Food Portrait Tech

Alan Yau: The tastemaker does tech

Wagamama founder Alan Yau is one of London’s best known restaurant operators. He’s about to launch an app that he says will be the opposite of Tripadvisor and Yelp.

22 Sep 2016

Not long after Naamyaa opened just by the corner of Angel tube station, a scathing review came out from restaurant critic Jay Rayner, panning the ‘infantile palate’ of its excessively ‘sweet and cloying’ menu. Naamyaa was supposed to be the latest piece of Alan Yau restaurant wizardry. Instead, it sank without a trace less than a year after it opened.

Yau had taken inspiration from Bangkok’s Greyhound cafe chain in a typical piece of Yauist interpretation that has become his stock in trade. Rayner was right, Naamyaa was indeed a dud. But the critic did strike at something that felt wholly at odds with Yau by describing the restaurant as ‘needy’ (a burger and a nicoise salad were lopped on to its otherwise Thai menu).

Although a desire to please is a trait common among restaurant owners and cooks, Yau doesn’t seem the needy type. For Yau, there was nothing wrong with the restaurant. People just didn’t get it.

Customer isn’t right

Even in his successes, giving people what they want has never appeared to be a consideration. One person who used to work closely with Yau says: ‘He’d always say “the customer isn’t right. Our job is to teach them”. It was like nothing I was used to.’

At Busaba Eathai, opened at the turn of the millennium, he deployed ideas that were unprecedented at the time: sitting different groups next to each other on communal tables, not allowing customers to book ahead or ask for modifications, commissioning top architects to design mid-market restaurants, having waiting staff advise customers to order sharing plates.

And then there was the food. It was unlike the standard fare Brits had become accustomed to from high street Thai restaurants with ingredients we hadn’t really seen before deployed in way that struck a note with an increasingly well-travelled generation with a curious palette, such as strings of green peppercorns wrapped around fried squid and kaffir lime leaves submerged in a drink.

Yau was similarly contrarian about publicity, which is deemed the essential oxygen in the restaurant industry. Yau has never had any time for it. It’s common practise for expensive restaurants to magically find spaces for celebrities even when they’re fully booked.

Star wars scripts

Yau saw no reason to follow industry practise even when famous people took an interest in affordably priced Busaba. Regular Chelsea Clinton had to get in the queue, as did George Lucas, Natalie Portman and several others from the Star Wars cast who ended up shuffling scripts in between plates of pad thai and bottles of Sriracha.

Busaba was a runaway success and more proof of Yau’s Midas touch. It sold for £21.5m, following his other blockbusters Hakkasan (£30m) and Wagamama, which has changed hands many times — most recently in 2011 for £215m. He’s always done things his way, and always relied on his taste, in food, architecture and interiors to pack in the customers.

Most recently he launched three new ventures, all very different; all, however, with that same reliance on what he believes is good taste and attention to detail in food and design: Turkish pizza chain Babaji, Chinese gastropub Duck and Rice, and the lavishly retro dinner dance Park Chinois.

He promises these are his final restaurant ventures, despite the calls that continue to come from investors to raid his ideas bank for one last job. ‘The problem with restaurants,’ he says, is that ‘scaling bricks and mortar takes years and has a long maturity curve. I can only affect a thousand or so people until I open another.’

Treasure trove

It’s led him to embark on a new, and perhaps his toughest challenge. At the ripe old vintage of 54, Alan Yau is making an app. The app, called Softchow, is an ambitious recommendation and discovery platform for eating out based on good taste. It’s intended as an antidote to ‘quantum-based judgements’ as he refers to sites like Tripadvisor and Yelp. By contrast, Softchow will be driven by dishes and places Yau rates. In time, the opinions of other taste-makers will also be added.

Yau attributes it to the recurring question asked of him on a regular basis over the last 20 years: ‘Where shall I eat, Alan?’ On his iPhone exists a treasure trove of lists compiled throughout his adventures and those of trusted foodie friends, ranging from a lighting designer to the former chairman of Merril Lynch. Obscure sushi spots in the back streets of Tokyo, a place in Phuket that serves an outrageous som tam, or the best place for knockout coffee in Berlin are among the many places that have been given the Yau thumbs up.

Appalling ice cream

It also stems from a frustration experienced by many people, including Yau. He hasn’t been immune to the desperate and bewildered hunger-induced scramble that ends in a dining disappointment in a foreign place. On a recent trip to Pisa, he recalls that ‘searching online in a panic, I tried to cross reference with a magazine article, some blogs and ended up having the most appalling ice cream I’ve ever had. There was a coaster with a Tripadvisor logo and five stars.’

Those close to him say they’ve never seen him so passionate or as excited as he has been with the development of Softchow. ‘It comes from something altruistic,’ says Sandra Boeckmann, a collaborator on the app. ‘He sees this as something that can genuinely unlock amazing small restaurants for lots of people.’ That’s not to say Yau doesn’t foresee the commercial potential, eyeing transactional and even delivery components to come down the line.

No luddite

Yau certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a first-time app developer. This isn’t his ticket to fame and fortune. He’s not in his 20s with an education in computer science, nor someone who’s grown up immersed in digital culture. He is, however, no luddite. He did, after all, pioneer the idea of equipping waiters at Wagamama in the 90s with what were at the time high tech PDAs to put orders through to the kitchen faster.

At his most recent big restaurant project, Park Chinois, he introduced a biometric fingerprint recognition system to do away with physical keys. Tech blogs have been a big part of his media diet. He’s fascinated with Kevin Kelly’s writings on mankind’s relationship with technology, and been an avid listener of the cult Andreessen Horowitz a16z podcast. (Its ‘software is eating the world’ tagline couldn’t be more apt for Yau).

Minimum viable product

Although he’s doing his bit to shift the average age of a tech startup founder up from 25, Yau enjoys certain advantages beyond not needing to embark on the desperate search for funding. Most people scour their social circle for a friend in IT for advice on launching an app; Yau asked Jonathan Ive. Apple’s design boss gave Yau’s his views on usability and app design, as well as more personal advice, over duck rolls in Park Chinois in the run up to Christmas last year.

Yau’s had to adapt though. ‘When opening a restaurant, Alan can visualise the space; he’s found it hard to envision the size and scope of the app,’ says a colleague. For his part, Yau appears to be embracing tech strategies as well as the lingo.

‘Once we have an MVP (minimum viable product) we will be able to iterate,’ says Yau, who has accepted that, unlike a restaurant, Softchow won’t be a completed product at launch. He betrays his new enthusiasm by casually dropping more techspeak with phrases like ‘disrupting taste’ and referring to Softchow’s ‘ecosystem’. He calls it his ‘IBM moment’: ‘I’m moving from hardware to software!’

Way of the noodle

For a man in his 50s that transition is a fascinating test. Yau is apparently a big fan of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s blend of martial arts styles. There was a nod to Lee in the title of his book on Wagamama, ‘The Way of The Noodle’. Already, say those close to him, he’s been drawing on a lot of those principles in his shift to tech: adapting to situations, ‘being like water’ — moving fluidly, learning and iterating.

But what’s the motivation behind a foray into an alien sector that could well be an expensive, exhausting and embarrassing folly? Softchow is perhaps the most emotional project he’s undertaken. Yau himself talks in grand terms about ‘emancipating great dishes’ and ‘democratising taste’, sounding almost messianic.

Curiosity drive

This is a man who, after all, still gets a kick from discovering a food truck in Peckham or a vineyard in California, and those close to him say he is no less passionate about food than he’s ever been. Long-term colleague Moses Kisubika says: ‘He’s curious and that curiosity is what drives him. He’s never just copied and pasted. He’s never taken the easy option for success.’

In Softchow, he’s found a vehicle for his curiosities, solving his frustrations and beliefs, while doing something that he hopes can benefit a lot of people. One person who has been working on Softchow with him recalls a meeting where they had a particular breakthrough. ‘His eyes were getting a little misty. He then tapped me on the shoulder and in a moment of real sincerity said, “Oh my god, can you imagine?” You can feel this really matters.’

This story is taken from Courier Oct/Nov 2016.