Q&A: PAUL SARLAS
The owner of Bao & Bing on the regional diversity of Taiwan, the importance of restaurant design, and why the bao bun’s moment is far from over
Interview: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
You’ve lived, worked and opened restaurants everywhere from Sydney to Moscow. What brought you to Marylebone?
I’d been living and working in London for the past six years when my good friend Kurt Zdesar, who owns Fucina next door, told me about this space. We’re both from Sydney, and have worked together before, and he thought I might like to open something here. I’ve just had coffee with him in fact! Marylebone is very Italian-focused and there is little in the way of Asian street food, so I thought that would work nicely. That said, I spent a long time contemplating exactly which cuisine to put here.
How did you alight upon Taiwanese?
It was the easiest. My wife is from Taiwan, so it’s a cuisine I know well and eat regularly. Taiwan is something of a food capital in Asia—it’s well known for its street food, and it is so regional, there is a real diversity of cuisines. Here in London, bao buns are very much on trend—and I don’t see that fading any time soon. Someone wrote an article recently suggesting we were catching the end of the bao ‘phase’, but that is like saying a new pizza opening would be catching the tail end of pizza. A bao is just a bun. It’s what you put inside it that makes it. Besides, there are only four or five dedicated bao places in London. Ask most people if they’ve tried bao buns and they’ll say no.
How does Taiwanese food differ from the cuisine of its neighbour, China?
Taiwanese and Chinese cuisines are similar of course, but the two are so regional. China is vast and has such a massive diversity of different cuisines, and even Taiwan, an island a fraction the size of China, has huge variation. I was staying on the coast with my family last summer, and the food was so different from anything we’d eaten in the country before. There are so many different influences: Korea, China, Vietnam, Malaysia. One thing that is really common throughout Taiwan, though, is street food. Everything on the street is amazing. You go out for breakfast, and what you find will be 10 times better and more affordable than anything you could find in a hotel. There’ll be 10 stalls offering a noodle dish, each with its own unique recipe. Some will have huge queues, others won’t. Come evening, everyone will head to the night markets for fashion and food—the price is such that, these days, it almost costs less to eat out than it does to cook at home.
Bao & Bing covers Taiwan generally, rather than being regionally specific. Do you think we will start to see different regions of Taiwan represented in London’s food scene over the next few years?
Definitely. We have regional Indian food, regional Chinese food—even regional Italian food in London these days, with Sicilian and Tuscan and Neapolitan restaurants. People are starting to respect the regionality and individuality of different cuisines, and I am sure that will happen with Taiwanese eventually.
It’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph in this restaurant. Is that deliberate?
Yes. Instagram plays a huge part in restaurant design these days. For example, yellow light on blue tiles makes faces look green. You have to be mindful of that. You have to ensure people look beautiful in your restaurant, as well as your food.
If bao are buns, what is bing?
Bing is a traditional egg crepe breakfast roll, with wok cabbage, spring onion, crispy wonton skins and hoi sin sauce, and you can add chicken or pork too. Like the bao, it’s another street food dish, which you just grab and go. These were the two street food elements I felt we should have—then I thought we should have something hearty on the menu too. That’s why we have our Taiwanese beef noodles: slow-cooked short rib of beef, vegetables and noodles in a beautiful broth, which is a bit different from ramen—more tomato-based. It’s a family recipe from my wife, and it took a while to get right because the recipes are handed down by word of mouth. It’s hard to maintain the quality while cooking in bulk.
How did you come to be running restaurants?
My parents were in the business for years, so I started young. I was working in their cafes and restaurants as a teenager, then trained and worked as a chef for a short while until I realised I preferred being front of house. I went from there, really. I studied management and worked in a boutique hotel in Sydney before opening my first cafe in the city. Today I’ve 12 restaurants there. I’ve worked in Singapore, as director of Asia-Pacific for Hilton, which was beautiful and totally different. You will never get Chinese or Japanese food here like you do there. I then moved to Moscow and worked as a director of a restaurant group there. I loved Moscow—particularly the winter. Being Australian, I was as excitable as a kid when the snow came. When I first moved there, Starbucks had only just opened its first store, and it was either incredibly cheap food or fine dining. There was nothing in between, and everything was very focused on the traditional cuisine: you could open a Japanese restaurant and still have to have Russian salad on the menu. It changed a lot while I was there. I’ve been back since and it’s now like London—you can get anything and everything.
To what extent has your wife influenced the menu?
She’s been a huge influence. She created the menu with our chef, and many of the recipes are those of her family. We take pride in our menu being authentic, and in not having very much western influence. This is reflected, I think, in our already having a large Chinese and Taiwanese clientele.
You have been busy almost every night and lunch, at a time when many mid-range restaurants are struggling. What’s your secret?
We are a small restaurant—only 50 seats—and we focus on doing things right: offering good food, at the right price point. For £15 you can get a substantial beef noodle dish and a drink, and leave feeling full. We also don’t try to please all the people all the time. We haven’t westernised too much. We’ve added some mayonnaise for the baos, a few Japanese touches, but we make sure we stay within the Taiwanese parameter. It’s easy to get distracted by trying to please everyone.
What about drinks?
It was really important for us to have Taiwanese beer on the menu. We have one at the moment, and two more coming, as well as some other Asian beers. Getting supplies from Taiwan is never easy because Taiwanese food and drink still isn’t that big in London—but we wanted to stock things you couldn’t really find anywhere else. The cocktails are bubble tea cocktails, and the tea is Taiwanese. I’m Australian, so I love my coffee, but in Taiwan they only drink tea, so that’s what we have on the menu. As for wines, I have to admit that my palate generally leans towards New World wines. I do try not to be prejudiced, but it’s Australian and New Zealand wines I love more than anything else. I love seeing people enjoy a really good bottle of Australian wine with their bao—and all the wines we have are good. Even the cheapest on the menu is good quality. I’d rather take the hit and lose the margin than serve wine people won’t enjoy.
You’ve taken the bold decision to have no reservations—and no cash. What’s the motivation there?
At the end of the day, this is a street food concept. Tables turn quite quickly, and if I am holding them for people who are late or not turning up, that’s not really fair. As for going cashless, I think that is just the way society is going. Managing cash is a problem in any business in terms of theft and security, and if I have ever had a challenge in business it has been that. Having cash on the premises means assigning staff to go to the bank and bank it, and I don’t see a reason to put them at risk.
Both your parents were Greek immigrants to Australia. Why have you never opened a Greek restaurant?
I have been asked that many times and the reason is very simple: I am too passionate about Greek food. I would tell customers what it should taste like, rather than listening to what they enjoy. Greek food is also very regional. My parents come from different parts of Greece, and are fiercely defensive of how things should be. I would just get too emotional, and Greek customers are emotional and judgemental too. They are very stuck in their ways. I prefer to eat Greek food and create restaurants for other cuisines. Maybe one day, when I retire to Greece, I will think about it.