It’s no surprise that a Spanish restaurant achieved top-50 status. But chef Willy Trullas Moreno managed that feat in Shanghai, taking his sexy Spanish restaurant, El Willy, to the forefront of food in a city already steeped in rich culinary traditions. Next came elEFANTE, a funky mix of “el colmado, el bistro, and la trattoria,” and El Ocho, a creative cocktail lounge housed in a heritage building. And in Hong Kong, Willy’s Fun F&B Group’s portfolio also now includes the Michelin recognized contemporary Spanish restaurant, FoFo, and La Paloma, a tapas bar named after the oldest and most famous nightclub in the chef’s home city of Barcelona.
With a second Tomatito opened in Manila, subtly tweaked to help it fit the Filipino market, we met with Chef Willy to find out how he plans to make sexy Spanish cuisine a fixture of Vietnam’s food scene too.
How did you end up in Asia? What were some of your first projects?
I came to Asia in 2006, but before that, I was an executive chef in Barcelona, in my home country of Spain. I was working like an absolute madman, but the cost of living was just too high. Despite Spain’s thriving food and beverage scene, I decided to go where there was more opportunity.
I already had some contacts in Shanghai because I did an event there at the Four Seasons Hotel in 2004. I was blown away by the warm reception I received, so I decided to go back for an interview. I mean, why the hell not? Luckily it ended up working out, and in February 2007 I started working in Shanghai for Torres, a global wine distribution company.
Around that time, many people were doing business between Spain and China—and I was doing lots of events to help promote Spanish cuisine. At one of the events, I met a Japanese guy who owned a restaurant in Shanghai. But unfortunately, it wasn’t doing that well. Once we got to talking, we quickly decided to collaborate. He had the space and I had a concept, as well as experience as a professional chef. That was in early 2008. From that point on things just snowballed leading to our first restaurant in Shanghai called El Willy. The Diner’s Club Academy gave us a visit and ended up ranking El Willy as one of world’s 50 best restaurants. That’s what really put us on the map.
It seems there is an underlying sense of humor in many of your restaurants. Why is this an important component for you? What effect does it have on your customers?
I’m the kind of guy that loves to have a good time—a really good time. And I want to transmit this part of my personality into the theme of my restaurants. I don’t want my customers to just sit and eat quietly—I want them to be having a great time while they’re at it. It’s not only about creating an entertaining atmosphere either. We need to add the same element of fun to our food as well.
Interesting. How do you translate this sense of humor into the cuisine?
Having fun and being silly is just part of my DNA I guess. We want to instill a sense of playfulness all the way from the interior design directly onto the plate—from top to bottom. We come up with goofy ways for customers to eat particular items, give our dishes a ridiculous name or plate our food in a comical way. I want people to look at the menu, see their food and start laughing. At that point, the experience changes—we’re not just a normal restaurant anymore. We even play with the shape of the food. Of course, we have to do this without sacrificing quality, but we’re not too serious outside of that. It’s all about having fun.
Your quirky personality seems to resonate strongly with your brand. How do your restaurants maintain this spirit when you aren’t physically present?
I used to believe that my presence was essential to my restaurant’s personality. But that philosophy could only take us so far—it wasn’t sustainable, especially as we were growing. So, I started thinking, and that process took me back to my roots and the notion of “Latin fever”—a “sexiness” that is such an important part of Spanish culture. To bring that spirit all the way to China, I began looking for staff members with the kind of personality that could embrace this way of thinking. The best way to do that was by finding the right people and providing them with a kind of fun and informal mentorship. It became a key goal of the company and I was working hard to engage the team as much as possible—you know, to try and make my quirkiness wear off on them.
Also, I would add that joint venture partnerships are another great way we’ve found to sustain restaurants while I’m away. I find local partners who are interested in long-term investment. Many businesses struggle to find managers that will follow protocol when they are not around. But if the joint venture partners don’t follow protocol the business will suffer. And if the business begins to lose traction, they will be negatively affected.
We also offer employee ownership programs. When an employee knows they can work their way up and potentially become a co-owner, they become highly motivated and are more likely to follow our formula. It’s a win-win for both sides.
How were you able to get Asian consumers through the doors of a restaurant serving “sexy” Spanish cuisine?
Timing was everything. It was absolutely perfect. When we opened El Willy in 2008 the expat population was exploding. Around that time Shanghai was very similar to Vietnam now—like an El Dorado. When we first launched, about 70% of our clients were expats. They would often host corporate events at the restaurant bringing in lots of locals, and everyone seemed to really dig it from the get-go. It was something fresh and new—especially for the Chinese. Although the expat population has tapered off recently, we’re still riding that wave. Word-of-mouth is a powerful thing and as long as people are talking, your restaurant will have customers.
Tell us about the concept behind your Ho Chi Minh City Tomatito.
Tomatito is the casual little brother of El Willy, which is a bit more high-end. We refer to it as a “sexy tapas bar.” We opened our first one in Shanghai and then another one in the Philippines. It’s focused on family-style dining, and, as with my other restaurants, we instill the element of fun—it’s bold, colorful, and funky.
So with two locations already, is there anything you’re going to change about Tomatito in Ho Chi Minh City?
Once we launched our location in the Philippines we had to adjust the menu a bit for the local palate. And after we get Tomatito rolling in Vietnam we will need to tweak it again to fit the tastes of the Vietnamese, while still sticking to the same core food philosophy. My team here in Vietnam is well-established and they know the market well. They understand the needs and wants of the Vietnam food and beverage scene, so I will follow their guidance, putting emphasis on things that are unique to Ho Chi Minh City’s market.
I know some might not want to hear this, but I think the Vietnamese are actually very similar to the Chinese. They love seafood and are really getting into proper steak. On the other hand, the Vietnamese also like their rice cooked a bit longer, and they definitely eat more soup than they do in China. We will take those habits and preferences into consideration when we put together our menu for the Tomatito here. I will collaborate with my team and play around with their ideas a little. We also make it a point to talk directly to our customers and ask them what they think, and what they would like to see on the menu. We love to get first-hand feedback and we’re not afraid to experiment and make changes when we see what is bringing in the most amount of people.
Why Ho Chi Minh City for your next Tomatito? And why not open another El Willy, El Ocho or elEFANTE here?
Tomatito is more suitable for the Ho Chi Minh City market because its concept is a bit more malleable than the others. It can undergo its own kind of evolution while still fitting our mold. It’s not as premium as El Willy or elEFANTE—it’s midrange. The idea is that you can go there and have a great time without breaking the bank. It needs to be affordable, although we will throw in a few higher-end options. But it’s by no means your traditional “fine dining” experience.
How do you keep up with the rapid changes Asia is undergoing?
Oh man, that’s extremely hard to do. It literally changes in front of your eyes. The best we can do is to try to stay one step ahead of the game, and that’s always a challenge. These days we can’t be afraid to try something new—trial and error is a must. If we had managed to figure out a recipe for keeping up with Asia’s changing landscape we would be opening sexy Spanish restaurants on the moon!
If you don’t mind to indulge us, what is your guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
I love all sorts of gamey meat. And baby eel. God those are good! Many people aren’t a fan of eating any kind of meat from a young animal, but the taste and texture is amazing. I like to cook baby eel in a pot with garlic and chili. Then add some olive oil and soak it up with some bread. It’s good, and that’s all that matters to me. And in my fridge at home, there are always cold cuts—especially chorizo and ham. They are a Spanish institution that I can’t live without.
What do you do for fun when you’re not in the kitchen? What’s your go-to cocktail on your nights off?
Well, I’m a chef and our reputation is that we like to party hard—and for me, it’s definitely true! I go out with my friends all the time. And of course, I have to have my wine every night. For cocktails, I go for a dry or dirty martini. Oh, and a good bloody mary. They’re perfect for my hangovers!
Who should we talk with next?
Don Lam from Vinacapital. He was involved with APEC and is building fusion resorts around Vietnam. He’s already invested US $200 million dollars into the hospitality industry.