SHANGHAI – While several renowned international chefs have failed to make it in China, a Spanish cuisinier has been able to prosper in the Asian country over the past decade with a simple trick that has helped him expand throughout the continent: adapting his menu to the local customs.
Small but effective details such as making menu cards in the style of the Great Chinese Feast or providing diners with chopsticks have helped Guillermo “Willy” Trullas win over customers in competitive cities like Shanghai, where he currently runs three establishments, including his flagship restaurant, El Willy, located in the upscale area of The Bund.
In an interview with EFE, Trullas – who was born in the northeastern Spanish city of Barcelona in 1977 – talked about surviving within a volatile market, where fashion trends change fast and the government’s ever-shifting policies, along with rampant real-estate speculation, are just another ingredient on the plate.
What was starting in China like? What made you try your luck here?
I came to China in 2007 to work for a company organizing gastronomic events. Later, I wanted to launch something of my own and, by chance, I happened to meet a person who had a restaurant and it was not doing well, a place in Shanghai’s French Concession district that ended up becoming the original El Willy.
What was the initial concept that led to the birth of El Willy?
The idea was to open a Spanish food place offering traditional “tapas” mixed with contemporary ones. And the entire menu, just as it is today, was inspired by the structure you would find at a Chinese restaurant, with a large menu with stuff intended for sharing with others, based on the concept of balancing the yin and yang.
Has this adaptation been one of the key factors of your success?
Without a doubt. For example, the fact that they have an option to eat with chopsticks is very important because people from provinces come here, who have money but do not know how to pick up a spoon or a fork, because they have not grown up with it. We cut the meat in pieces; we make croquettes that can be picked up with chopsticks. The important thing is that they understand how it should be eaten, but adapting it to their ways.
Over the last few years, many renowned Spanish chefs have tried to enter the Chinese market and have failed big time. What do you think has been the reason for that failure?
China is a market where you either have to be present on a day-to-day basis or have a very powerful partner. The payback is good, but one has to get to know the clients, managing employees and above all understanding a market that changes very quickly. One has to have an open mind and adapt and many chefs have come from Spain thinking that this is Spain: making the same dishes, with the same menu. But the locals here like what they like. Short menus and degustation menus do not work. The Chinese like variety and they like to share food.
El Willy is your flagship, but then there’s also FoFo in Hong Kong and Tomatito in Shanghai, in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), and Manila (Philippines). How was that international expansion?
We have been opening in places where we’ve got friends, people with whom we can collaborate. Some years ago, I was at a crossroads between expanding within China or looking at some other regions in Asia and decided to go with the second option. I had been here for long and wanted to see different things.
And how are you able to be in so many places at the same time?
The trick is that team members are partners and thus are interested in the business. They also have a risk, have incentives and work hard so that things work out. Otherwise, it’s difficult to get people to show the same interest as you.
What are the plans for the future?
Well, everything here evolves at a brutal speed, today we may have this but tomorrow, who knows. They have just informed us that they are emptying two buildings where we have two restaurants (Tomatito and El Ocho) and we have been given five weeks to move. It’s going to be tough because we are not a big company with a big investor backing us. We will have to look for another place, but it is going to cost us. This is the first time that we have to relocate because of the government, but I’ve had to close before because they doubled the rent overnight. There are things that one has to get used to when seeking to run a business in China.
So, have you not been tempted to go for massive growth all this time?
I’m not interested in that. Our philosophy is to have a good time and we are growing in an organic manner, without a strong investor for support. This would mean having to live with a board of directors and that doesn’t appeal to me much. We are moving at another pace completely.