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Interview:
David Laris
By May 20, 2009 Dining


One of the most well-known and prolific restaurateurs in Shanghai, David Laris is the man behind The Fat Olive, Martini Bar, Slice, the Barbie Caf��, The Opposite House in Beijing, and not the least of which, the restaurant in Three on the Bund that bears his name.

This Saturday, Laris celebrates five years of high society living, with their Laris Vegas party. The event is a six-course "concept menu" dinner and after party. Dinner is from 7pm (998rmb per person, incl. one glass of Dom Perignon). The party rages from 9:30pm, with no cover. For dinner reservations, contact 6321 9922.

SmartShanghai sat down with David Laris at Laris to talk about kitchen business, five years of the Laris, and fine dining in Shanghai.

***

Thanks for taking the time to answers a few questions. To start off, tell us a bit about yourself -- where were you before you were in Shanghai?

David Laris: Mmhmm... I've been in Shanghai for six years. Feels like I've been here forever but before here I was in London -- I worked for Sir Terence Conran at Mezzo as a Chef GM for three and a half years. And then before that I was in Hong Kong, before that I was in Vietnam, before that I was in Hong Kong, then Macau before that, and Sydney before that.

And that's been my journey to get here.

Do you feel as though you've finally settled in Shanghai or are you looking on to the next place?

David Laris: No, this is definitely home and we're planning businesses that will open in 2012, 2013. Before I got to Shanghai I used to always think in terms of when and where I'll be going next. In two or three years, I would wonder what's the next adventure. But since I got to Shanghai, I haven't really thought that. I got to the point that this feels like home.

And why is that?

David Laris: I don't know. You get to a certain point where you get your teeth stuck into a number of things. I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be. I mean there are places you want to live coz maybe they're cleaner or because they've got a beach or something like that. But in terms of excitement and opportunity, but also in terms of the craziness... I love the craziness -- I couldn't live in a place like Singapore for example, which I love to visit, but it's too organized, too together. I like somehow that insanity. There's enough insanity to keep me captured and captivated for a long time.

And I have a ten-year-old daughter now and she's been going to school here since she was four. And you get to that point to where you can't keep traveling with a kid. I think everything just fell into place. [Laris] was incredibly successful, and I've started another few companies, still developing new business... Why leave?



From working as a chef for numerous years, when did you evolve out of being a chef to branch out into concept development, entrepreneur, designer, consultant...

David Laris: Well, I'll always be a chef. I don't think you stop being a chef.

I was in the kitchen for a good 18-20 years solid. 100% in the kitchen, maybe diversifying into management -- I was like "chef manager" in quite a few places in my career leading up to the whole thing of starting a company. So it's been a progressive thing.

This hardcore chef with all the burns and cuts, samurai sword ready to cut people's heads off... and that was insanity, I was always on the edge. And a very, very hostile, angry person for many, many years when I was cooking full-on. Cooking 16 hours a day. I was a cooking animal. And then I started to see that there was more I wanted to do in life and not just this.

So I decided to put more time into the entrepreneurial stuff, into expressing myself in other ways. And then that evolved into what I am today, and what I am today is only one point to where I want to be. I don't think by any means I've arrived. If we think we've arrived then we should probably go home. I'm still evolving, the ideas I've been developing are not new, I've had them since I started in the industry when I was 16.

When I worked for Terence, I was GM and chef of the largest restaurant in Europe at the time: 2-million pound turn-over, 200 staff -- I think that was the step when I was forced to learn other things that you don't necessarily learn in the kitchen. And then when I got to here, this is my vision. I decided had to be involved in every aspect. So I worked with the designers very closely, the kitchen, I developed every little piece of the concept I had my hand on.



After doing this, I got the idea of starting a company that did concepts, and that's when I started DLC and a few years later, that led to... actually, the other way round, people came to see me about projects, and that led to me forming DLC. And now I have 10 staff working for me, just in the consulting company, and we do projects in HK, Beijing, here. It kind of morphed into that, it was inevitable that I had to refocus my attention on things.

How about some of the projects you're working on in Shanghai? Fat Olive, the restaurant/ cafe in the Barbie Store, the Martini Bar, 1933 -- how is the steak house project in 1933?

David Laris: I put it on ice. We were all ready to go, in fact we were at the point where I trademarked the name -- "The Maverick" -- and I got a logo done. We had done a base design, we got the uniform, we've got the menu ready, the drink concept ready, all very cool, very happy with it.

Then there was a decision made between myself and my partners to not pursue it. It's a 1900sqm space, it's as big as [Laris], it's a massive undertaking. I also didn't think it was fair to [Laris], with the economy being where it is. If there was no recession, I can have two major restaurants within 15 minutes of each other, but with the recession and everything, I'd be sucking from one to the other.

How about The Fat Olive?

David Laris: We just opened Fat Olive and it's just gone off -- we're actually chasing it. We just doubled the menu, but it will never be a place for a full blown dinner, the kitchen is too small to handle that. The concept is an after-hours drink place. I can't believe how well it's been received.



Based on the success of Fat Olive, we're now developing new branding concepts with t-shirts that say "How Fat is your Olive", launching a Sunday BBQ on the terrace, and starting today is our 4.30-9.30 DJ set, a concept called "Skip School Early". We are planning to do at least 3-4 Fat Olives in the coming 8 months or so.

Beyond that, we are doing the Barbie thing. Once we open something like that, we stay on as consultants, meet twice a week, talk to the chef, I go and do tasting. We're also working on developing a Barbie chocolate brand for the Asian market.

How does your daughter like the Barbie Store?

David Laris: Yes, she loves it, I took her to the opening. She was like a little celebrity walking into the store with all the cameras going off!

Congratulations on Laris' five-year anniversary. What do you attribute the success of that to?

David Laris: Well, hard work. Great people. Really great people who have become engaged.

Isn't there a lot of pressure with the restaurant carrying your namesake?

David Laris: It keeps me on my toes. There is a lot of pressure. To stay on top of your game for this long, for the last five years for high end dining, to stay consistently good is even harder. We've had a great five years, what can we do now. We're always changing the menu, the wine list, the cocktail list -- reinvigorating to some degree.

How about the F&B scene in general in Shanghai?

David Laris: Well, hopefully with the Expo coming, it will reinvigorate the scene. Certainly it's been a tough year and Shanghai has been luckier than some cities like New York. What's happening is I think the middle market is doing well in this period...

People are scaling back on extravagance?

David Laris: Right, corporate accounts have been cut, people are watching their budgets, they've been told to watch their expenses. So of course, fine dining is going to feel a little bit of a pinch, but that's only short term. I think most people are waiting for things to feel a little more confident.

What we are sitting on now [with the expansion of the Bund and the development to the Expo South Bund area], I think we're sitting pretty. This year has been a time to reflect and re-strategize. Not to say we're not busy, we are. We're used to being overbooked everyday but now we're just booked.



After you finish a very long hard day in the kitchen, what do you go home and eat -- something gourmet, or just pick up a burger and fries at the local Mickey D's?

David Laris: Leftovers, if there is something in the fridge. If I can stop off and have a bowl of hand-pulled noodles on the way home, that's pretty damn fine. When I lived in Vietnam, I would stop for a beer and a bowl of pho. I don't do McDonald's anymore. I don't just say that -- I'm just over it.

Maybe one really bad hangover a year I'll have a coke and a Big Mac but I always regret it. It always leaves you with that horrible empty feeling. It's like bad sex. You wish you hadn't done it. It can be junk food, but I'd say more like simple or fast food. I'll pull out some ham and cheese, big loaf of bread, sit in front of the telly and veg out.

What does the future hold for David Laris?

David Laris: My vision next is to continue to create concepts but I want to consolidate all of what I have into a master plan. My idea is to build my company into something bigger than what I have. By doing so, I free myself up to be pure again somehow, purely focused on creative and kitchen, and not have to worry as much of the business side of things.

I see myself evolving into another level where I will fund an F&B business that focuses on expanding ideas but having people do that for me while I focus on the creative side of things. That's one aspect of where I see myself going and more the same. Just keep going. Hopefully the luck and success continues, keep working hard and more time for tattoos and going to the beach... one day!

***

Laris Vegas is this Saturday at Laris. Dinner from 7pm with the after-party starting at 9:30pm. Call ahead for dinner reservations: 6321 9922. Congrats to David Laris and the rest of the team at Three on the Bund for their five-year anniversary.

1 comments.

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  • Shanghaimagic

    Wow, what a visionary and interesting person. Completely admire his work and all the things he\'s accomplished in a short 5-year period of time. I\'ve known several expatriates that are successful but it took them a lot longer than 5 years to accomplish half of what David has done. Fantastic food, great environment and good mix of concepts. Well done.

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