Mak Kwai Pui is exhausted. The Hong Kong chef and restaurateur has spent the past few months rapidly expanding his empire of casual dim sum parlors across Southeast Asia, with no end in sight. See, Mak operates Tim Ho Wan — the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant — and now he’s coming for the rest of the world.
Last month, he opened the second Australian outpost of Tim Ho Wan in Melbourne. Next month, his third location in Thailand arrives. Come summer, the restaurant empire spreads to South Korea. And this September, Mak will tackle the United States, opening a Tim Ho Wan in the former Spice space on 10th Street and Fourth Avenue in the East Village.
Tim Ho Wan’s fall opening will mark Mak’s first visit to New York City. When setbacks befell plans to open a spot in Hawaii — originally intended as the restaurant’s first U.S. location — the New York project took priority.
“We’re headhunting now for a dim sum chef. It should be a local Chinese face,” says Mak. While there was already a chef in mind for the Hawaii location, Mak stresses that each outpost needs a toque who better understands the local market. “[That chef] doesn’t know New York, but in Hawaii he knows everything.”
Prompted by the Michelin stars, there are often hours-long lines of out-of-towners at Tim Ho Wan’s Hong Kong locations — where Mak originally intended to feed locals at bargain prices. Mak tells the Voice that his designs on the U.S. involve appealing to the culinary tourists who seek his food abroad.
In 2009, Mak left Lung King Heen — a three-starred Cantonese restaurant at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel — to open the original Tim Ho Wan in a Kowloon neighborhood. When rent rose thanks to gentrification, Mak moved the restaurant rather than raise prices. Six years after earning his first Michelin star, little has changed.
Steamer baskets of plump prawn dumplings, Mak’s signature trio of baked buns stuffed with barbecue pork, and Chinese-sausage-stuffed glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaf all remain under $5. Even now, the tissues within the boxes placed atop each table serve as napkins. Meanwhile, diners still choose dishes pictured on a paper placemat, fill out their checks with pencils, and rinse their chopsticks in cups of hot tea. “I don’t think about money,” Mak says. “But maybe the investors think about money.”
If lines out the door aren’t already profitable enough, the New York Tim Ho Wan will also have a liquor license. While the menu will continue to be strictly limited to dim sum, the menu will grow over time and add more dishes appealing to American appetites, including “high quality beef dishes.” Menus at Tim Ho Wan’s international outposts have already evolved to appease regional palates and customs. Most recently, Mak has experimented with dim sum using chicken in lieu of pork to serve local Muslim populations. If it succeeds, the restaurant’s kitchen will seek halal certification.
After expanding to the States, Mak hopes to finally turn his attention to mainland China — the one market that continues to elude him. “Someone else has registered the name Tim Ho Wan in China,” he says. “But the name is not important. People trust me, and when I say it’s my cooking — it’s mine.”