22 May 2019
Michelin-listed chef Lai Wai-hung (left) is introducing robots and innovative practices to his second venture, Master Hung. Photo: HKEJ
Michelin-listed chef Lai Wai-hung (left) is introducing robots and innovative practices to his second venture, Master Hung. Photo: HKEJ

Michelin-listed chef eyes robots in kitchen of the future

Lai Wai-hung, founder of Hung’s Delicacies, has been gearing up to extend his group of Chinese eateries beyond the Michelin-anointed brand.

Hung’s Hong Kong-style fast food restaurant named Master Hung opened its first outlet in Kwun Tong last year with signature dishes including Cantonese barbecue pork or char siu.

In an interview with Hong Kong Economic Journal’s StartupBeat, Hung offers his vision for introducing robots and innovative practices to his second venture.

In starting a local restaurant, recruitment tops the major difficulties for Lai. He said local restaurants can hardly find any apprentice even if they offer HK$18,000 per month. “[The workers] are lazy with poor working ethics, quick to job hop their way if they don’t receive wage hikes or promotion in the first few months.”

To have a qualified and stable team, Lai engineered a radical change to the conventional restaurant kitchen culture; the majority of his staff is female. “A strong point of female chefs and workers: they don’t job hop every few months,” Lai said.

In order to reduce headcount and resources needed in staff training, Lai has adopted technology from automated machines to kitchen robots. Cutting machines for scallion and ginger have been introduced in his kitchen, “prepping and cutting task can be easily and nicely done by female workers,” said Lai, adding that the machine comes from a South Korean company priced at around HK$9,000.

Lai said he plans to bring in the automatic rice fryer soon. “The machine performs the manual rice frying task and our staff just needs to add the ingredients and condiments into the machine following its preset cooking modes.”

One of the biggest advantages of the automatic rice fryer, according to Lai, is that it can maintain the quality of the fried rice during rush hours, “A staff can even manage several machines at the same time.”

Lai’s group of Chinese eateries, Hung’s Delicacies, was known for its Chiu Chow-style braised meats, since his original restaurant in North Point was awarded one star in the second edition of the Michelin Guide for Hong Kong and Macau, and it retained its Michelin star over the next four years.

But in order to facilitate the new practice, Lai has modified the menu for Master Hung and chosen char siu and curry as signature dishes, removing complicated but high-margin dishes such as roast chicken and goose. “The recipes of these dishes are clear and simple that even female workers without an advanced level of knife skills can handle.”

By adding automation and saving cost, Lai said the new practice in Master Hung delivers a remarkable result. “We charge HK$50 for a dish of char siu with rice, that’s not cheap, and we are serving more than 200 dishes per day, five days a week. The number doesn’t lie.”

Lai said that he is not a blind follower of the new technology, adding that he is not a fan of robot waiter either. “To me, that’s simply a PR gimmick. Local restaurants are all limited in space owing to the sky-high rent, getting a robot moving around would be completely impractical.”

As for mobile payment, Lai is also conservative about the user experience, citing concerns for the elderly. “There are many customers who aren’t accustomed to fast-moving technology. Their needs should not be forgotten.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 11

Translation by Ben Ng

[Chinese version 中文版]

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