important components in dining is that a meal can be elevated with the right pairing of exceptional beverages. Wine, certainly, remains at the forefront of our venues.
“A little while ago, my husband and I had dinner with chef Massimo Bottura [of Osteria Francescana] in ÉPURE. Chef Nicolas created an extraordinary canapé with Comté and caviar just for the occasion. It seemed so simple but it went incredibly well with a wine paired by Chris [her husband]. Chef Massimo commented that it was a unique and brand-new experience for him, which really delighted us. Then, another dish arrived. Chef Massimo took a bite first and then proceeded to ask me my thoughts. By looking at the ingredients, I recognised that it should be paired with a white wine instead of a red. He was surprised by my answer as he shared the same sentiment. He praised my ‘mental palate’, and I think that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
“I’ve realised that I learnt a lot, even from our limited interactions, with world-class chefs. I’d love to host more guest chef events to help enhance the skills of our own team. Every chef has their own style, but the magic lies in the harmony of flavours through innovative and thoughtful combination of ingredients and techniques.
“At the end of the day, even though the cost of running top-quality restaurants tends to be substantial, I believe it’s worth the effort if we can inspire customers to appreciate our work in creating a truly gourmet dining experience.” It’s a sentiment we’re more than happy to toast.
(Hero Image: DRESS CHANEL DIAMOND NECKLACE, CUFF AND EARRING BUCCELLATI TOP, PEARL NECKLACE AND SHOES, MA-CHAN’S OWN)
Michelle Ma-Chan Cover Photoshoot
PHOTOGRAPHY KARL LAM
STYLING JACKY TAM
FIRST ASSISTANT STYLIST KAZ LAM
MAKE-UP & HAIR DEEP CHOI