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From courtroom to á la carte

Published on Friday, 13 Jul 2012
David Yeo
Photo: May Tse

David Yeo, founder and managing director of Aqua Restaurant Group, was a highly successful lawyer before bringing his talents to the food and beverage sector in 2000. A self-taught designer and chef, Yeo has masterminded Aqua’s launch of more than 20 restaurants in different parts of the world, including the Michelin-starred Hutong in Hong Kong, and two restaurants and a bar in London. With an exceptional taste in and love of food, Yeo has made Aqua one of the most successful F&B groups in Hong Kong.

Why leave your career in law and move to F&B?
My working-class parents wanted me to be a doctor, accountant or lawyer. I had always wanted to be an architect, but my mother thought that was someone laying tiles in a toilet, which is why I studied law.

I am very grateful to have been a lawyer but I also wanted to follow my two passions: design and food.

I always liked mucking about with food. I was always doing dinner parties, and everyone would say, “Your presentation’s so crazy, you should open your own restaurant.”

I think I have a talent for cooking. When eating in a dai pai dong, I watched how the chef cooked and so learned to do it myself. I think it is a talent – I watch and I am able to learn.

As for design, I think I have a special feel for how to make use of space. You give me a space, and very quickly I will know how to make use of it.

What’s the story behind “Aqua”?
Food and drink are a basic need. From my point of view, dining should not become such an art form that it becomes inaccessible and irrelevant. We named our group Aqua because we wanted to explore the elements that are basic to cooking: fire and water.

We opted for water because my business partner and I are both mad about the sea and diving.

A trip to Cairo introduced us to the ankh symbol, which is an Egyptian symbol for life. We thought: “Where there’s water, there’s life!” And that is how the ankh became the “q” in our logo. It is a constant reminder to us not to get ahead of ourselves.

What makes a great restaurant?
A great restaurant is all about serving great food and providing outstanding service. You cannot cook good food without decent produce and ingredients. I have total respect for the provenance of the produce.

I believe in letting the natural texture, taste and flavours of ingredients speak for themselves. My job is to tease out the best from them, not make them into something they are not.
Along with fantastic food, attentive, but not intrusive, service and a great ambience are also key elements. This is the recipe for the success of Aqua Restaurant Group.

Choosing a location to open a restaurant is also very important. No matter how big or small a city is, you need to know the neighbourhood. I am familiar with Hong Kong and London and know the dining habits of people living there. I took a few years to get to know Beijing before opening there. I will not choose to open in Macau because I think the people are more interested in gambling, not dining.

What makes your food outstanding?
I want customers to feel that my restaurants are extensions of my home’s kitchen. I am very hands-on when it comes to what dishes are going to be served.

I am a foodie, I do a lot of cooking and experimenting with different cuisines. I do cuisines that I am passionate about and do not follow the trend in what type of cuisines are considered popular.

I eat only seafood and vegetables because I love animals but that does not mean I do not know about the cooking of meat. From my years of cooking experience, I am able to tell from the smell and outlook if a dish is good or not. I also rely a lot on my managers to do tasting and we work together to provide the best for our customers.

What keeps you inspired?
When I was studying law in Britain, I worked in a bar to support myself. It is something that I had to do to survive, it was my only option. The fact that I did not have an alternative mentality kept me going. I did not have the luxury of choices so whatever I did, I did my best and never looked back. This is what I have done throughout my career.

What are the challenges of the restaurant business in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is home to me, I have spent the past 20 years here, so it makes sense for me to want to operate my restaurants here.

But renting an affordable place is a big problem. It is a shame to see restaurants being pushed out of shopping malls because of unbearably high rents. I have begun exploring the idea of opening restaurants inside office buildings.

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