In some Asian cultures, first birthdays are celebrated with fortune-telling ceremonies. The parents surround their baby with objects that symbolize career paths or personality traits and, the thinking goes, whichever item the child picks suggests where they'll end up one day.
The married couple behind London's wildly popular BAO restaurants are sitting at a large round table at Hatuyuki Hall, a private banquet room at the Kagaya hotel and hot springs in northern Taipei, the cultural and political center of Taiwan. Usually the hotel provides the objects for such ceremonies – cheap-looking plastic things, among them stethoscopes to represent doctors and nurses, a ruler for lawyers and judges – but not today.
Laid out in front of Erchen and Shing's baby boy is a football (‘meaning he'll follow sports,’ Erchen explains), a calculator (‘for numbers and finance stuff’), a microphone (‘I was thinking pop star’), a briefcase (‘business’), a book (‘writing or journalism’), a paint palette (‘art’), and so on.
While the objects represent various walks of life, they share something in common: all of them have been handmade from bao, the puffy and pillowy Taiwanese dough. They required careful coloring, kneading, proofing and shaping, not to mention steaming, before Erchen transformed them into the kinds of sculptural baos that she and Shing have become celebrated for in food circles.
The baby picks up the football. ‘Considering he's our son,’ says Erchen, ‘the idea of him becoming a footballer is the least likely outcome. But watch this space, I guess!’
Few chefs – or even artists – can achieve the same level of creativity by manipulating something as deceptively simple as dough. And on this trip back home to see relatives, there are yet more of Erchen's creations. ‘It's fair to say we didn't travel light,’ she smiles.
For her mom, grandma and two uncles, as well as for her husband and baby, Erchen has flown halfway across the world – from London to Taipei, fully 14 hours 30 minutes – with giant baos of their faces packed away in her suitcase.
She made them for this magazine shoot. ‘But they didn't know that,’ she explains later, ‘and no one asked any questions. Because they've seen me making crazy things from bao so many times before, they always expect some kind of surprise.’
To say that she's made crazy things from baos many times before is an understatement. So, too, that people generally expect surprises from her. For an event for fashion label Simone Rocha in 2019, she created a bronze turkey from bao and filled it with deep-fried mince pies. The same year an 'immersive dinner' hosted alongside Hato Press, an independent publisher, was based on the South Korean horror movie 301/302. In it, a writer with an eating disorder and a chef live next door to each other in an apartment block. ‘The chef tries to tempt her neighbor into eating all these wonderful meals she's prepared,’ says Erchen. ‘So we recreated some of them with a BAO twist.’
There have been baos in the shape of pigs, pumpkins and peaches. Candles and Father Christmases. Most outrageous was the giant six-pack torso bao with mini coconut torsos inside, or maybe it was the bao-shaped penises and boobs. (‘Good for Valentine's Day,’ Erchen insists. ‘You start out making these things as a joke to yourself, but somehow 1% of them end up happening for real.’)
As creative director of BAO, she's been responsible for many other weird and wonderful creations, as well as more traditional Taiwanese street food on menus at their initial pop-ups and later across their various sites. Inspired by Taiwanese xiao chi (snack) houses and street-food culture, BAO Soho opened in 2015; BAO Fitzrovia followed in 2016; XU Teahouse & Restaurant in 2018; BAO Borough, complete with the group's first karaoke room, in 2019; BAO Kings Cross in 2020; and BAO Noodle Shop in Shoreditch the following year.
A few staples are served across pretty much all of the sites: the classic 12-hour braised pork bao with peanut powder; the fried chicken bao with kimchi; bone-marrow rice with fermented daikon; Horlicks-ice-cream fried bao; maybe all washed down with peanut milk or a melon sour (which transports Erchen back to drinking melon soda as a child).
Soon, their take on a Taiwanese dumpling house will open on James Street in central London. Then another new concept for inside the iconic Battersea Power Station. As Shing says in his typically understated way, ‘We've had a big 12 months.’
All this is a long way from where they began 10 years ago, making steamed buns with braised pork from their homes and selling them at a stall in a nondescript car park in east London.
When food became art
Interweaving branding with fine art, performance art and elevated street food, the story of BAO isn't typical in the hospitality industry. At the same time, the rise of BAO didn't happen in a vacuum. Rather, it reflects a convergence of factors that'll make the past decade remembered for a culture that turned food into fetish, and the craze for Instagram-ready viral food.
It has also been a decade in which ‘restaurants became stages for chefs to display their mastery of the highbrow-lowbrow genre,’ as Aaron Timms points out in New York City-based literature, politics and culture magazine n+1. For younger generations especially, the appeal of molecular gastronomy, dry ice and tweezer food has been replaced with something much more fun and free.
What the best new restaurants lack in luxury trappings, they make up for with deeply personal food and business models that challenge assumptions about what restaurants should provide customers and employees. Erchen and Shing embody this as well as anyone. The pair consider themselves artists first, cooks second. (Shing's sister Wai Ting Chung, the third and final co-founder, is somewhere in between.)
‘We think of BAO as an entire universe now. The BAOverse.’
Talking to Erchen and Shing is an illuminating experience. They look you in the eye but sometimes say nothing, with a thoughtful quality. You're tempted to fill the void but you learn not to, because you realize that you can't really anticipate what they'll say or they will often play off each other with naturalness and humor.
They also move around with props. Not long ago at The Cosmic House, a fantastical postmodernist home in west London, Erchen reached into her pocket for a tape measure. Architect Charles Jencks transformed this posh residential house into a masterful architectural mixtape and lived in it with his family until he passed away. It opened to the public in 2021.
Everything here has a see-it-to-believe-it kind of quality: mushroom-shaped windows, lopsided lampshades, a gigantic concrete-and-chrome spiral staircase with zodiac inscriptions, sea-green carpeting, a jacuzzi in aquamarine terrazzo.
‘I love how many references are packed into one space,’ says Erchen, listing some of them. Pop, postmodernism, cosmology, layers of irony and kitsch to name a few. Everything here is also entirely bespoke, from the height of windows to the curvature of walls. ‘Looking around,’ says Erchen, ‘you pick up on all his rules of creativity.’
‘That process of taking symbols and translating them into spaces – that's exactly what we do with the restaurants,’ says Shing. ‘We translate our heritage and own set of rules as artists and designers to tell stories and continue our narrative.’
‘But if Jencks puts 100% of his ideas into his projects, we can only be at 30%!’ Erchen replies.
‘Maybe we don't pack in enough. Maybe we aren't crazy enough,’ says Shing almost wistfully.
‘It's like he's thinking: I'm going to put all of myself into this. We should all be free and express ourselves,’ says Erchen.
‘Cosmic House might not be the most obvious thing for us to take inspiration from – our styles are so different – but we're tapping into his decision-making process,’ says Shing.
The Cosmic House had been high on their bucket list of places to visit. That day, Erchen noticed a particularly narrow staircase. ‘So small,’ she says approvingly. ‘Just 53cm.’
Leading up to a landing area and bedroom for one of the architect's children, the staircase ‘is almost adult-proof,’ says Erchen. ‘That's so smart. The architect is creating rituals.’
When it comes to finding potential new sites, Erchen explains, ‘Shing looks at the bigger picture, whereas I zoom into the details. Like: this tiny staircase is great – let's do it.’
It turns out they carry a tape measure everywhere. ‘It helps you recreate a feeling, sometimes even more accurately than a photo,’ says Erchen. ‘Space and proportion are so important at our restaurants.’
They reference BAO Soho as an example. Inside, space is tight. When you swing open the front door, there's a bar right in front of you. ‘During the design process, the builders called up: “Are you sure your plans are right? I don't think this will work.” But we wanted that Asian eatery feel, where people are very close to each other and, of course, we had used our tape measure to plan it all out. We knew it was possible.’
Their backgrounds in art and design have played major roles in the success of BAO. In a crowded industry, it's what makes them stand out. When you ask them who they're inspired by, they don't mention specific restaurants or chefs. Instead: German sculptor Thomas Demand, filmmaker Seijun Suzuki and Japanese B-movies, the duality of real and fake, cartoons, computer games, Asian grill culture, set design.
Both studied at London's prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. In fact, in 2008, it's where they met. ‘Artistically, Erchen and my styles were wildly different: Erchen is an artist, whereas I thrive on creative solutions. I like straight lines; she likes sketchy lines,’ Shing writes in their new book, equal parts memoir and recipes.
At art school, not once did they talk about starting a restaurant together. ‘The idea came on one of our many trips back to Taiwan, where Erchen grew up,’ says Shing.
Growing the mission
One recent morning over bacon sandwiches at Paul Rothe & Son in central London, where staff dress in traditional workwear jackets and shirts, Shing does some quick napkin math. According to his numbers, the restaurants sell around 750,000 baos each year. (Piled up, they'd reach the height of The Shard every two days, or something like that.)
Still, there have been many ups and downs. The so-called ‘crisis era for restaurants’ has arrived. In the UK, has there ever been a worse time to be working in food?
The pandemic, Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis – it all eventually adds up. ‘Everyone took the hit and BAO wasn't immune to it,’ says Shing. ‘At the end of last year, we had to close Fitz [the Fitzrovia site]. That was very sad for us. It was our second restaurant and one of our favorites.’
‘Since then, Wai Ting and the team have done an amazing job,’ Erchen picks up. ‘She decided to reset everything.’
‘In June 2022, we had some dark moments. We had to think innovatively and make adjustments pretty fast,’ says Shing. ‘Things have turned and we're doing really well. Everyone in the industry was expecting another downturn this year, but it hasn't come yet. Weird. Either way, we're staying prudent. We're staying nimble.’
‘Waiting,’ adds Erchen. ‘Tiptoeing.’
Operating a restaurant group is undoubtedly hard-going. Putting down their bacon sandwiches, Shing and Erchen pause before letting their words spill out.
‘Scaling is hard. Profitability with three or four sites, for example, can stay the same as the profitability with having just one. You have a head office. Much bigger head count. As you grow, the noise and complexity also grow,’ says Erchen.
‘Sticking with one site – we'd question what we were doing. May as well step back and go to the beach. We're driven by creating restaurants and growing our mission – to educate around Taiwanese food,’ says Shing.
‘With just one site, there's no space for staff to grow. Everyone is breathing on each other,’ says Erchen.
‘We want to create a company where people want to stay with us for their career. Even though it's definitely more complex growing a food business beyond one site, we felt like we had to do it,’ says Shing.
Less than a year ago, BAO found itself with 23 chef vacancies to fill.
Erchen: ‘Way too high.’
Shing: ‘So we put together a strategy of how we tackle this. We stepped back and started from scratch. We looked at how we hire and motivate our staff, how we get the culture right, how we get pipelines into senior positions right. Most people don't see hospitality as a long-term career choice. But we always wanted to create the right kinds of conditions to change that. We did a 360 review.’
The new strategy seems to be working. On the day of this breakfast meeting, BAO is hiring for just two positions. That's almost unheard of for a restaurant group of its size.
Looking back, would they do it all over again? Short answer: yes. But there are caveats.
‘When we got into this industry, we were so young,’ says Erchen. ‘It's OK, but we're not 20 years old any more.’
‘Hospitality comes with a lot of noise. It's relentless. Even so, we're always looking for the next idea,’ says Shing.
Creating the BAOverse
The early stages of the pandemic made them search for new ways to grow the business. They were influenced by world-building strategy video games like Command & Conquer and Theme Hospital, as well as Walt Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, an unfinished but real futuristic town designed to house 20,000 people in Florida. ‘We wanted to gamify the experience of eating at BAO,’ Shing explains. ‘To bridge online and offline.’
‘We realized that more tech would be coming to restaurants and we started thinking about how we could do it without it feeling cold,’ Erchen cautions. ‘The app exists to tell the story of our community, our world.’
Users receive an initial allowance of 250 BAOcoin, the digital currency of the BAOverse. Money spent at one of the BAO restaurants earns users BAOcoin in the app. In turn, BAOcoin can be spent on digital items, which can then be traded for their real-life counterparts on future restaurant visits. A bubble milk tea costs 250 coins, a classic bao 300 coins and chilli chicken wings 350 coins. For the most expensive item on the menu – a custom-built BAO bicycle – users must collect 30,000 coins.
There are other layers to the app, beyond claiming prizes. The more you eat at the restaurant, the more characters you unlock. Opening the app on his phone, Shing brings up a small pixelated image of a dog. ‘This is BAO Dog. He always sits outside BAO Soho.’
A sip of tea later, ‘Here's Crying Lady. We'll never forget her. She takes us right back to the start’ – that is, when they traded for the first time, at a night market in Dalston, in 2013.
‘We were all confused why the queue snaked around the corner,’ says Erchen. ‘Maybe it was the adrenaline,’ says Shing. ‘It was all new to us. I remember people eating and then rejoining the queue to order more, including a woman who'd never eaten bao before. She took one bite, hugged Wai Ting, then started crying.’
They've also created a character for ‘the peanut milk guy’. ‘He visits BAO Soho to taste the quality of our peanut milk drink,’ Erchen explains. ‘He says to whoever's working there – every single time – that it's not as good as the peanut milk at other sites! Even though it's exactly the same!’
The character for Shing is complete with small wire-frame glasses and is called – exercising his co-founder privileges – the Mayor of BAOverse. Then there's the regular who orders six soy-boiled eggs – no more, no less – from Rice Error (oh, yeah, that's the delivery brand inspired by rice houses across Taiwan, which BAO also launched in lockdown).
Launching an app is risky business. They're time-consuming. They bleed money. It's hardly surprising why so few independent restaurant brands do it. Has BAO's new app been a success? According to more of Shing's napkin math, if 15,000 people start using the app in its first year, BAO's revenues will increase by 1%. ‘This project doesn't come cheap. But we had 1,600 downloads in the first week, and that made me slightly less scared.’
Still, numbers don't always show the full picture. The bottom line isn't everything. As the opening of BAO's new book states: ‘First and foremost, our aim is to be storytellers, and when you sit in our restaurants you become part of our world.’ For Shing, ‘the app is a necessary continuation of this ethos’.
Back in Taiwan, the fortune-telling ceremony is over. The baby's attention has ‘expired’, says Erchen. ‘This is his first trip back home. It's been a lot.’
Erchen grew up here. Countless childhood memories have informed the brand – seemingly many of them involving food. She spent a lot of time with her grandma, who frequently cooked extravagant family banquets. Otherwise, she'd mainly socialize at night markets – ‘snacking on xiao chi, fried chicken and bubble tea’ – or at karaoke – ‘which combines my two favorite things: eating and going wild when I sing.’
Shing and Wai Ting's upbringing ‘was much less exotic,’ he says, but no less interesting. ‘We lived the classic Cantonese immigration story. Our grandfather moved from China to London in 1960, where he washed pots at a Chinese restaurant. He worked his way up to head chef there before moving to Nottingham, where he started what became a family of ever-changing restaurants and takeaways over the next 60 years.’
In 2013, Shing and Wai Ting visited Taiwan for the first time, with Erchen as their tour guide. The night markets, in particular, were a revelation. ‘All the smoke, the gleaming lights. Everything alive and exciting,’ says Shing.
The ‘penny dropped’ to open a restaurant on that trip. ‘We were at a famous xiao chi place, sitting on the street eating fried chicken, when Wai Ting mentioned how street food was taking off in London,’ says Shing. ‘But it wasn't until we were in the car back from the airport to Nottingham that we came up with the name.’
‘When you sit in our restaurants you become part of our world.’
The trip was formative in other ways, too. Erchen was able to show her fellow co-founders the figure of the Lonely Man in real life for the first time. Previously, the Lonely Man had been the subject of one of her artworks; today, it's BAO's logo.
‘Loneliness is an important part of our brand and we want to look at the positives of loneliness – things like self-reflection and solo dining, which there's a much bigger culture of across Asia,’ she says. ‘At BAO, we want to create perfect dining experiences, alone or in groups. So, we like imagining what sort of restaurants the Lonely Man loves going to, the music he listens to, how he relaxes, what his guilty pleasures are.’
Warming to her theme, she continues: ‘Above all, we're trying to take people to another world. To an almost uncanny, other-worldly version of Taiwan.’ Shing adds: ‘Our hearts and souls are in this.’