Spanish chef Edgar Sanuy reveals how a burnout at the peak of his career changed his entire approach to living in one of Asia’s most stressful cities, HK. Now, he’s back with his own tapas bar, Pica Pica.
At first glance, Spanish chef Edgar Sanuy’s career is nothing but a string of successes. Having worked in three Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain, he forged a career in Hong Kong, heading up Spanish restaurant BCN, award-winning restaurant group Maximal Concepts, and luxury restaurant Mercedes me. Behind the scenes, however, his world was falling apart. Facing total burnout, he quit it all in 2017 for a new life in the Philippines. Now, back with his new tapas bar Pica Pica in Sheung Wan, he tells Hive Life how a complete overhaul of his way of living and working saved not only his sanity but also his career.
“At the end of the day, I would ask myself, ‘Do I really have control of my life?’ I wasn’t happy,” says Edgar of the burnt out that changed the course of his life. As the Executive Chef of Maximal Concepts, he held a supposedly enviable position, one overseeing some of the city’s best restaurants including Limewood, Mercedes me and Blue. Yet, behind the façade, he was at breaking point. “One day, I said, ‘l cannot handle Hong Kong anymore. I cannot handle this anymore.” It was really stressful. I wanted to step out.” And so he did, quitting his position for a much quieter and less high-profile existence as a consultant in Manila to two Spanish restaurants, Rambla and Las Flores.
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The hospitality industry is notorious for its cut-throat culture, outrageously long hours, and critical and chaotic atmosphere, offering a career path that places huge pressure on those who follow it from the get-go. For Edgar, who worked in his uncle’s restaurant, Bikini, in Tokyo at the age of 22 before training at the Hofmann Hostelry School and then honing his craft at Spain’s Michelin-starred restaurants Hofman, El Rincon de Diego and Torreó de l’Indià, this intensity was something he’d experienced from the very beginning. “I remember, in those days, it was very, very tough. You spent 14 or 16 hours a day in the kitchen,” he remembers of his training under demanding mentors. “Is it nice when they are tough on you? No,” he declares. “But, does it prepare you for anything? Yes.”
For Edgar, it was the combination of his job at the top of the tree with the hedonistic lifestyle he’d discovered upon landing in Hong Kong to open Spanish restaurant BCN in 2012 that, together, took their toll. “If your company’s just opened one of the most successful bars in Hong Kong and your colleagues are telling you that they are going for drinks after work, you’re going to go. But, then what? I was supposed to go to the gym the next day, but I was too tired. I was planning to eat healthier food, but I wouldn’t follow my plan. It was very stressful. I was disappointed with myself.”
The problem was so severe that he packed it all in for a different life in the Philippines, but three months later, he had a revelation. “I left mainly because I was done with Hong Kong. And then, in Manila, I realised the problem wasn’t Hong Kong. It was my approach to it.” For him, re-evaluating his life from afar helped him see a way through the chaos. “I had everything in Hong Kong, I just didn’t see it. When I came back, I started hiking much more. I started respecting my days off. Before, on the weekend, I would still go to the restaurant. Now, I don’t. This makes me much more productive and efficient.” He also moved to Sai Kung where he lives a much quieter life. “It’s nice. I have a balance, which I think in Hong Kong is very important because otherwise you can get consumed.”
His latest venture Pica Pica reflects this change. A cosy, high-quality tapas bar with a friendly vibe, he opened it in Sheung Wan in 2018. “It is a reflection that I’m having a much more comfortable life,” he explains of the homey space. With its open kitchen, sharing plates and loud island music, its casual atmosphere is completely different from anywhere else he has worked in the past. “Many times in my career, I did dishes because I knew they were Instagrammable and they would sell. I was always thinking about marketing. Here, I’m cooking food that I want to have for dinner. It’s as simple as that.” Going back to his roots, he is focusing on the produce he sources, something he learned as a child watching his grandmother scouring the markets back home in Spain for the very best she could find. “When she got back, I would say, ‘Why did it take you an hour?’ She would reply, “Because the tomatoes on the other side are better.’ Before, I wouldn’t make dishes that I didn’t think could make me look cool. Now, I don’t care, because I’m very confident in the quality of the produce.”
Looking back on his journey, Edgar’s advice to others is to keep it as real as you can. “Be humble,” he says. “I think one of the reasons some chefs fail is because they think they’re here to teach people how to eat and it’s the wrong approach.” And then, surround yourself with others who will bring out the best – in you, and the business. “Find the right team — and I don’t just mean your culinary team. If you think a restaurant can be driven only by food, you’re going to fail. A restaurant needs a design, a Front of House, smiles from the service team, a comfortable seat and proper food. You need the whole team who are passionate. Every aspect is important.” Not least your own mental health.
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