Wednesday 19 February 2020

Interview with Pak Wai from Bar and Wok

From being a solicitor in London to running Cheltenham's hugely popular restaurant, Bar & Wok, Pak Wai chats to SoGlos about his passion for independents and his thoughts about national chains coming to town, along with sharing menu recommendations.

Offering an authentic taste of Asia, Cheltenham’s Bar & Wok remains one of the town’s most popular restaurants, providing a bustling and relaxed setting, to enjoy freshly prepared Chinese cuisine.

Bar & Wok’s owner, Pak Wai, talks to SoGlos about the success of Cheltenham’s first noodle bar, its traditional and ultra-tasty dishes, and the importance of independent businesses in the community.

Where are you originally from, and when did you move to Gloucestershire?

I’m originally from Stratford-on-Avon, but came to Cheltenham in 2005 from London, where I was a practicing solicitor. We chose Cheltenham because we saw a gap in the market for what we had to offer.

What inspired you to set up the restaurant?

The idea of setting up a restaurant came from my mother, who simply asked whether I wanted a change from being a human rights solicitor and open a restaurant instead. That one simple question took 10 minutes of pondering before grabbing the opportunity to do something completely different.

Had you worked in the restaurant industry before?

My parents owned Chinese restaurants in the past, but I hadn’t worked in one since the age of 16, and even then it was only pulling pints and making drinks.

For those who haven’t heard of Bar & Wok, how would you describe the concept?

I’ve never been one for tablecloths and the genteel murmuring of diners. At Bar & Wok, the service is fast, food plentiful, and the beer cold. We have long benches and tables, where you could be sitting with a complete stranger.

However, it’s also likely that you might recognise someone you know, and enjoy an impromptu diner with friends. So, there are no quiet romantic chats over the candle light!

What sort of dishes can customers expect to try?

We have traditional dishes which the diners will recognise, but also we serve steaming bowls of noodle soup and roasted meats, which are very popular in Hong Kong and China.

Which is the most popular?

The most popular dish is without a doubt our Singapore noodles. This is a dish comprised of rice vermicelli noodles stir-fried with pork, chicken and shrimps seasoned with our house curry blend and garnished with crushed peanuts.

To accompany the Singapore noodles, we would recommend a beef patty, which is spiced, minced beef served in a lettuce cup, garnished with fried shallots and crushed peanuts.

My brother would disown me if I also didn’t recommend our pak choi, which is grown on his farm in the Vale of Evesham.

What would be your top dish recommendation?

I would always recommend the Singapore noodles or the beef noodles. The combination of tender slices of beef and thick unctuous udon noodles creates a mouth-watering dish.

What’s your personal favourite?

Our handmade king prawn wonton noodle soup. We hand mince fresh king prawns with shitake mushrooms, carrots, and water chestnuts. We then hand make individual dumplings using wonton pastry.

Can you tell us about your family’s farm, and what type of things they grow?

The family farm has been growing Chinese leaves and vegetables for 35 years. We were one of the first farms to specialise in Chinese vegetables. We supply vegetables for supermarkets throughout the country.

The family farm grows numerous types of Chinese leaves; from those you can find in Tesco, such as pak choi and choi sum, to those you’ll have to visit your local Chinese supermarket for.

How important is it for you to source seasonal, local ingredients?

Using predominantly Chinese ingredients, it’s difficult to source locally. However, food-wise in addition to the Chinese vegetables, every week we collect our free-range eggs from a farm just outside Evesham.

Do you work with any other local suppliers?

Our ingredients are delivered from two suppliers in Gloucester. We offer local Battledown Ales, Sibling Gin, Just Rachel Deserts and Spot Logins Ice Creams.

We’re also about to start buying our cider from a local supplier who are based in Hereford and who I used to go to school with!

Do you think there’s a demand for high quality, fast food?

The UK is eating out more frequently, and not just on special occasions. People have a much higher disposable income but less time to cook, so they are turning to eating out more. But this doesn’t mean that they want to eat junk food. They still want to be able to make healthy choices.

How does Bar & Wok differ from other Chinese restaurants?

We were the first noodle bar in Cheltenham. Diners who come to us want to try something different, and to eat in a busy restaurant even mid-week. Any evening during the week it will be bustling in the dining room and we don’t apologise because bustle means people are talking and enjoying themselves.

Guests will never eat alone, even if they come by themselves, because our staff will chat and engage with them. Our approach is informal dining.

How has the restaurant scene changed since you first opened?

When we first opened, there were a lot less chain restaurants and more independents. While the chains have remained and increased in number, we have sadly seen independent restaurants open and close with all too much frequency.

We’ve become more confident knowing that our concept has been accepted by the diners of Cheltenham. Ten years ago, no one would have thought about eating Chinese for lunch, unless they were entertaining business clients.

With new restaurants opening at pace, and the development of the Brewery Quarter, are you worried about potential competitors?

We’re not worried about any restaurants that open in the Brewery; all the restaurants in the Brewery are national chains. Some diners may want to eat food with which they are familiar with, but many of our diners are of a more independent spirit and want to support a local family business.

A branch of a national chain of noodle bars is opening soon in Cheltenham. Some may celebrate its arrival – I don’t. Not because I’m concerned about competition as they serve Japanese food and we serve Chinese food, very different cuisines.

I don’t celebrate it because it’s the same menu that I can eat in Bristol, Edinburgh and every branch in between. I want to try something different when I go out for dinner. Cheltenham shouldn’t celebrate the opening of chain restaurants as if having one is a badge of honour or recognition, instead we should be supporting local restaurants and independently owed pubs.

Aside from Bar & Wok, which other local restaurants do you enjoy eating at?

Because of the unsociable hours that I work, I don’t eat out a much as I want to. Instead my wife and I entertain friends at home. No, we don’t cook Chinese, but opt for traditional British dishes.

However, for family get togethers we always choose The Langton on London Road, it’s also my local so we’re very lucky. For pizza, we go to AJO, a new Italian pizzeria located at St. George’s Street. They sell pizza by the slice and have some of the best coffee in Cheltenham.

For the best Italian we go to Dolce & Salato, in Winchcombe Street. All their pastries and food is home cooked. When we fancy an Indian, we go to The Everest, an institution within Cheltenham. For a treat we will eat waffles and ice-cream at Smoky Joe’s.

We’ve always felt that Bar & Wok is successful not only because of the fresh food, but also the people who work here.

Would you ever consider opening other Bar & Wok outlets across Gloucestershire?

We have been approached on numerous occasions to open further branches of Bar & wok. However, we’ve always felt that Bar & Wok is successful not only because of the fresh food, but also the people who work here.

Our team is very close as we have a low turnover of staff. We have front of house staff who have been with me nearly five years. I see my role when we’re open is to get to know our diners, to chat, and make them genuinely feel welcome.

Owning one Bar & wok is not a job, it’s a hobby that pays. However, to open another would mean that I see even less of my young family, and have less contact with my customers.

While we have no intention of expanding Bar & wok, this doesn’t mean that we’re not on the look out to invest in new local food and drink businesses. Developing new ideas has always excited me.

What do you get up to when you’re not in the kitchen?

I’m now at the age when middle aged spread can creep up on you without warning. To fight the flab I run half marathons.

A photo posted by Giulia Crouch (@gcrouch) on

And finally, what would you choose for your last meal and why?

My final meal would consist of Hunan Chicken, a dish where a whole chicken is gently seeped in an aromatic stock over eight hours; a whole steamed seabass with ginger and spring onions; and crisp suckling pig served with sliced jelly fish.

My mother always cooks the first two dishes when we visit her at home. I’ve cooked the same dishes many times for my own family but I don’t have my mother’s secret ingredient, so it’s never the same.

The suckling pig is normally served as a celebratory dish. Who can resist the paper-thin crackling contrasting with the soft yielding meat? The jelly fish is served cold and has an amazing texture of being soft yet crunchy at the same time. It’s very delicate in flavour but delicious.

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© SoGlos
Monday 28 November 2016

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