The man behind Jimmy Chung’s is returning to Aberdeen beach with million-pound plans for a food hall overlooking the sea.
Businessman Chung Wong is also in talks with leading city chippers to finally bring one to the seafront, on the building’s ground floor.
Under blueprints seen by the Press and Journal, the Esplanade venue would have a huge food court upstairs boasting seven “pods” serving different cuisine.
There would be space for 160 diners across the expanse.
And there would be a bar, filling another gap at Aberdeen beach for people who fancy watching the tide rolling in with a pint by their side.
In our exclusive interview:
- Chung tells us about giving up his accountancy career to become a pioneer in the food trade, and how his fondly-recalled Jimmy Chung’s brainchild took off
- He lifts the lid on his devastation as the seaside diner burned down in 2014
- And the impresario reveals some of the firms already signed up for the new venture
From the ashes of disaster…
It’s a cloudy but mild spring morning when we meet Chung at Aberdeen beach, his bright green Audi RS easy to spot as it draws nearer.
It’s a drive he avoided for years as he dealt with the “heartbreak” of his Jimmy Chung’s restaurant on the promenade burning down.
Now, he is returning to the very spot with his latest venture.
The planned food hall, yet to be named and currently awaiting approval from the council, would be spread across the first floor of the replacement block built in the aftermath of the blaze.
Under the blueprints, rows of food pods would be formed around the perimeter with an extension created to fit them all in.
The food market model is one that Resident X has also adopted in its plans for Marischal Square, and is expected to feature in the council’s plans for the new Aberdeen Market.
The new chip shop, meanwhile, would operate downstairs next to the Turkish Kitchen.
Restaurant that made Chung famous nearly didn’t happen
The father-of-two, an accountant by trade, moved from Hong Kong to Essex to study when he was 18 and ended up coming to Aberdeen 25 years ago to open a new office.
He had no intentions of entering the hospitality industry, until he spotted a gap in the market that nobody else seemed willing to fill…
“Jimmy Chung’s was not my idea, I had seen this model elsewhere on my travels,” Chung tells us.
“I tried to sell it to my catering clients, I was telling them this was the future but nobody was interested.
“I can’t even cook an egg! So I knew I had to get a good team…”
Owner looks back with pride on Jimmy Chung’s success
With chef Ronny Yung’s help, the businessman opened the first Jimmy Chung’s on Great Western Road in Aberdeen.
Another followed on Union Street, and the beach venue was later added to the burgeoning portfolio.
Branches soon sprouted up across Scotland, including popular venues in Edinburgh, Dundee and Inverness.
And it even went overseas when a Dublin branch opened.
Chung explained: “I would source locations, come up with the best design and spend the money, I was doing the fun bit while Ronny did the dirty work.
“It was a good time, I was travelling all over Scotland.
“I’m quite proud of the business, I always like it when my children’s friends come to the house and say they had their 10th birthday party at Jimmy Chung’s rather than McDonald’s!”
Food waste at Jimmy Chung’s a source of regret
The belly-busting bottomless buffet phenomenon eventually faded away, the problem of food waste gradually eating at Chung’s conscience before Covid finally put paid to the chain.
Whether it was customers with eyes bigger than their stomachs feverishly piling plates high with noodles and curry, or simply having to get rid of excess at the end of each day… The sheen wore off as Chung watched tonnes of food being shovelled into bin bags.
“It was heartbreaking to see all this food being thrown away when there are people going hungry” he told us.
“But there was nothing we could do, hygiene rules meant we couldn’t give it away.”
Then in the early hours of February 20, 2014, disaster struck.
How blaze destroyed Jimmy Chung’s at Aberdeen beach
Chung was in Glasgow when he received a phone call at 5am.
At the time, he told us he was “in a state of shock” upon hearing the dreadful news.
Dozens of firefighters were, at that moment, trying to douse flames shooting from the roof of the promenade site.
It was left a blackened ruin, and demolished shortly afterwards.
Looking back, Chung said: “That really took it out of us.
“I stopped even driving past here for three years, it was so upsetting.
“It took me a while to regroup.”
Chung added: “We lay low for a few years, the fire was very upsetting.
“The whole site was rebuilt as five units, with the fifth one on the upper floor never being occupied.”
Chinese saying that guides Chung on new venture…
Gazing out to sea from the balcony, Chung explains his affinity with the coastline.
He said: “I am from Hong Kong so I was raised by the sea, and we were here before with our restaurant.
“I find the sea so peaceful, it’s so changeable but it’s like a picture all the time. And where we are located, you get great views as light floods the whole bay.
“In Chinese, we have a saying: ‘Pick up where you fell down’.
Scroll back and forth to see how the blaze-hit building was rebuilt:
“This is where we fell, so this is where we will start.
“I think the beach deserves more, it’s an asset for Aberdeen.
Gesturing towards the cavernous space, he adds: “I would live here if I was allowed to!”
What about the risks of starting a new business in the current climate?
So is he nervous about ploughing an estimated £1 million into his coastal comeback?
Chung answers: “My wife says, ‘Why take the risk of opening a new venue when the prices of everything are going up? You could just play golf’ – and I am a very keen golfer…
“It is always a risk, but you have to live by your decisions.
“People said it was a risk opening Jimmy Chung’s – charging £4.99 for a buffet!”
He adds: “I want the ‘best of breed’, only the finest food available: produced locally but with a global flavour.
“I honestly believe this concept will work.”
What other tasty treats would visitors be in store for?
As well as progressing talks with an award-winning local chip shop, Chung has already lined up the Dundee-based Gidi Grill Caribbean food firm to take on one pod.
And SooShe, a Japanese diner in Aberdeen which became a casualty of the pandemic, would be resurrected to fill another space.
Meanwhile, Chung is inviting other local businesses to come forward – promising to consider all offerings as long as the quality is right. (He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org)
What’s the appeal of food court?
He adds: “I don’t think these places will be in competition with one another, it will all enhance the experience for the customer.
“At the moment, if we want to go out for a family meal, there is always a compromise.
“We might want four different things and have to agree on one – leaving three people disappointed and one happy.
“Our plan is for the downstairs to be a chipper… I can’t believe a seaside location like this doesn’t have one already, it’s a crime!
“We are now in advanced talks with a local business about the site.”
‘If you build it…’
As we discuss the plans, workers nearby are painting railings as work on the regeneration of the beach gradually gathers pace.
“All the council’s plans for the area, including the new football stadium, would be nice – but I am not pinning my hopes to them.
“I am confident enough in this idea that I don’t need to. We want to go ahead regardless.
“I feel like I need to do this. Like the film says: ‘If you build it, they will come.'”