Reinventing Poons: why the iconic restaurant is being revived for a new generation
1 May 2018
The original Poons, which opened in 1973, put Chinese cuisine on the map with a Michelin star and the seven restaurants that followed. Now, the daughter of Bill and Cecilia Poon, is reviving the brand for a new generation. We headed over to the new Poons pop-up in Clerkenwell to meet with Amy Poon and find out why she thinks it’s time to reveal a new side of Chinese cooking.
What was it like growing up in your parents’ restaurant?
The restaurant trade was all I knew growing up. To my friends it all seemed very exciting and glamorous. We got to eat in the restaurant and I’d be able to sign the bill, which they thought was so cool. But I knew it could be a very punishing business – it’s very antisocial and really hard work. All those holidays you look forward to – Friday nights, weekends, the whole run up to Christmas – we spent it in the restaurant. It was quite lonely because my parents were also working full time, which I think in many ways is why it’s taken me so long to do this.
What was it that changed your mind?
It’s something I’ve kept coming back to my whole life, but at the eleventh hour I would put the brakes on convincing myself that it’s not the life I want for my family. But it hasn’t left me alone.
It was a series of bizarre circumstances that persuaded me that now was the time. I was ordering a pair of sheepskin boots online for my daughter and the seller wrote back to ask me if I had anything to do with the Poons restaurants? He used to go all the time in London and really missed it.
Then, when I started looking for a space, I had a pretty tough day in London trying to find the right location. I was sitting on the train when I saw a copy of the Evening Standard next to me and started flicking through it. Poons was highlighted as one of someone’s favourite memories of London. It was one of those little signs, where you think I just have to keep going.
What was it about the original Poons that connected so well with people?
A lot of it was to do with the fact we were around for so long, and at its peak we had seven restaurants. When the Covent Garden location opened it was the first of its kind. Chinese food had a bad reputation back then – people thought we had dirty kitchens and ate dogs, cats and snakes – but father built this glass kitchen and plonked it right in the middle of the restaurant. That was in 1976 when this whole concept of gastro restaurants, open kitchens and chefs tables hadn’t hit. It was ahead of its time. The Michelin star helped the brand stand out too.
How have you evolved the Poons brand for today?
The original menu was extensive with three master chefs in the kitchen. The concept behind today’s Poons is a much simpler offering. I think Chinese food in this country is very much stuck in the 80s and people think it’s just egg fried rice and sweet and sour pork. And there’s nothing wrong with that but there’s a lot more to Chinese food than that!
I wanted to make Chinese food more relevant to a modern palette – people want to eat fresher food. They’re more interested in the provenance of their food and eating seasonally and healthier. Chinese takeaways are not representative of all Chinese cuisine and I think it’s been badly represented for too long and that’s something I want to change.
People come and say that they’ve never eaten Chinese food like this before. But we didn’t invent these flavours, they’ve always been there. We’ve just brought them to the forefront. The difficult part is getting my father to understand how simple I want things…
Why did you decide to launch Poons as a pop-up first?
It was mainly because we couldn’t find the space we needed to do a permanent restaurant.
I didn’t intend it as something to test the waters with, but it’s been an incredibly useful lesson and I’ve learnt lots from it. Doing it without hefty rents overshadowing everything takes the pressure off a bit. People are a bit more forgiving with pop-ups. You can have a few things about the space that aren’t perfect yet, and they’ll tend to be encouraging and kind to you.
Your restaurant has been running for three months now. What have been your biggest learnings?
I suppose it’s a lot like having a child. It doesn’t matter what someone tells you, you always think your going to manage it better. Before you have a child you look quite distastefully at tantrums that are being thrown and think my child would never do that, and then you have a child and all these ideals you have go out the window.
It’s the same thing when you open a restaurant. You think, “I’ll know better, that won't happen to me. I won’t hire anyone who throws things around the kitchen or sneaks away alcohol”, and lo and behold it happens. It’s important to learn from somebody else’s mistakes. Stamina is very important. You have to really want to do something.
When not at Poons, where are your favourite places to eat in London?
It’s the tried-and-tested neighbourhood favourites such as Olivetto on Elizabeth Street, which does great pizza and is kid friendly, or Morito down the road. Bread Ahead’s doughnuts are my most recent and dangerous addiction!
If you could choose your dream space for Poons, where would it be?
I always wonder what it would be like to be back on King Street in Covent Garden.
What’s one dish you couldn’t live without?
Claypot rice, because it can have 1001 toppings and there’s an alchemy that can happen when you have clay and fire, and the rice cooks completely differently.
And finally, what defines a great restaurant?
Good service is an integral part and you have to be a nice people. Obviously good food plays a role. But the restaurant has to feel comfortable. It sounds so simple and a bit clichéd but that’s really what it’s all about.