This father is enjoying the unique flavours of Hong Kong with his young family.
For Alex Malouf, F&B is in his blood. His father was a restauranteur, his uncle a very well-known chef and his mother a fabulous cook and a successful chef who’s run the kitchens at many restaurants. He was born and raised in Melbourne in Australia, a wonderful city with a great love for culture, sport and food! Needless to say, he grew up with a taste for the food business himself. He started Catch Concepts here in Hong Kong and runs three successful restaurants — Catch and Mama Malouf in Kennedy Town and Elementary in Tai Hang. He is also relishing his role as a young father to his happy and energetic daughter. We spoke to him to find out what he loves most about being a father and a business owner in Hong Kong.
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How and when did you come to Hong Kong?
I got the opportunity to come to Hong Kong in 2010 as my uncle used to live here and was also a consultant for Olive, a restaurant which used to be on Elgin street. Managing that was my first job here.
Was there ever a plan to work in any industry other than F&B?
The only job I’ve ever had that was not in the hospitality sector was my paper route when I was 12 years old. I do often think of other industries I could have tried. Anything in sales I think I would have been half-decent at. I have the “gift of the gab” as my old man likes to say.
Tell us a bit of your F&B background.
There was always a Middle Eastern Restaurant or two in the family. My father, Geoff, would run the restaurant front, my mum, Amal, would run the kitchen and my sister, Katherine, was an allrounder! She could do everything, floor, bar, kitchen – you name it. I started doing dishes at 15, then jumped to the bar, and then the floor. Regrettably, I never did time in the kitchen. I later started working in cafes around Melbourne as a barista and a waiter. Though I never actually worked with my uncle Greg other than school work-experience, it definitely helped throughout my career. The name is instantly noticed, especially in Melbourne, so it was never hard landing a job!
How did you meet your wife?
She actually worked at a restaurant up the road from me when I worked at Wagyu on Wyndham. She came in for a drink, I caught her eye, she liked what she saw and left me her number. Haha! The rest is history.
How involved is your family in your business – your uncle, your parents, your wife?
If I ever need any recipes or want to do a new menu at Mama Malouf, I’ll send a draft to my uncle and he will send something back a little more polished. If I have any service issues, I often call my dad. He pretty much taught me everything I know about service. My sister has been a massive help with things like branding and design. She has worked for some impressive restaurant design firms in Melbourne so I’m very lucky to have her. Mum has been a huge part of our business. When we first opened Catch, I was pretty young and inexperienced. We flew her up from Melbourne to help teach the kitchen. A few years later, she was flying through Hong Kong, so we did a Lebanese food pop-up night at Catch. We filled two rounds of 60 seats on a Monday night – everyone loved everything! That’s what gave me the confidence to open our second venue, Mama Malouf (named after her, obviously). We then sent Radha, our head chef down to Melbourne to work in Mum’s restaurant for two weeks.
I would say that I’m the driving force behind the business, my amazing team is the heart and soul and my wife, Danielle, is the backbone. She pushed me and gave me the confidence to expand on our little Catch. She also invested everything she had into it. Anything you see in any of our venues from plates to the tiles – she chose and sourced them. She has a great eye for it. We then worked side by side in the restaurant until Lexie was born. Since then she has taken more of a backseat in the business but is still very much involved in all the decision making. If it weren’t for her controlling my over-optimistic entrepreneurial nature, I think we would be in a very different position right now. We definitely have a great balance which is a huge factor in the success we have had. I can’t say enough how important she has been for the growth of the company.
How close are you to your family? How much did your parents influence your work and personal choices growing up?
We are as close as a family can be that live abroad. We speak or video call them with Lexie almost every day. It’s not easy being so far apart, but when we do get to travel home its always the highlight of our year!
My parents were always on my back as a kid – mainly Dad. I was a pretty bad student that got expelled from a fancy school and never finished, so I can’t really blame them. They were the main influence in my decision to move to Hong Kong. When the opportunity came up, I wasn’t really interested, they asked me why. I said, “My friends are all here”. They reminded me that in a while, all of my friends wouldn’t be worrying about where I am while they are chasing law and commerce degrees. That’s when I booked a 6-month trip to Hong Kong. That was 10 years ago!
You have an interesting cultural heritage – Australian and Lebanese. Which side do you identify with most?
I’d have to say it’s 50/50. In Hong Kong, I say I’m Australian and in Australia, I say I’m Lebanese. Work that out!
How do you and your wife plan to make sure your child understands and appreciates this mixed heritage?
Well, Lexie is a Chinese-Lebanese-Australian so it will be interesting! Getting her to know her Chinese roots will be easy as we are in Hong Kong so she will be around Danielle’s family quite a bit. The Australian bit won’t be too hard as we will be travelling there as much as possible (I hope!). Getting her to appreciate her Lebanese heritage – I think will have to be done through food and my mum trying her best to teach Lexie Arabic. I will also try and teach her as much as I know…. which isn’t much.
How is your mixed heritage reflected in your restaurants?
My restaurants are my heritage. With Catch, I have an Aussie seafood restaurant with Melbourne style brunch, the second, Mama Malouf, is a Modern Lebanese diner and the third is a more contemporary Australian restaurant in Elementary.
What type of food is your favourite? And what is true Aussie fare?
I think I can safely say Lebanese has always been my fave but since moving to Hong Kong it is now tied between Lebanese and Chinese.
Aussie fare is all about creativity. Using other cultures and great ingredients to come up with plates that all ties seamlessly together on a menu. I think that’s the essence of a good Aussie restaurant.
What are your favourite restaurants in the city, other than your own?
- Din Tai Fung: Clean and consistent food, it’s just the best. Danielle and I are there weekly – no lie!
- Toritama (Central): Yakitori, Favourite date night place. The chicken crown is a must!
- Xi Xup: This is a secret little spot in Tai Wai with cool, modern Vietnamese food. It’s definitely worth a trip over the water!
- BBQ (Second Street in Sai Ying Pun): No frills, ice-cold Tsing Tao, cheap Sake and BBQ’d bits on sticks.
- Bun cha: My go-to Pho joint in Kennedy Town.
Any more restaurants or new business ventures in the pipeline? How have you managed through this difficult year?
As a matter of fact, yes! We are currently working on a new takeaway concept called Chickpea, serving up Pita Pockets & Hummus bowls. It’s due to open mid-October in Central. We also have another restaurant lined up for early next year however we have been sworn to secrecy until we get a little closer to the date. We are looking forward to a good year next year when (hopefully) everything is back to normal.
Through this pandemic, we have been doing OK. Luckily, our venues aren’t so big so it’s been a little easier to manage our overheads. Two of our landlords have also been generous enough to help with some rent relief.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
I’m proud to say I’m a husband and a dad. I’m also proud that people like me enough to tolerate how annoying I can be. Oh, and I’m pretty proud I proved all my teachers wrong!
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong?
I love the pace. It’s always changing so much. The food scene is great, I love how you can go and get a $30 bowl of noodles and be blown away, then go to a $1000 per person hyped-up restaurant the next night and have a terrible experience! Hong Kong keeps you on your toes. I love that. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
Who has most influenced your parenting style?
My parents, for sure. My dad was pretty funny and mucked around with us a lot as kids, I see a lot of that in myself now. When I was a teen, he was always very rational with me and I’d like to think I will be the same. My mum taught me to be confident and proud and was always very affectionate with me. To be honest, I don’t need to work on passing those down as Lexie is already all of them…. she’s the best!
What do you enjoy most about being a father?
Other than the irreplaceable feeling of love and admiration, it’s the surprises – hearing or seeing something completely new come out of this human we created. It’s incredible how much they pick up from us without being taught.
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Single malt and PlayStation
What are your top three tips or advice for business owners in Hong Kong, especially for the F&B business?
Learn to accept criticism and learn how to use it to your advantage.
Don’t try to be something that you are not.
Don’t work hard and you’ll lose it. Work too hard and you’ll lose everything else.