By: Jack Stanley
BAO has come a long way since its early days. Founded in 2012 by Erchen Chang, Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung, the cult London restaurant began life as a series of pop-ups in cafes across the city, before making the move to street food markets. Fast forward just seven years, and there are now three BAO outposts in London, as well as the XU restaurant that the group also owns.
Despite their growing food empire, none of BAO’s three founders have a formal background in cuisine. Erchen and Shing met while studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, while Wai Ting had initially trained in Clothing Design and Technology. This earlier focus on art and design has been important for BAO, with the group earning a reputation for a visual identity that sets it apart from other market stall competitors.
The group’s visual identity is summed up by its logo, a sketch of a solitary figure crouching and eating a bao bun. Originally designed by Erchen as part of her degree show, the figure has become instantly recognizable in London and shows that BAO maybe doesn’t take itself as seriously as other restaurant groups.
BAO describe its restaurants’ food as “interpretations and stories of Asian culture told through quality produce and unique experiences,” every BAO restaurant takes inspiration from a different place. HYPEBEAST recently sat down with Erchen and Wai Ting at the group’s newly-opened Borough location to ask about their creative process, how BAO has developed so far and the planning that goes into each location.
The brains behind BAO explain how they built a restaurant empire
Exploring the otherworldly artworks of the Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor.
What was the change from market stalls to permanent restaurants?
Yok & Sheryo
Wai Ting: At the beginning it was really hard, we were doing two or three markets a week. Even if we were trading three days, we’d have to spend the other three days prepping. We used to steam all the baos ourselves, make everything just the three of us. It was quite intense. We’d have intense days where we’d steam 800 baos.
Erchen: And then you’d go home and just braise pork for the whole day, it smells so bad.
In the beginning it was very, very hands on. Everything we did, we did it ourselves, from the logo to the food and everything. Going into the restaurant, you have to step back a bit and let the teams do more and then you can have a better view of where we’re going.
Did you have similar styles before you met?
Sheryo: My style is really wonky and really imperfect because I like imperfection. My lines were super wavy when I drew and his was kind of straighter. He would draw a straight line. Try to get really straight on the wall and spray can and I'll be like, "Yo. I'm just going to do it wonky." Because it's easier. It's done by hand.
Yok: I had a cleaner style. A bit more, I don't know, it was a bit more work and trouble to make the cleaner style and then I met Sheryo and she had this loose, wobbly, wonky style and I was envious of it and kind of adapted into that. It’s kind of like that new airbrush work that we've been doing. I kind of just embrace the looseness and the wonkiness of it in the conception.
Erchen: It’s very important that each restaurant does different things. We’re inspired by many different eateries in Asia. So Soho is quite minimal, it’s very food focused. It’s in Soho so loads of people are coming in and out and they only want to spend maybe 30 minutes. With Borough we were inspired by the late night grill places and drinking places in Tokyo. We have a highball machine here. Everything revolves around the late night eating style. I think the inspiration comes from a different area but they’re all kinds of Asian eateries and it filters through different restaurants.
Wai Ting: It’s just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London. At Borough we did the KTV room downstairs, and we’ve got the hatch there, almost back to our street food days.
Erchen: For Borough, we were inspired by late night grill joints so we drew a lot of inspiration from images of places that we’ve eaten in Japan or Taiwan, and then we list what we want to do. We normally work within a structure; you may say, “We want five baos, five small plates and five to six grill foods,” and that’s a set structure we put down. Then we start testing from there. Normally there will be a flavor combination that I really want to do, then I work from there to find a protein or vegetable to go with it. Or it could be the other way round, the supplier might come to us and say, “I’ve got this aged beef which no one really uses”’ then we’ll let’s test that and work out what we can do to create. It’s a combination, but the concept needs to hit the brief.
What’s the story of BAO so far? How did you go from a market stall to three locations?
Erchen Chang: We started in 2012, and at the time Shing, Wai Ting and I went to Taiwan, that’s where I’m from, and we travelled around Taiwan. That’s when we had the idea of making the gua bao, which is the bao. We came back and did loads of tests, then we started asking cafes to let us to do pop-ups. Very soon, we were invited to do markets, and then we decided to look for a site together. We opened in 2015.
How do you make sure all of the sites have their own identity?
I was doing reverse painted acrylic polymer peel paintings for a long time, and those were hyper-detailed and all super hard-edged and super meticulous. It got to a point with that where I guess around like 2012, I wanted to start doing something more visceral and more painterly and less sort of slick.
What is the process of creating a menu?
Good advice is work a lot, experiment a lot, and see a lot of art. Find out who the artist is who you really admire and what do you like about their work, what can you bring into the work, but also how can you experiment with materials and make paint do something that's your own language. At least for me, that's always been really important to my practice.
“We used to steam all the baos ourselves, make everything just the three of us. We’d have intense days where we’d steam 800 baos.”
“We’re just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London.”
Sheryo: Not as much as we like to. Now, we’re very busy with studio work and traveling to different locations in Southeast Asia.
Yok: Yeah, we’re busy finding places to do installations. It’s our new thing. We also travel often to learn niche handicrafts. We get stoked about going to places like Indonesia and spend months learning how to do Batik and making other local artisan works.
“There are elements of creativity in what I do but it's very process-focused work.”
Erchen: It’s been the most fun to create. The brief we set ourselves has been so specific and it’s been really good to have a big inspiration and piece together the atmosphere. We wanted to create this space in a way that was as if it had been here for a long time. Its playing with that type of late night joint with the handwritten menus, posters saying, “Buy this, buy this, buy this.” In Bao Soho and Fitzrovia we have no artwork. This is a different approach.
Wai Ting: I think people when they come in to our restaurants feel like they’ve been transported to somewhere else and it feels like a completely different experience to them. Even the BAO Bar that we have in Netil Market was inspired by bars in Tokyo, so it’s this little six seater bar and they sit inside there. They don’t feel like they’re in London. That’s what we aim to do with each restaurant.
What was the process for designing the Borough location?
Erchen: When we started Soho it was very much looking at our background, our travels. A lot of our influences are from Taiwanese cuisine, it goes across all sites as well. But for Borough specifically, before we worked on the menu we really wanted to have a yakitori grill. We knew we wanted to have a grill section, we knew this was something we wanted to create. When we tested dishes we worked with our suppliers on different meat cuts and just taking more inspiration from grill items.
Wai Ting: I think for here because its more drinks focused, all the food works really well with drinking. That was more of the focus with the menu here. The drinks are based on the really big highball culture in Japan, there’s really over the top fruit drinks, where they’ve got like a whole mango in a drink for example. We’ve based our drinks on those highballs so we work with seasonal fruit and we’ve got the Suntori highball machine; there’s only two in the UK.
How do you translate that idea into the food and drinks, as well as the aesthetic?
Wai Ting: We brainstorm a lot together, we cook a lot together, we all pitch in with our ideas. We like eating out a lot, and when we travel to Asia there’s always something, when you taste something really good then you think about it in a dish.
Erchen: We’re really influenced by our travel, when we were opening Borough I’d just been to Japan so that had stronger influence. It really depends on the timeline of where we have been, where’s the freshest menu and then we work from there.
Where do you find your influences?
Erchen: It’s used in every possible way, from our background we can talk to artists and we have the contact to artists so we can create thinks more fluently and then have it out. I’ll do the illustration and then Shing will do the graphics. Even though we don’t talk about it too much, it’s all embedded in the design of the restaurant. It’s literally everywhere. Even the pottery is made by our friend, so it’s really easy to say, “I want to have this dish in this style.” It’s all very organic.
How do your artistic backgrounds translate to BAO?
Are you both still doing that now?
Sheryo: We usually have an idea of what we want to do, but then we don’t do any research because we never do research. It's more fun without research. We were sort of embarrassed because we’re coming in as foreigners and going to these regions with strong traditional customs.
Yok: We have a general idea and then when we land in that city, we just wing it. Jakarta is really well known for its quality Batik. After finding the best source that we could think of, we rented a motorbike, rode down to the village, and just asked 10 people until one person said, "Yes, you can come into our studio and learn from us." I think this sums up a part of our process is adventure plus learning, because this product you could never get from just being in the studio.
Are these projects during your travels planned beforehand?
Sheryo: Not so much, actually. We’re pretty easy going. I think it's more like the installations that we've been doing. Which is quite a new thing because there's so many moving parts to it and just talking to the contractors, the carpenters and stuff and just... yeah. Trying to project manage stuff.
Yok: Usually when there’s time sensitive pressure on a project it gets a bit stressful and we start butting heads.
Do you ever butt heads on projects?
Yok: We would look at our drawings and imagine how it would be great if they were worlds that you could go inside, touch and move around. That's where the installation inspiration came from, I guess.
Sheryo: It was kind of natural, really, a progression from 2D to 3D. Yeah.
What about installations are you both most fascinated by?
Yok: We’re working on an immersive installation at the Paddle 8 auction house at the Lower East Side of New York City. We’re creating this nine-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger with Donald Trump’s tombstone on top.
Sheryo: It’s this pretty big basement spot. We are making sculptures as well as creating the upholstery and benches. It has a really dingy and dark vibe. It’s kind of a lounge room setting. It’s going to launch this coming fall season.
What are you both working on right now?
Erchen: For a period of time I was really interested in Japanese B-movies, and all the men in there are like macho men and they can’t cry. So I was really interested in men’s tears, and that translated into the lonely man eating a bao that he doesn’t want to share, that interest in food and joy but loneliness combined, and with the weeping man illustration.
The illustrations have a notable style, where does that come from?