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Elliot Faber’s borderline-irrational appreciation for Japanese sake has kept him on a long and winding path of self-discovery. Even though he was raised in Canada, Faber always had an affinity for Japanese culture. He began his career as a sommelier, but decided later to dive into the world of sake by joining a brewery in Vancouver, B.C. After this, he traveled to Hong Kong and opened a number of established restaurants with a focus on sake. One of these is Sake Central in PMQ, a containing a curated library of selections that is a shining example of Faber's encyclopedic sake knowledge. It's hard to find people as passionate about sake as Faber, but it's even harder to find someone who's able to curate experiences as good as he — his restaurants are proof.
“Do what you love. If you truly love it, you’ll never be disappointed with the path you choose.”
But how did a Canadian who grew up between Toronto and Calgary end up in Hong Kong running multiple successful sake restaurant? Where did Faber’s journey begin? We sat down with the sake ambassador and expert to find out more about how he got into it all and what makes him tick.
Can you describe your childhood and where you grew up?
I was born in Toronto and grew up in Calgary — our family always had an affinity for Japanese culture. We had an exchange student stay with us, and we played a lot of video games and watched a lot of anime.
“We even ate generic Japanese food as a family”
— there weren’t a lot of options for Japanese food in Calgary during the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was growing up! I played ice hockey and we went back and forth between Calgary and Toronto to see the cousins and extended family. I never imagined I’d end up living in Hong Kong. My parents hadn’t ever left North America until they came to visit me in September of 2019!
Did you always know what you wanted to do? Please tell us about your career journey
After graduating from the University of Calgary with a degree in Communications and Culture, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but knew I loved to travel, eat and drink! I enjoyed learning about the food and drink of the regions and how it always changed, everywhere I went. I learned that food and drink are both what brings people together and what make places unique! The natural course for me was to become a sommelier so that’s where I set my sights on. Somewhere along the way, maybe around 2006, I stumbled upon a sake brewery in Vancouver called Artisan Sake Maker and that is when my sake journey began.
Who are your biggest influences (not just tangibly, but personally and spiritually) and why?
Gary Vaynerchuk and Andre Mack come to mind immediately. Both of these great people have a deep love for wine and they have the most creative and passionate ways to share their knowledge. They are extremely creative and entrepreneurial; they inspire me every day. Matt Abergel, founder of Yardbird and Ronin here in Hong Kong (also my partner in Sunday’s Spirits), is one of my best friends in the world. I’ve known him for over 30 years and he is the reason I moved to Hong Kong — to help him open Yardbird! I don’t ever regret the decision and we have grown closer together ever since moving out here in 2011.
What’s been the biggest turning point for you in your life?
Moving to Hong Kong and dedicating the majority of my business to sake changed my life. I realized very quickly that as long as you are willing to work hard in Hong Kong, there is always somebody watching and that opportunities are not far away.
“Hong Kong is always a very small town so you must be respectful to all, even if you don’t get along with them, and also never burn your bridges.”
Deciding to get heavily involved in the sake world also changed my life. I never imagined that Yardbird would become the busy, iconic restaurant that it has become but I took advantage of that to meet multiple sake makers, suppliers and other KOLs in the sake world. Both here and in Japan, I made it my mission to get as deep in the industry as possible. In 2015, I managed to publish a book about sake and now all these years later, I’ve republished the book and I own the rights.
Do you think sake should be more capitalized? Why?
Sake is still a growing industry and the potential is massive. Consider that the top ten breweries by volume make about 50% of ALL sake!
“There are somewhere around 1,200 breweries actively producing sake — that leaves 1,190 breweries in competition with each other over the remaining 50%.”
If we can help upgrade those smaller breweries, increase their value proposition and help them modernize production and marketing, the value of a single brewery can really go up. Take that and do it 300 times for 300 of the mid-sized breweries and you can make a drastic difference!
How did you start Sake Central?
I started Sake Central thanks to a mentor who has done it all. He worked in the streets of Shinjuku (Tokyo) during the ‘80s peddling Suntory beer. He worked hard and climbed the ladder, eventually ending up in Hong Kong via Germany and other markets. He was a massive supporter of myself and Yardbird in those early days and he eventually went on to guide me into the relationships that ultimately created Sake Central. I’d do anything for him — he is a true sensei!
How does business and creativity inform each other in your work?
When I first started Sake Central, it was a crash course into the business side. The creativity is great but unless you are continuously and consistently stimulating the interest of your customers, real decisions based around cashflow and “selling-out” come to the table. This is where I came to develop as a business owner. I certainly don’t regret all of the challenges I faced, however, I never imagined I’d have to get a grasp on all of this to survive.
“The lesson for me was that in order to have a fighting chance in business, you need to truly understand all aspects — even the boring parts!”
How do you see the industry transforming?
As people start to value both ultra-fresh and the aged sake categories, hopefully the average price of sake goes up. I’m not saying sake needs to be all expensive but if the average price goes up by even $1 USD, it will change the entire behavior of the sake industry. An increase in value can improve production standards, create marketing budgets and promote more efficient means of logistics for moving sake to the world. I hope I’m a part of the crew that makes this happen!
What’s one piece of advice you would give to younger creatives trying to find success?
Do what you love. If you truly love it, you’ll never be disappointed with the path you choose. Also, it’s important to have a plan B, but never give up on plan A! Things take time — much longer than our average attention span, especially these days. So don’t be afraid to see things through and never lose sight of your passion.
In case you missed it, check out our previous exclusive interview with Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh.
Feature image by: Generation T