Time with: Christian Mongendre
Christian Mongendre has guts. He also cares about your gut.
The founder of Mana! Slow Fast Food and Home—Eat to Live has a strong vision, one that he won’t compromise. One of Hong Kong’s forefathers of promoting a sustainable and plant-based lifestyle, he walked away from his previous business ventures in order to recalibrate, consult, and launch new initiatives.
His company, CGM Concepts, now keeps him more than busy. He’s just launched a wholesale business, Origin Organics, bringing organic, traceable dry goods, pulses, nuts and more to restaurant businesses, with the ultimate goal of making organic products as economically viable as the alternatives. He’s been consulting for businesses that want to incorporate sustainability into their philosophy, such as Lisbon-based Juicy and Hong Kong’s Artyzen Club. And—most exciting of all—he’s launching a follow-up to his own restaurant ventures. While he’s in the fundraising stage now, he hopes to debut the concept by the summer of this year. He’s staying mum on details, as has always been his strategy.
In the meantime, we spoke to the entrepreneurial chef about his ideas for changing the world, more than one meal at a time.
What was your introduction to the benefits of plant-based cuisine?
I was born here in Hong Kong, my parents were expats, but I left when I was around two years old and was mostly raised in France and America. I went to high school and university in the US and I did high-level rowing. I started playing with my diet at that time, playing with vegetarianism, veganism. Anything I could try, I would, just to see the impact on my body. And that was my first conscious exposure to the food world. The more I ate healthily and the more I controlled what I put in my body, the more I grew in my mental stamina and strength, and also overall empathy and all these other things that would come from transitioning my diet.
It was interesting because my rowing friends were eating whatever, and it didn’t matter because we were fit, but it would just make me tougher than that paradigm of “You’re a tough guy, you eat meat”. It was the opposite actually, the more I ate healthily, the stronger I would get. I worked with a nutritionist to see the impact of different diet sequences. I recorded everything and saw tangible improvements in my mental stamina, recovery and overall competitiveness. And [diet] was the only thing different that I was doing from my teammates.
How did you go from eating right yourself to pursuing this as a profession?
That competitive environment was really my whole formative education. And as I got into that I thought, well I would really love to cook and have a restaurant one day. And my goal was to create something McDonald's style, but healthy. So I decided I wanted to go to cooking school.
My mother got sick, so I decided to go back to France to study cooking where she was. As she struggled with cancer I started deepening my search into preventative health, the food system, the medical system. And I really dug deep for years and years until she passed away, but I don’t think I acquired all that knowledge in time to help her, really. But as I was doing cooking school in correlation to that, it kind of sealed that if I’m a chef, if I’m to work in the food system, I need to really be providing life-giving food—food that is not just exciting to the palate but goes a lot deeper than that.
If I’m a chef, I need to really be providing life-giving food—food that is not just exciting to the palate but goes a lot deeper than that
— Christian Mongendre
As a chef, it’s so easy to balance flavours to make people feel excited. What is much harder is to appeal to the gut and the brain. If you’re giving food that is powerful and promoting health, that’s a really powerful cause. I can help other people so that what happened to my mother doesn’t happen to them. Because I think it was preventable. If I knew the things that I now know, I think I could have helped her a lot more. And so, after my father passed away a year later, more of a broken heart from losing her, in a way it was a very powerful experience. It really created who I am today and it gave me wings in terms of, I had no one to impress. I was by myself. I have one sister who lives abroad, but I was free to do whatever I wanted, and that’s when I came back to Hong Kong, back to my roots. I hadn’t been back since I was two, but when I first landed in Hong Kong it felt like home. I felt really energetically good and welcomed—and not like a foreigner.
Mana, of course, was your first noise-making venture, which was very much one of the first plant-based restaurants in Hong Kong. What was the inspiration behind it?
I got hired to do a job that really didn’t resonate with me. I was managing a steakhouse, which is the opposite of me. It was a nice experience because they really wanted me to grow in the industry, but I couldn’t do it. They said you really need to learn to separate your belief system from your lifestyle. That forced me to say I’m not going to work for a cause I don’t believe in, I’m just going to create my own restaurant. So I started looking for investors and that’s how I met my ex-business partner at Mana. He wanted to create this big restaurant with a vision called Babylon, and we aligned together and managed to raise the funds for our first location. We opened Mana and three others and I stayed with that company for four years. After I found that it was not going in the direction I wanted, I left, sold my shares and created Home—Eat to Live.
Home—Eat to Live was also very beloved, and it caused quite the stir when it closed unexpectedly when you and your investors parted ways. But now you’re planning your next venture?
[In] the next venture we’re addressing all the things that did not work in my previous ventures, optimising everything in a way that we feel is highly scaleable without compromising the integrity of the food, which is my main mission. We want to feed people good quality food that will inspire them to follow a plant-based diet. It’s non-dogmatic, it’s not preachy, it’s not “you should be vegan”. For me, it’s accidental vegetarianism, [like you] just forgot the meat or fish products.
What’s very important is to not focus on what’s bad. I know meat and fish are not the best, but if I show you a video of a slaughterhouse it’s going to make you feel closed off, like you did something bad, and it’s not going to transition to change. The most important driver of change is the food. If the food tastes good, you feel good after, two hours later you’re not tired, you feel energised, you feel full, all these things you can experience firsthand as the effect of more positive food.
The vegan movement suffers a lot from being too violent. It’s not about being extreme anymore, it’s about being balanced. We need to create a balance for our planet, for ourselves as people. It’s not about everyone being non-meat eaters. It’s if you eat meat, eat good quality meat—not cheap meat that is processed. That’s not beneficial for anyone except the profit margin. It’s about creating a space where everyone’s welcome.
Sustainability is very much a buzzword and every business is jumping on the bandwagon. Is that good or bad?
I believe in business as a driver of change. It’s easy to give someone a plastic bottle and say I think you should recycle it, but I think the plastic bottle should be switched at the source instead of putting that on the consumer. Us as consumers, we are not that strong, but as businesses we can generate a lot of positive impact. With Home I was feeding X amount of people, so I was able to get a lot of people involved whether they were conscious of it or not. It was a tangible impact.
If you look at the planet as a business, it’s bad business what we’re doing because we’re using up more resources than we have. By mid-year it’s like, I have no more stock. It’s good business to respect nature. We can’t be blinded anymore. I’m hopeful that business can be that driver, to get people together, create a difference and have impact. That’s why scaleability is key for any enterprise that I do, because I want to get the message to more people. Once you experience it for yourself, you don’t need to hear my speech.