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Walking down the streets of Hong Kong, you'll undoubtedly encounter a swath of aromas, from local cha chaan teng joints to a plethora of global cuisines that line the streets - you'd think that Hong Kong already has it all.
But, as one of Asia’s best food cities, it is not surprising to see local eateries popping up all over the city - even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Russell Doctrove, a Hong Kong-based chef, entrepreneur, and DJ, is one of those opportunists who’s been busy cooking up a storm with his online Patty Boi bakery concept during the recent pandemic.
“I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off and that you just need to be patient and think long term”
Having stubbornly worked on, paused and then continued with his Angry Child business idea, a tribute to all his passions, Russell knows about hardships, patience and persistence like no other. These are just some of the skills and qualities he’s developed from his early grind as a sous-chef in London’s grueling F&B industry.
In this segment of Dark Side of Creative, Russell discourses on how to navigate the challenges awaiting creative entrepreneurs at the beginning of their journey, reflecting on his own experience of building dining concepts in Hong Kong through the pandemic times.
Tell us about yourself and your background.
I was born and raised in Hong Kong to parents from the UK (Liverpool) and Caribbean (Dominica) and knew from the age of about 16 that I wanted to be a chef. After studying a culinary arts course in the UK I decided to stay on for a couple of years before moving back to Hong Kong. Marco Avitabile, the executive chef of The Grand Hyatt hotel in Hong Kong, was one of my mentors and was able to help me secure a position at the 3-Michelin-starred The Waterside Inn in Bray. Being a very traditional French restaurant, it was the perfect place to learn all the classical techniques and recipes that I would need later on.
After about a year and a half there, I decided to move down to London where I landed a job at the 3-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, under Head Chef Clare Smyth. The intensity of this kitchen was a real shock to me at first, with 6am starts and 11:30pm finishes Monday to Friday. Weekends off are extremely rare in the F&B industry, but this made the brutal hours and heavy workload tolerable. It also gave me the chance to sample some of London’s iconic clubbing institutions, such as Fabric, T Bar and Egg Club.
Moving back to Hong Kong in 2010, I joined Amber as a Junior Sous Chef, still thinking I wanted to continue down the fine dining path. However, a year into it and not feeling as inspired as I once did, I decided to leave and ultimately ended up joining Maximal Concepts as the head chef of a brand new concept called Fish & Meat. This was my first role as a head chef, and the intensive management style at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay really prepared me for what was required to start managing an entire team.
Over the next few years, Maximal went on an opening spree and I was fortunate enough to run the food side of iconic concepts such as Stockton, Limewood, Mercedes Me, Brickhouse, Blue and Sip Song to name a few.
Since early 2020 I have been running my own business, Angry Child Consulting, where I work with pre-existing restaurant owners or those about to open new concepts to maximize the potential of their kitchen teams. Around the same time, I also launched an online specialty bakery concept called Patty Boi where we produce Caribbean inspired patties, something that Hong Kong had never really experienced before.
Alongside my culinary ambitions and achievements, I have also been a dedicated local DJ, where I get to share my deep knowledge and appreciation for electronic music, techno in particular.
You have a huge impact on the Hong Kong restaurant scene, working in all the big names such as Amber, Fish & Meat, Limewood, Stockton and Brickhouse - what was the biggest lesson you learned that made you decide that you wanted to start your own thing?
I think with anyone that is naturally creative there comes a point in their career where they want say to be in the driving seat and no longer want to have to answer to someone above them. When you ultimately don't have the final say, it means that your ideas will always be watered down or that you’ll have to find a way to compromise because, at the end of the day, you work for them and they pay your salary.
It got to a point where I knew at some point I would need to break away and do my own thing, and so I set about putting together the framework for my business plan for a concept I had been working on for the last several years called Angry Child. This late-night dining concept would see me bring together my passion for food, sake, and electronic music all under one roof.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when starting out?
Once I stepped into the world of self-employment, I no longer had the financial security I was used to and that I’d had since I started working professionally at the age of 21. With this realization comes an added sense of urgency to make things happen, and it took me a fair amount of time to come to terms with this. This in turn compounded the fact that trying to get anything off the ground in this city costs a large amount of capital, which I didn't have.
I was fortunate in being able to bring a good friend of mine on board who really helped me with the financial projection side of things and was able to help me complete the business plan for Angry Child. Unfortunately, as with almost everyone else, the pandemic ground things to a halt and we quickly realized that we were going to need to pivot to a concept that was more COVID safe. This was where Patty Boi was created and whilst initially reluctant to pause Angry Child to focus on this new direction, I was soon convinced once we began to flesh out the concept. The food at Angry Child was always going to be Caribbean inspired and showcased through South East Asian ingredients and Patty Boi was able to spin off from this ethos but in a more playful and casual way.
Regret is the wrong word as you can always look back at something in hindsight and find things you would have done differently. The freedom I gained to be able to make the decisions I wanted to make far outweighed any of the subsequent hardships I had to endure along the way. I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off and that you just need to be patient and think long-term.
What do you want to see more in the HK creative scene?
Simply that the actual creatives get more opportunities to shine and do what they do best on a larger scale and platform. More often than not, creatives struggle financially and on the flip side, those with a strong financial background often lack real creativity. There needs to be a better way for those two worlds and types of individuals to cross paths and find a cohesive way to support one another.
I would also like to see people taking a chance on more creative concepts and not just pushing out the same generic offerings. How many more Japanese, Italian, Modern Chinese or Spanish restaurants do we really need? Things have become very cookie cutter here and everyone just seems to jump on the bandwagon of whatever is considered trendy at any given moment in time. When did thinking outside of the box go out of fashion?
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would probably just remind myself that there is no expiration date for success and that you don’t need to have achieved all your goals in life before the age of 30. The process and journey is often more enjoyable than the end result.
How has the pandemic influenced your work?
As with everyone else in the F&B industry, the pandemic was brutal and the only way to survive it was to be flexible and have a bit of luck on your side. Many of my consulting projects were put on hold while dining restrictions were in place and many clubs that I would normally DJ in were forced to close.
I've always been able to adapt to new situations quite quickly and so I used this enforced downtime to focus on my music and my health, hiking multiple times a week and continuing to develop and improve my business plans for Angry Child and Patty Boi.
How do you balance passion and profit?
Everyone needs to make a living and support those important people around them so as much as I would love to wax poetic here and say always lead with passion, that’s not always realistic. However, I would say that once you are in a position where your base expenses are covered, try to focus more on passionate projects and causes if you can. Quality over quantity.
Once Patty Boi got to a stage where it was able to support itself without any further cash injections, we looked to reduce our prices even as the cost of goods increased. It meant we were making less profit, but ultimately we wanted to get our product into as many people's hands as possible.
What has being a creative entrepreneur taught you about life?
Failure shouldn’t be looked at as a negative, as it’s in these moments that you can come away with a valuable life lesson. So embrace all the challenges and things that don’t go your way and see them as what they are: learning curves and milestones.
What is your advice for young creative entrepreneurs?
Don’t focus on the word ‘entrepreneur’ as it means nothing without substance or quality behind it. Strive to do or create something different; take the time to consider all the finer details of your idea and then figure out the best way to get it in front of the right people.