Our series of online people profiles covers a wide range of backgrounds, careers and personalities of individuals in Hong Kong. In this instalment, Nikolai Smirnoff talks food and beverages, music and Mong Kok, and the mayhem that can come with the restaurant and bar business in uncertain times.
Tell us a bit about your background; where are you from, where did you grow up, and is Hong Kong “home” for you?
I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where I lived until I was 12 years old. I then moved with my mom, an international school teacher, to Fukuoka, a quiet city in the south of Japan, and then to Hong Kong when I was 15. I’ve been in Hong Kong for just over 10 years and I can’t see myself living anywhere else in the near future.
What do you do here? Tell us about your business.
I’m a restaurateur and cider enthusiast. I opened my first restaurant – Momentai, Sai Kung – when I was 21. I also started a cider distribution business the same year and took over our neighbouring restaurant, which brought us to a grand total of 6000 square feet on the waterfront. There are a lot of seats!
The restaurant side takes up the majority of my time, while the cider business has been a bit more of a passion project over the last few years; it has led me to meet a lot of great people, some of whom have become business partners. I’m opening a neighbourhood bar in Mong Kok this month called Graceland, which has been born out of a collective passion for food, booze and music. We’re all extremely excited to get that going.
Momentai opened up in 2017, when Sai Kung was seen as a bit of a quiet area. It didn’t really excite people when I told them I had a bar there. Sure, it was packed with people every weekend, but it was nothing compared to the post COVID-19 Sai Kung crowds we’ve experienced since the borders closed! Everyone started looking into what they could do within Hong Kong and it’s just been absolute mayhem. Good fun, lots of people coming and really enjoying themselves, but also total chaos at times, especially when restrictions were changing quite quickly without giving us or our customers any time to keep up.
What have been the surprises and challenges of doing business in HK?
Always surprising in Hong Kong is the speed in which you can accomplish things. If you have an idea, chances are you can make things happen at rapid speeds if you’re motivated. Hong Kong is packed to the brim with opportunities. The challenging side is finding the right people to work with – then keeping those people. Everyone has so many opportunities and branching paths at their fingertips. If you want to switch jobs, particularly within the food and beverage industry, you can do so in a heartbeat.
That being said, at the end of Momentai’s four-year lifespan, many of our staff had been with us for two to three years, and it really did feel close-knit. Our team was goofy, fun and warm while being serious about providing top-notch service. We all had tons of fun together and I appreciate the heart and soul that everyone put into making the place feel special.
Give us an insight into a typical working day for you.
I tend to go with the flow of whatever the day requires; I seldom make plans because of how quickly things can change when you’re running a weather-dependent seaside restaurant. Even within the restaurant, due to our customer base being mainly day-trippers, you never know exactly what to expect. I work wherever I’m needed day to day, supporting the section or set of staff that need it the most.
What neighbourhood are you living in at the moment, and why did you choose it?
I currently live in Mong Kok. After living in Sai Kung for eight years, I wanted to experience something completely different. Compared to laid-back and serene Sai Kung, Mong Kok is dense and vibrant, which allows for a great work-life balance that I love.
What are three things you enjoy about your neighbourhood?
Having more than a dozen bars and restaurants to go to has been a nice change from Sai Kung. There are at least a thousand places on Foodpanda alone! That’s been dangerous. Aside from that, the bar scene in Mong Kok is quite small and intimate, despite how dense the area is. It feels like a neighbourhood where you’ll always see someone you know, and the staff all know your name. It’s part of why I’m so excited about opening there. If you pick a direction and just walk, you’re bound to see or find something new.
Describe your home to us.
It’s a modest apartment in the heart of Mong Kok, absolutely packed with instruments (an accordion, a Chapman Stick, five guitars, three basses, a trumpet, a melodica, and a Moog synthesiser), tons of audio equipment, books, vinyl records, big pink sofas, computers, a full-size arcade machine, three adopted cats, ceramic cups (made by my aunt Barb Campbell) and plenty of good booze to fill them with. It’s pretty silly but I’ve never been happier living anywhere else.
Outside of work, what are your hobbies in Hong Kong?
Momentai doesn’t have air-conditioning so I usually stay in on my days off and enjoy just not being in 36°C weather all day. When I do go out, I walk around Kowloon with my girlfriend, spend a day in an outlying beachy area of Hong Kong, or go bar-hopping with friends.
Quick questions about Hong Kong: what is your favourite …
Casual restaurant? Absolutely anything Japanese. In my short couple years there as a kid, the food definitely rubbed off on me. I can’t live without it.
Date night restaurant? The Brasserie in Carlyle & Co.
Bar? Shady Acres – been there more times than any other bar in HK.
Local food? Mong Kok skewer stands.
Thing to do with visitors? I bring people on the same loop: a walk through Kowloon, a trip on the Star Ferry, drinks in Central and a walk down through Sai Ying Pun.
Nearby holiday destination? My go-to is Japan. If life suddenly went back to normal, I’d be on a flight over tomorrow. It’s such a great place to relax; whenever I need to take some time to reflect on my life and figure out what I’m doing and what’s going wrong, I fly somewhere in Japan and just chill out.
Like this? See more in our Living in Hong Kong section!