TREEHOUSE is Hong Kong’s up-and-coming “accidentally” vegan and vegetarian hotspot that looks to be the future of dining: sustainable, ethical, modern and fast. The progressive chef-driven enterprise nods to the green movement with a taste of the future while reigniting the connection between who we are and where we come from. We got the story from the founder himself on what to expect (and more).
“The concept of TREEHOUSE is reminiscent of a childhood spent building treehouses. Even just the feeling of spending time inside one and being safe, enclosed and supported by nature. We wanted to reconnect with that primal state of being a kid.”
Christian G. Mongendre is back (thank God, how we’ve missed you). Christian is a bona fide bastion of plant-based food and culture in Hong Kong. He was the chef-patron at MANA! Fast Slow Food and HOME Eat to Live, and now he’s returned to food scene with a dynamic new concept that’s already teasing our taste buds despite not even being open yet. Last week, we announced the opening as well as a Facebook Live in which we promised to delve deeper into the wonderful world of Christian. Earlier this week the Q&A session unfolded, and all our burning questions were answered.
Green Is The New Black co-founder Stephanie Dickson talked to Christian in an exclusive first interview in the run up to the official opening of TREEHOUSE. He opened up about his own very personal plant-based journey, what’s happened since he departed in 2016, and how he believes we’ve lost our connection with food. From the conversation, we’ve summed up the 10 things that Christian said that made us weak in the knees. And if you want the full story, watch the full Facebook Live (link way down below).
1. He was born in Hong Kong
Did you know that? We didn’t. He left when he was two and a half but later on in life, he felt a calling to go back to where he was born. And following a few monumental moments in his life, his first professional (and plant-based) opportunity unfolded and finally brought him back.
2. He turned to plant-based food as a healing mechanism
Before Christian came to Hong Kong, he was a high-level athlete in the US. He started experimenting with food and found that his performance improved with a diet of plant-based food, as did his mental stamina and recovery rate. Soon after, he attended the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, an elite cooking school where he learned to cook by the book. The two experiences laid the groundwork to eventually propel his dream of creating vegetarian fast food. But the catalyst was still to come.
“The main event that cemented my vision to explore plant-based food was after my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” he shared. Christian also lost his father shortly after. Experiencing so much illness first hand was impactful on him and he dove deeper into the healing properties of food that he experienced as an athlete.
Today, even as a chef, he believes that it’s not just about feeding your palate but also about feeding your gut. “Because that’s where health happens,” he adds. “And in Hong Kong, people are exposed to so much pollution in the air and the water. There is stress just coming out of your apartment. So we need to promote foods that are life-giving, that help your body regenerate and take you to a lesser state of inflammation.”
So upon entering the food system, Christian knew he needed to be a part of the solution and set out to cater to the gut. For this reason, you’ll find a lot of highly-digestible fermented foods on the menu at TREEHOUSE.
3. He is an accidental vegetarian
Christian doesn’t believe in labels. In fact, he wants TREEHOUSE to be a restaurant for everyone that doesn’t cater to a certain niche. “We need to go beyond labels like climatarian, vegetarian, and flexitarian,” says Christian. “Labels create separation and also come with negative connotations. People think that vegan comes paired with very serious activism and people are turned off by that.”
There are also people who believe that vegan food isn’t prepared by “professional chefs.” Or that it’s bland. TREEHOUSE looks to bypass that stigma and make people not even think about meat and fish. “Our menu is about high-quality ingredients that taste good. There are so many choices and so many things to try that you won’t even realize that there is no meat or fish on the menu.”
4. His resilience is hugely admirable
When HOME Eat to Live closed almost overnight, Hong Kong was in disbelief. Christian finally shed some light on why. “When it came down to it, internal disagreements in terms of the vision and where the company should go, and so on, led to closure,” he said. “In retrospect, after two years of reflection and mulling over all of these different learning experiences, I’m really excited to introduce TREEHOUSE. Essentially, it’s a distillment of all of the mistakes I’ve made but also all the things that I got right.” At the same time, Christian is committed to achieving the same mission as his previous ventures, which is to essentially create a space where people trust where the food is coming from. The open concept kitchen at TREEHOUSE was designed to do just that and put everyone together in one place.
5. He looks to his mistakes to build a better future
It’s rare that you succeed at something the first time you try it. Oftentimes (usually), it’s learning from your mistakes that lands you with the winning idea. When Christian came to Hong Kong, he was young, starry-eyed, and optimistic, and he believed that he could change that world. Unsurprisingly, he was wrong. Of all the lessons he learned, the biggest was to trust the market. “I learned not to test products that are too ahead of their time,” he said. After a run with raw food at MANA! Raw, he discovered that his customers weren’t ready for it. “It was a wonderful concept because the food was very tasty and we developed something that on an international level was very interesting. But we quickly realized that our customer base wasn’t ready for it. We were only getting people that were hardcore believers of this type of concept or had experienced illness and were looking for healing foods.”
The experience taught him that he can’t feed based on his own beliefs and that he has to adapt his products for the market at hand while slowly guiding the consumer towards healthier options. So at TREEHOUSE, he’s introducing raw food through just the desserts “because desserts are just a wonderful way to bridge the gap to raw food”.
6. Whatever the cost (even in Hong Kong), he stays true to his values
The reality is that Hong Kong is super competitive. High rents make also operating a business in Hong Kong hugely challenging. Costs are just higher in Hong Kong straight across the board (it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world). Also, things like the packaging and materials that he uses in his restaurants are eco-friendly, thus costing even more. But he won’t have it any other way although he admits that it’s challenging to do things to the maximum while being as environmentally friendly and sustainable as he can be. “And I say ‘can’ because it’s a work in progress. We’re very happy to say where we are today versus where we still want to go.”
Importing also comes at a high cost but is unavoidable in a place like Hong Kong where there is little land and 95-97% of its goods are imported. To somewhat remedy this, Christian says he views China as local because it’s within 500 miles. He sources his produce from farms that are all within a 10-hour drive and vegetables are cut, harvested and delivered directly to him. “I wish there were an easier way, but it’s come down to best-case practice and balancing knowing that the biggest impact we have is that we offer plant-based meals.”
As far as construction goes, by partnering with ST Design studio, Christian was able to push the boundaries of where he sourced from. Despite higher costs, TREEHOUSES uses led certified eco-cement and bamboo tables. This was essential because oftentimes things in this sphere are hard to adapt to a restaurant operation because of heavy use and the solidity of the materials themselves. “The company really allowed us to have new textures and elements that are truly sustainable.”
7. He’s turned to technology to keep up with hectic Hong Kong
At TREEHOUSE, Christian is doing things a little differently than before—he’s looking to technology to better meet the needs of his clientele. “We want to be the kind of place that appeals to all types of consumers and people can still come despite their busy schedules,” he said. “We really understand the Hong Kong market now and that people need to be served in the fastest, most efficient and convenient way.” To do this, he added a take out window, mobile ordering, curbside pickup, and also made really good use of his physical space too—50% of TREEHOUSE is dedicated to a long kitchen. “The key is the speed of execution,” he added. “It’s about how fast healthy food that is fresh can be assembled in front of you.”
8. His restaurant caters to meat eaters, too (kinda)
In the same way that he’s taken the time to understand the needs of his market, Christian says it’s equally as important to understand the palate of the people you’re serving as well. “If you’re creating food for meat eaters, you need to make it exciting. Our food is chef-driven, meaning we use the mind of a chef to create food that is textured, layered, and exciting—but would appeal to a meat eater, too.”
His simple way of doing that is to work with chefs who eat meat. This way he can tap in their mindset and apply the same flavours profiles that they would add to meat to vegetables. He uses the same ingredients that traditional chefs use (minus the meat) and adds a whole new palette of colours and textures. “Our space is really non-dogmatic. It’s doesn’t matter who you are or what you eat—it’s for you.”
9. He’s doing his part and helping reforest the planet
At HOME Eat to Live, Christian supported various animal rights movements and raised awareness around the plight to save endangered species by naming dishes after near-extinct species. At TREEHOUSE, the same giving aspect will continue but this time he will be giving back to the environment. Because the concept and menu are tied more to nature than animals, the added element will focus on nature instead: tree planting (that makes sense). The initiative is currently being set up and he will release details soon.
10. He’s building the zero-waste future of our dreams
TREEHOUSE looks to minimize wherever they can—from packaging to food waste. For example, when it comes to food they’re using the whole vegetable including the root and the peel, and leftovers will be sent to farms where it will be turned into (high-quality) compost and used to plant again. When it comes to packaging, he says it’s tricky because they’re a takeaway business. But they’ve managed to source the most compostable items they can find, and that would be things made from rice starch. “The key is to have everything compostable because it’s actually very difficult to recycle things if you look a good look at where things actually go. There is not yet a perfect solution but we’re heading there.”
This was just a brief. Watch the full Facebook Live below.
We are live with Christian G. Mongendre. You may recognise him as one of the leading faces in the Hong Kong plant based movement. Having co-founded Mana ! Fast Slow Food in 2011, and then starting the hugely popular Home Eat to Live in 2016 – until its overnight closure.Since then, we haven't heard much from Christian, until now. He is back with a brand new concept, on the cutting edge of technology, conscious eating with the spirit of connecting back to nature.Join us and hear about his journey and new concept TREEHOUSE. Ask your questions below!
Posted by Green Is The New Black on Tuesday, 27 August 2019
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