Didier Souillat, the executive vice president of the Hakkasan Group, spends more than seven months a year on an aeroplane, travelling between the group’s outlets, to ensure the level of quality and continuity guests expect
Didier Souillat joined the Hakkasan Group in 2010, overseeing just three outlets but, serving as the executive vice president of restaurants, today he is responsible for 38 restaurants across the globe.
After completing his Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality and food and beverage, at the hotel management school in Lausanne, Switzerland, a young Souillat set off to carve out a long and varied career as a leader in the food and beverage sector. From hotels to food retail, and from catering and leasing, he worked all over the world, including Hong Kong, Nagoya, Dakar, Bahrain and London.
Before being poached by Hakkasan in 2010, Souillat ran the food halls and restaurant outlets at both Harrods and Selfridges and he also worked as managing director for the privately owned and much revered Daylesford Organic Company.
When Souillat received that fateful call the Hakkasan Group was nothing like the goliath it is today. Souillat says: “There was no group in 2010 – there was only three restaurants but I remember being at the opening party for Hanaway Place, and that was spectacular.
“So when you’re called and asked to be part of developing the brand globally with backing from Abu Dhabi and a Michelin star under its belt, it’sdifficult to say no.
“All I needed was the reassurance that we could sustain the record of quality with international growth. And today we have 38 restaurants across 12 brands, seven countries and 19 cities. It is largely down to the support of the ownership and the team behind me that made that growth happen,” he adds.
Expanding the Brand
In the Middle East, Hakkasan now has two outlets in the UAE and one in Qatar. The first opened in the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi in 2010, the second in Dubai in the Emirates Towers in 2011, and the third in the St. Regis Hotel in Doha in 2014.
“It has been a very successful roll out in the Middle East; only so many cities can take a big Hakkasan. Logically the next location is Bahrain, which was announced in partnership with Seven Holdings and Kerzner International Holdings. It is too early to say when it will happen, but conception to finalisation usually takes at least 18 months. So in 2017 we should see another in the GCC region,” adds Souillat.
But that does not mean there will be no further projects in the UAE, or the greater GCC, for the Hakkasan Group, as collectively it has twelve restaurant brands. Souillat adds: “What’s happening in Dubai, with Expo2020 and the projected 20 million annual visitors is very attractive for us so we are seeing which brands are suitable for this market.
“One immediately comes to mind with Yauatcha – which is an all-day dim sum tea house with a French pastry component. That could work dry or not, with a heavy focus on both tea and cocktails. We are currently looking for locations and partners at the moment.”
The Michelin-starred Yauatcha opened in London in 2004, offering an all-day grazing experience. The concept is a modern reinterpretation of the traditional Chinese teahouse, specialising in modern authentic dim sum, as well as wok-friendly dishes and other small eats.
Designed by Christian Liaigre, the restaurant’s open-plan layout and visible kitchen energises the entire space, engaging both the outside street scene and Yauatcha’s guests.
Souillat adds: “We would also like to bring our west coast American businesses, like Seersucker and Herringbone to this region.”
Searsucker is a restaurant brand conceptualised by Chef Brian Malarkey. It brings sharable comfort cuisine coupled with a casual, “feel-good” atmosphere, and there are currently outlets in Texas, California, and Las Vegas. Whereas, Herringbone plays an emphasis on line-caught seafood and high-quality meat at both its locations in Southern California, with “Fish Meats Field” being the phrase used to describe its food.
Herringbone’s cuisine complements the innovative design by acclaimed interior designer Thomas Schoos, with features inspired by nature, including fish nets draped on the walls and trees inside and out.
“The later started in La Jolla, California, has now opened in Santa Monica and will open in Las Vegas in December. It’s a seafood concept. Very social dining. No table cloths. Very casual and relaxed,” says Souillat.
He adds: “This is what Hakkasan is all about – fine dining food in a social setting. People want to have fun and enjoy the service and music as much as the food. If the service is unobtrusive then all the better, so people can concentrate on the social and sharing part of entertainment.
Tailoring to the Market
Hakkasan has even been developed into a nightclub concept in Las Vegas. Having launched in 2013 in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, the nightclub is an immersive 80,000-square-foot, five-level space offering a variety of environments. But because of the sheer size and scale of this concept, Souillat is doubtful it will ever be replicated outside of Nevada.
He adds: “It’s 80,000 sq. ft. and we don’t think any other site could sustain such a large venue worldwide. Calvin Harris and Tiesto need big clubs and a big footfall every night. So that is not on the cards in the Middle East, although I couldn’t say categorically.
“We have sub brands now, such as Ling Ling which opened in Mykonos in Greece this summer. This is Hakkasan’s naughty little sister – it’s a hard ten seats open aired with some brand ethos of Hakkasan like the blue glass but it’s very open and light. Also, it’s only open for the season and it is beverage led. It is Hakkasan does tapas. The portions are smaller and there is more of them but overall its beverage led with louder music, darker lighting and a longer serve time.”
Inspired by the izakaya concept made popular in the East, executive head chef Tong Chee Hwee has created a menu of Cantonese dishes accompanied by an innovative cocktail list. “Ling Ling is designed to evolve from drinking to dining to dancing – in no particular order,” says Souillat.
“This concept can fit in any city wherever there is already a Hakkasan as it has a different but complimentary guest profile. Ling Ling also gave us the inspiration for the Terrace in Dubai, which we just opened offering smaller plates, livelier music, low lighting and a lounge environment.
“You see, not many cities in the world, aside from London, can take more than one Hakkasan. We were lucky in London as both outlets are very distinct locations – one in Mayfair and one in Hanaway Place. Both have a different customer base and, besides, London is thriving with more and more people and concepts and I think it’s the food capital of the world at the moment.
“Although, everyone is now coming to Dubai – everyone who is known in the industry. So Dubai is becoming the new food destination – if you want to try great chefs, great food and great entertainment then come to Dubai,” says Souillat.
With twenty million annual tourists expected for Expo2020, Souillat suggests that there is space for everyone, “from mid-market, to three star, to fine food.”
The Key to Success
Souillat is adamant that the growth of the Hakkasan Group over the last 15 years has not been down to him, but rather the team he has created, coupled with their dogged consistency and drive for perfection. He adds: “Our success is consistency, we never cut corners and our chair backs us up in achieving that consistency. We are synonymous with luxury without the stuck up attributes that go with it,” boasts Souillat.
He adds: “We don’t innovate much, the concept is timeless and every new restaurant builds on the same model. We add bits and adopt to local markets, but the core ingredients are always the same, like the lounge bar concept and the blue bar.”
But most critical of all is staff recruitment and retention, according to Souillat. He explains: “When we opened Shanghai 50% of the staff were already Hakkasan people, from the US and the Middle East, so from day one they had experience.
“We move people around for opportunity and growth throughout our global portfolio so management tend to stay with us a long time. Retention is our key word and we couldn’t do what we do without that in-house knowledge. We have always maintained a succession programme so people are always presented opportunities to grow across brand within the company.
“In London we have waiters who been with us for 10 years, but then it’s a high revenue restaurant, we don’t do split shifts and they have two days off in a row. We take care of people – there is no point in having tired staff. It takes three to four weeks for basic training, which is a big expense, so to lose them quickly makes no sense.
“And I lead by example, I spend up to seven months per year in a plane because I insist on visiting every restaurant at least once a year and some even twice. On top of that is the new openings – where I will spend at least two weeks prior to opening.” As a frequent flyer, Souillat is getting much more than air miles for his commitment, with strong and sustained growth for the Hakkasan group throughout his tenure.