From Chinese takeaway kid to accountancy and back into restaurants, Henry Yau wants to feed you small 'British Chinese' plates
Wow Yau Chow opened quietly in Altrincham a week before Christmas 2018, but didn’t announce itself properly until Chinese New Year 2019, when they offered free lunches, leading to a stream of people queuing down Stamford New Road for a taste of their ‘British Chinese food.’
But how is that different to the Chinese food we’ve already come to know and love? We sat down with Wow Yau Chow’s founder, Henry Yau, over a pot of jasmine and chrysanthemum tea, to find out.
Wow Yau Chow isn’t your first restaurant business, so where else might we know you from?
Henry Yau: "It’s our third venue, but has taken a different turn to the other two. Our first was Cockadoodlemoo, a BBQ restaurant in Hazel Grove. June 2019 will be it’s sixth birthday. We opened a second branch in Rochdale in 2015.
How did you get into the restaurant business?
HY: “I was born in Hong Kong and came over to the UK when I was six. I didn’t speak a word of English. My parents opened a takeaway in Moston where I grew up. That’s pretty much how I cut my teeth in hospitality, peeling and chipping potatoes.
“But I left and went to uni to become a qualified accountant with a career in finance – a very different profession. For my parents it was all about settling in and getting their children educated. It’s a back-story for many immigrants and ethnic minorities that came over. Education is the route out of the industry – so it’s funny that I’ve come back.”
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to open a Chinese restaurant first?
HY: “Six years ago, the smokehouse scene was very much in its infancy. Reds True BBQ only had one venue in Leeds, Solita had one restaurant in the Northern Quarter and it was early days for Almost Famous. When we opened in Hazel Grove it was well received.
“But that confused my family and friends at the time who were saying ‘not only are you an accountant, you’re trying to enter the restaurant industry and you’re doing something not Chinese.’ But I was just dipping my toe in to see if it was something I wanted to get fully behind. I was still living in London and had managers running my business, while I was coming back at the weekends.”
It must have gone well because you opened a second branch.
HY: “In hindsight, timing wise, I probably should have gone in a bit later. But it made me realise that this is what I really want to do, despite the challenges we’ve had – the Rochdale restaurant got flooded within three months.
“Burgers, smokehouses and casual dining were in the frame, but we always wanted to be a suburban, community-led restaurant. I couldn’t understand, for a town of Rochdale’s size, why it wasn’t being served by many eateries.”
So why have you started a new brand in Altrincham?
HY: “The Chinese casual dining scene doesn’t really exist in the UK like it does with Italian, Indian and Thai food. Chinese brands offering good quality food, good value and, dare I say it, a more modern environment? If you go to a typical restaurant in Chinatown they all feel quite similar. We’re trying to have a more buzzy approach. Some culturally-led restaurants get the food, but not necessarily the hospitality bit. Service is very important.
“This is brand evolvement. I always wanted to open a Chinese restaurant, but it’s always been about how. Chinese food has been in this country for so long, but we’re looking to almost disrupt it. It’s eastern values meeting western culture. I feel I’m well poised to bring both together.”
So what is ‘British Chinese Food’?
HY: “We encourage an almost tapas-style of eating, inviting people to go at their own pace. Order a couple of dishes to start with some drinks and then order a bit more if you feel like it. What’s the feeling you normally have when leaving a Chinese restaurant after you’ve gone for the Emperors banquet? That ‘loosening your top button’ feeling, right? It’s better when you’re satisfied and feel just right. Also, eating this way, you haven’t wasted anything.
“Our menu has a section for small plates. We’ve not cut back on anything; provide good value, provide good service, provide good food. If you get that right, then hopefully you’ll have a fan base.”
Talk us through some of your small plates.
HY: “The dish names are deliberate, with cultural references, for a bit of fun – though we’re very serious about the food and the things that we do. We have our salt and pepper ‘ribs of fury’, paying homage to Bruce Lee. We also have ‘dynamite prawns’ with wasabi mayo and some pickled slaw, for balance - almost like a palate cleanser with the fried food.”
"The rest of the menu includes bao buns, steamed crispy pot-sticker dumplings, rice bowls, noodles and British Chinese mains. The prices purposefully placed between what you’d pay in a takeaway and a traditional Chinese restaurant.
“At these prices you can try lots of different dishes. The most expensive thing we have is special fried noodles (£8.50). Special chow mein at a typical Chinese restaurant would probably be at least £12.50. With us, you’ll get the same amount of topping and protein, but it hasn’t been bulked out with extra noodles. With smaller plates, you’re not fazed by a huge plate of food and there’s less waste.”
Tell us more about your food.
HY: “We don’t use MSG. We use gluten-free soy and oyster sauces. We are getting away from using artificial colours and keeping things quite natural. We make the dumpling fillings and dressings like our house chilli sauce. It’s about doing the simple things correctly.”
And cocktails? That seems unusual for a Chinese restaurant.
HY: “We’ve expanded on the typical drinks range to go with our food, offering customers something different. I tried to source some Hong Kong craft beer, but it’s way too expensive. We stock Lucky Beer, the Hitachino range and Asahi on draft, which goes with the Asian theme.”
HY: “I decided to close in Rochdale in November and next steps are to reopen it as a Wow Yau Chow in May. We want to keep our story moving. It’s very encouraging that people are watching what we’re doing in Altrincham through social media and are asking when we’re opening. ”
Are you looking to open further beyond?
HY: “I’ve been listening to customers and I get the feeling that we’re moving in the right direction. This environment is what I love and hopefully a lot of other people will feel good here too. We have already found a forth site which we’ll open soon on a good wind.”
Wow Yau Chow, 59 Stamford New Road, Altrincham, WA14 1DS. Tel: 0161 928 9931
Full scored review to follow...