We talk to Alex Malouf, the man behind F&B group Catch Concepts as he takes us on his journey from being a KP in Melbourne to owner of three independent restaurants dotted from Kennedy Town to Tai Hang.
Beginning his career as a humble dishwasher, Alex Malouf now sits comfortably at the head of his thriving restaurant collection, Catch Concepts. Owning three independent restaurants in Hong Kong’s hot neighbourhoods of Kennedy Town and Tai Hang, Alex finds himself competing in one of the city’s toughest markets: the food and beverage industry. Channelling his Australian upbringing and Lebanese roots, he set himself apart by offering three niche and authentic dining experiences inspired by his own multicultural upbringing: Catch, Mama Malouf and Elementary.
As the nephew of Australian celebrity chef, Greg Malouf, Alex grew up in Melbourne no stranger to the F&B scene. Kicked out of school at 16, he was forced to wash dishes in his father’s restaurant. From here, he climbed the management ladder until 2010, when he moved to Hong Kong and worked as a restaurant manager for Dining Concepts and Castelo Concepts, two of the the biggest names in Hong Kong’s dining industry.
Having been raised in Melbourne cafes and restaurants and now armed with invaluable inside knowledge of Hong Kong’s restaurant culture, Alex decided the time was right to pursue his dream of running his own place. So, in 2014 he opened Kennedy Town’s much loved seafood restaurant, Catch, just a stone’s throw away from the Hive on Seven. Whilst Middle-Eastern food was his first love, Australian seafood was his first success. “It was just something I hadn’t really seen in Hong Kong. Seafood places in Hong Kong were either really local Chinese (which is my favourite food) or oyster bars. I just thought there was a gap in the market that we could fill with Australian style seafood, which means playing around with lots of ingredients to create new and different dishes.”
Bringing a taste of Australia’s renowned beachside dining to Catchick Street was clearly a success, and from here Catch quickly took off. Against the backdrop of blue tiled walls and wicker basket lampshades, Alex explains how the now very successful Catch brunch was inspired by the rich breakfast culture he knew from Melbourne. “A lot of Hong Kong restaurants that did breakfast didn’t treat it as a proper dish. It was just like, you come in, you choose your omelette and three fillings or whether or not you wanted pancakes with choc chips.” Moving away from this DIY style of breakfast, Catch carefully fashioned brunch dishes ranging from ‘Dirty Eggs’ – fried eggs, paprika potato, avocado, chipotle mayo, melted cheddar, kidney beans & chorizo to ‘Summer French Toast’ with candied peach topped with coconut and berry cream.
For restaurant number two, Alex was keen to bring a little of his heritage to Hong Kong, “I always wanted to do Middle Eastern because it was something I knew and was comfortable with. My mum’s Lebanese and my dad’s parents are both Lebanese…and somehow I look like this!” he laughs. With the concept already in mind, Alex ran a one-off Lebanese night at Catch, inviting his mother & restaurant owner, Amal Malouf, to be the guest chef, filling Catch with a whole new clientele hungry to taste flavours of the Middle East. With a boost of confidence on the back of a successful event, Alex opened Mama Malouf in 2016, a Lebanese restaurant based on his mother’s recipes.
“It was all to do with my mum, I grew up eating her food in her restaurants and at home, whilst also learning a lot about the business. Before I even opened Mama Malouf I had this entire menu in my head of all the stuff my mum used to cook for me.” Add the influence of his Chinese wife Danielle, who was able to provide insight into what locals would be interested in, Alex was able to marry traditional Lebanese food with contemporary Hong Kong realities. And having his uncle (who is widely acknowledged as an authority on Middle-Eastern cuisine) proofread his menu, probably didn’t hurt either.
Whilst the Middle-Eastern culinary scene was quite diluted in Hong Kong before Mama Malouf made its grand entrance, today it is a cuisine on offer all over town. Alex, however is unconcerned about the competition, setting himself apart by “staying true to Lebanese food culture whilst also putting some new things in there as well.” Mama Malouf stands on its own as a “slightly modernised” yet authentic experience, bringing the shamelessly cosmopolitan Hong Konger running.
Since his first two openings, Alex has by no means slowed down, having just debuted his latest restaurant, Elementary, in Tai Hang this February. “It’s been a big year for me, what with the restaurant opening and having a baby three months ago!”. “Elementary is a lot more contemporary in that we play with interesting combinations – we want the feel of the food to be more sophisticated, without being stuffy.”
Describing it as Australian, he says, “Like Australia itself, the cuisine draws influence from Asia, Europe & the Middle East. With this in mind, we have designed unique sharing dishes, combining different ingredients & flavours from all over.” Offering ‘Fancy Poutine’ with fries, oxtail gravy, blue cheese and runny egg for lunch and duck heart kebabs in a parsley vinaigrette for dinner, this third instalment of Catch Concepts caters to the true foodies in town.
As the proud owner of three original restaurants, we asked Alex what advice he would give anyone thinking of opening a restaurant in Hong Kong. “If I was to give any advice, it would be to listen to your customers. Be confident, but don’t think what you’re doing is necessarily the best or only way, and be there every second of every day for the first year – people are coming for you just as much as they are for the restaurant” Take it from the man who started at the washing up sink – there is simply no scrimping on time.