Raw power: After years as a chef, Genki Sushi’s Yip Yuk-hong now runs the operation in Hong Kong
Genki Sushi’s head of business Yip Yuk-hong is among a rare class of senior executives who manned a kitchen before taking a seat in the boardroom.
In 1995, after eight years as a chef, Yip was offered the opportunity to help the Japanese sushi chain expand in Hong Kong. “There are not many chefs that become executives; it was a steep learning curve for me. I am [lucky] the company had provided me with great training, exposure and coaching to help me become a business leader,” he says.
Starting out as an apprentice in a sushi bar, Yip learned to make sushi from a Japanese master. He was grateful that the master taught him not only the craft of making sushi, but also the Japanese habit of striving for the best. “I still remember the master picking up my sushi and then furiously dumping it into the trash can because they were not good enough. He was not trying to insult me, even though I felt deeply hurt at that time.
“I learned from him the importance of upholding high standards and to strive for the best. It is an important value that I have tried to uphold for myself and my staff throughout my career,” he says.
For Yip, the transition from chef to manager was not easy and he recalled that when he first started, he tended to over-manage staff. In his first five years, Yip would visit every outlet to brief the managers. But, as the number grew, it became impossible. This taught him the importance of empowering staff to manage themselves.
He adds that the essence of inspiring staff is to explain to them why things have to be done in a certain way. “The key is to help him or her understand the purpose of the job. It will inspire them to do it with their heart and not only their hands. A motivated worker is one that is able to self-manage.”
Under Yip’s leadership, Genki now has 60 outlets around Hong Kong. One of the most important strategies Yip learned was combining kitchen and restaurant management – a staple of Genki’s business philosophy. He says what separates Genki from other restaurants is that their chefs know how to serve customers and waiters know how to make sushi. This combined mode allows both sides to understand one another and brings more flexibility to manpower planning.
Another aspect of Yip’s job was to enhance the menu and he visited Japan four or five times a year to look for new ideas. His work has given him the chance to taste many different foods including some extremely rare and expensive ingredients, but he says his best culinary experience was at a scallop farm in a fishing village in Sendai. “I sat on a boat and they rowed me out to the area where they keep the scallops and I ate one on the spot. The environment and the food is able to reflect local culture and tell me about the life they were leading. I really enjoyed it,” he says.
Yip also loves shopping for cook books when he is in Japan. “The culinary world is endless. Reading books can help me learn more in a lot less time.”
Yip has led Genki through a couple of financial crises and SARS during his 20 years at the company. “For [the] restaurant business, SARS [was] the toughest time but because of our strong reputation in hygiene, we did not lose too [much] business and we did better than we expected. As a chain restaurant with steady business, we are on good terms with landlords of shopping malls around Hong Kong. They are happy to do business with us.”
Speaking of how Japanese cuisine has become a major hit on the local restaurant scene, Yip recalls that in the 1990s, Hongkongers only really knew about sushi rolls. Many have now visited Japan, so their taste for Japanese food is more sophisticated.
Today, Hong Kong’s Japanese restaurants are highly specialised, with many eateries focusing on ramen, sushi or robatayaki. “I think a more informed group of customer is positive for the industry,” Yip says.
He points out that “sushi-go-rounds” played a crucial role in the popularisation of the food when they were introduced in Japan 40 years ago. Before that, sushi was an item people could only enjoy in high-class sushi bars that served a limited number of customers every night. Sushi-go-rounds greatly reduced production costs, making the food affordable for everyone.
Although Yip spends most of his time in business meetings now, he still manages to find time to work his knives. “The quality of food is a restaurant’s number-one priority. I have devoted quite a lot of time in the kitchen creating new items,” he says.
Customers can no longer enjoy food made by Yip, as that right now belongs exclusively to his family. “I am Hakka and I enjoy cooking Hakka family dishes for my family during weekends,” he says.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as A recipe for success.