The Long Run
Tatler Hong Kong|May 2021
Black Sheep Restaurants co-founder Syed Asim Hussain runs dozens of Hong Kong’s buzziest restaurants, but his biggest appetite is for risk
Eric Wilson.

Last October, Syed Asim Hussain lost someone very dear to him. His cousin Syed Muhammad Hussain Shah, five years his elder, had been climbing near a tributary of the Indus River in the mountainous Balakot region of Pakistan with his two young sons, ages 10 and 12, when the children accidentally slipped and fell into the rapids. Muhammad went after them and was able to push his sons to safety, but he was swept away and believed to have drowned.

Muhammad and Asim had been as close as brothers since they were children, when Asim was sent from Hong Kong to Pakistan to attend boarding school at the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore. Muhammad, his mother’s sister’s son, was a positive influence on Asim, who suffered from asthma and other serious childhood ailments, and whose life, away from home from age 5 to 18, could easily have gone in another direction.

“I often say that in so many ways, he saved me,” Asim Hussain, now 36, recalls, seated in a private room at the Buenos Aires Polo Club in Lan Kwai Fong, one of the 30 restaurants he now operates as part of the Black Sheep restaurant empire that he and his business partner, Christopher Mark, established in Hong Kong nine years ago. “He was the cooler, older cousin, so a lot of his interests became my interests. For example, he was a really good basketball player, so I started playing basketball.”

When news of the accident reached Hussain and his mother, Nina, they flew to Pakistan to join a rescue mission, against the wishes of his father, the prominent trader and investor Syed Pervez Hussain, who was concerned about the rapid spread of the coronavirus there. Although Muhammad’s body would not be found until months later, 30 people from his family joined the search at the time, and all of them became infected with the virus. Two of them died. Hussain tested positive upon his return to Hong Kong in November and spent 20 days in Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung; even though his symptoms were minor, his infection was severe.

“It was a really, really painful experience,” Hussain says now, pulling out a journal he carries with him everywhere, and turns to a handwritten page. “I wrote this letter to myself and I called it ‘Lessons the fall of 2020 taught me’. If you had said to me last September that things were going to get crazier, I would have just laughed at you. And then this happened.”

One of the long-term neurological manifestations seen in Covid-19 patients who have been hospitalised is cognitive impairment, which is something that troubles Hussain, given that his ultimate success as a businessman with an unapologetic reputation for courting chaos and taking risks is reliant on his ability to rally the support of his troops, who number just under 1,000 workers today in what is arguably the buzziest food-and-beverage organisation in Hong Kong. Among them are more than 75 chefs, 30 delivery riders and walkers and 25 guest experience specialists whose job is to engage with patrons and surprise them with personal touches at every possible opportunity—what Hussain likes to say is Black Sheep’s “superpower”. This requires constant attention to detail while shifting gears thousands of times each day.

Hussain, dressed in his signature thin-knit black turtleneck and carrying a water bottle marked with the logo of Batman, says he knew even in January of last year that the coronavirus was going to take a devastating toll on the industry. He quickly drew up a playbook of safety protocols, which he distributed freely to restaurants around the world, an example of restaurateurs banding together that was hailed by international media including CNN and The New York Times. That a man with a self-avowed desire to save the world would wind up contracting the virus was a cruel irony, particularly for someone who had worked so hard to keep businesses open and his financially strapped workers employed—successfully thus far.

“If you asked me my greatest accomplishment in life, I would say this—we’re still here and with not a single redundancy,” Hussain says.

Black Sheep’s portfolio includes restaurants that specialise in an eclectic array of cuisines, from the highend “neo-Parisian” Belon that serves dishes like pigeon pithivier with carrot and cabbage, to the deeply personal New Punjab Club that is an homage to Hussain’s heritage and the original Punjab Club in Lahore, to the bare-bones Burger Circus with its addictive diner-style hamburgers. Hussain and Mark, who met a decade ago when both were working for Dining Concepts, where Mark was a partner for some of its restaurants and the culinary director for the group, decided to create Black Sheep in 2012 because they shared a vision for restaurants that could be not just places to eat, but vehicles for storytelling. Each restaurant at Black Sheep is described internally as a “story”.

Some spin a slightly twisted yarn, winking at a specific place or period: a wall of waving lucky cats greets guests as they descend the staircase of Ho Lee Fook, the saucily named Elgin Street venue for Asian fusion food that was inspired Hong Kong cha chaan tengs and New York’s Chinatown hangouts from the 1960s. The Anglo-Indianthemed Rajasthan Rifles on The Peak is an imagined rendering of a mess hall of the British Indian Army.

Others feature dishes designed to recall sensations from trips abroad, like the imported New York red-sauce power-spot Carbone, the consistently stellar coastal Italian specialist Osteria Marzia in The Fleming hotel, and the super-Tuscan Associazione Chianti, which faithfully recreates the delicate brown butter chicken from Florence’s Trattoria Sostanza. Newcomers to Black Sheep restaurants are often surprised to learn that so many of the city’s most in-demand tables, seemingly competing for their wallets, are actually owned by the same company. Once in the know, they themselves compete to become Black Sheep’s best customers with the hope of being selected to join its secretive VIP membership club, called the Black List.

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