When she arrived in Hong Kong as a young traveller nearly 30 years ago, Michelle Garnaut was brimming with determination but had no money, job or visa. She did, however, possess a dream and the strength of will to fight a rather entrenched stereotype.
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“No-one was really used to the idea of women cooking,” she says. “I was told I would earn more money as a waitress, and it was more appropriate.”
Garnaut soon won a job as a second chef at Restaurant 97 in Hong Kong and spent the next five years developing her craft. She was good in the kitchen, but it was her ability to pull together many strings that helped her branch out as a proprietor in 1989 and set the gold standard for what would become today’s M Restaurant Group.
As the sun was setting on the 1980s, Garnaut opened M at the Fringe with Sandra de Pury as chef. She credits the success of her first restaurant to timing.
“It was an entirely new thing for Hong Kong, rather than a new style of food,” she says.
M at the Fringe set the pace in modern and international dining in Hong Kong for years. It wasn’t just the beautiful location on Lower Albert Road in the city’s historic Central district or the non-fussy manner with which Garnaut ran the restaurant, it was the genuine and honest nature of the venue and its food.
Garnaut had, in fact, introduced independent fine dining to Hong Kong. Ten years later, Garnaut made a brave early move to Shanghai, opening M on the Bund in 1999. She is credited with rejuvenating the Bund, a waterfront area in central Shanghai that now has a thriving scene with restaurants, bars, cafés and shops.
It was a very different place when Garnaut set up shop. “It was a challenge and there was a lot of negativity. Most people thought I was crazy to open on the Bund as it was very unfashionable back then,” she recalls.
Again, Garnaut’s experience and perseverance through the challenges of establishing an independent business in China helped pull her through. Turning M on the Bund into a success carved a global name for Garnaut and attracted rich and famous diners from around the world.
Capitalising on her success, Garnaut opened The Glamour Bar in 2001, before moving it to a bigger venue five years later. Located downstairs from M on the Bund, it’s a sophisticated “bar for grown-ups” in a stylish atmosphere. It, along with M on the Bund, is also the location of the Shanghai International Literary Festival, which Garnaut founded in 2002. The festival has had over 500 writers appear over the years, attracting well-known authors including Gore Vidal, Amy Tan, Matt Groening and Thomas Keneally, as well as up and coming writers in all fields.
“China has changed in the last 20 years more than most places on the planet have changed in the last 200,” says Garnaut. “I think that makes it quite a tough place, but it is also what makes it exciting.”
It took Garnaut seven years to find the perfect location in Beijing, and in 2009 she opened Capital M in Beijing’s revamped dining and shopping area, Qianmen, with spectacular views overlooking Tiananmen Square. Diners on the terrace outside can see the Qianmen Gate, Mao Zedong’s tomb and the south wall of the Forbidden City.
A highlight of her career was overcoming the challenges of getting the restaurant open, especially considering its position in the city overlooking the famous square.
In 2011 she launched the Capital Literary Festival at Capital M in Beijing to run in conjunction with the Shanghai International Literary Festival. Held each March, it showcases novelists, journalists, food writers, biologists, poets and screenwriters from China and around the world.
Garnaut is now looking for a new location in Hong Kong after closing M at the Fringe when the lease ended because the building was being refurbished.
“It somehow takes years for us to find the right place, but once we do find it we’re more interested in quality, longevity and maintaining our good name than expanding too rapidly ... the search goes on in Hong Kong for a new home for M, hopefully it won’t take another seven years,” she says.
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