Gert Kopera, executive vice president of global restaurants at the international restaurant group Hakkasan Group, believes in changing global perceptions around Chinese food.
“Chinese food in China can actually be quite expensive, not at all like the comfort food or fast food many are accustomed to seeing. The smokiness of the wok, the crunch and play with textures, the various smells and shochu cocktails—it’s about the whole experience of Hakkasan that we are trying to package and continue to develop, step by step,” Kopera says of the Hakkasan restaurant brand, which is managed by the Hakkasan Group. “It’s a distinctly driven process, and we’re excited to see the next generation of elevated Chinese cuisine.”
After opening its original Hakkasan restaurant location in London in 2001, Hakkasan Group has grown to represent 17 different brands with 41 locations total, 21 of which are under direct Hakkasan Group management in the U.S.
Focused on high-end, modern Cantonese cuisine, the four Hakkasan restaurants in the U.S. have long been known for popular dishes like Black Truffle Roasted Duck, Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey Sauce, Stir Fry Black Pepper Ribeye Beef with Merlot, and an assortment of creative dim sum offerings. The U.S. Hakkasan restaurants are located in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Miami while another seven are in locations like London and Doha, Qatar, with two more set to open in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in 2018.
Kopera, who is based in Las Vegas, leans on his 30 years of experience in the international hospitality industry to guide his work at Hakkasan Group. Before joining the group in 2017, he served at the COO for restaurant group d.ream and senior vice president of food and beverage for in hospitality company Jumeirah Group. He also spent 15 years with Rosewood Hotels and 12 years with Hilton International in various positions with an integral role in food and beverage development.
At the Hakkasan Group, Kopera oversees a team of VPs that is both horizontally and vertically structured. For example, he oversees the VP of Operations U.K., who handles all restaurants across all brands in Europe, but he also works with the brand directors for the various restaurant concepts including Hakkasan, Ling Ling—Cantonese restaurants in Greece, Morocco, and Norway—and Searsucker—American restaurants in Texas, California and Nevada.
To develop menus for a restaurant group of such scale, Kopera works closely with a culinary development team that includes Michelin-starred chefs Tong Chee Hwee and Ho Chee Boon, as well as the brand’s chefs at each outpost to drive new dish ideas.
“We are aiming to build a culinary team for our development in Asia, but for now we have our team in London,” says Kopera, who travels regularly to the various Hakkasan locations in the U.S. and abroad to check in and assist with menu development.
Naturally, because neither Kopera nor the head chefs can be everywhere at once, they rely on feedback from customers as well as special advisory boards, which are made up of seasoned culinary and hospitality professionals on Kopera’s contact list.
“If the soup is too peppery or the skin of the dim sum is too thick or needs color, these are things we will report back to the culinary team, and they will work on their dishes,” Kopera says.
When putting together new dishes or special menus, Hakkasan Group will first have its advisory board members come into the restaurant to test out dishes before they are tweaked and put on the menu, or not.
Trends, customer feedback (shared especially through social media), and changing consumer patterns drive new menu development. “We are seeing a lot more vegetables come into play in Chinese cuisine and a more sophisticated play on textures with lighter sauces,” Kopera says. “We have been refining dishes such that the plate might look similar, but the honey sauce is definitely lighter with less sugar and there is more of an emphasis on non-meat ingredients and textures.”
Hakkasan Group events like worldwide chef competitions also help spur new ideas for menus. For example, last October, five chefs competed in Shanghai to go on to compete against winners from Hakkasan Group teams in Doha, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. and Dubai, U.A.E.
Some of the dishes from that event, such as a curry dumpling that was developed in India to cater to a highly vegetarian consumer base, have since led to new dim sum options at Yauatcha, a dim sum and chinese restaurant brand with locations in Texas and Hawaii, as well as India, the U.K., and Saudi Arabia.
“Now that we’re seeing the rise of more vegetarian dishes in general, we are bringing some of those ideas from the India locations to the U.S.,” Kopera says. “It’s easy to be more experimental with dim sum when it comes to bringing in other local influences from different parts of the world.”
As region-specific Chinese food fever grows, including interest in the modernized Cantonese variety Hakkasan restaurants serves, Kopera sees the Hakkasan Group’s role as necessary to guiding the narrative away from the “cheap” comfort food image. “I think Hakkasan continues to serve as a benchmark for high-end Chinese food, similar to what Nobu did for Japanese food,” he says.