The story of how Christian Gerard Mongendre came to co-found Hong Kong’s most loved healthy lunch spot is a testament to the many serendipitous moments that make life so crazy and incredible. We sat down with the man behind MANA over a delicious vegan lunch and got to know one of Hong Kong’s most charmingly spiritual restauranteurs. Below, we share his story. Enjoy!
There were signs early on that Christian was the enterprising sort. As a young boy in his Paris suburb, he would ride his bike to a far away bakery that was well known for its delicious croissants and then resell them to his neighbours. At other times, he made wrist bands that his school friends would line up to buy at recess. Still, his entrepreneurial tendencies did not define him. Never without a video camera, he was passionate about film-making throughout his childhood and even briefly considering going into acting at one point. He was also an avid sportsman. At 16, he joined his high school crew team and was eventually recruited to row for Northeastern University in Boston. At college, he majored in both Business Management & Cinema Studies, keenly aware that from a career trajectory point of view, he was conflicted.
As a Division I collegiate rower for so many years (he was selected for the French national team but did not join and fun fact: his teammates rowed against Harvard’s Winklevoss twins a couple of times), the concept of food as fuel was very much on his mind. During his collegiate years, he began experimenting with his diet, choosing to eat wholesome, nourishing meals as opposed to the fast food at midnight many of his crew-mates survived on. He immediately noticed that what he ate was having a huge impact on his performance, both mentally and physically.This realization was transformative and eating consciously became a passion and the raison d’etre he had been missing.
He made the bold decision to leave everything in Boston behind, and returned to France pursue cooking school. After four years, he graduated with two degrees, for F&B Management and Culinary Arts from the prestigious Institut Paul Bocuse. He was on his way to making a difference to people’s plates. But French cuisine, still considered to be the height of gastronomic sophistication, is often a meat heavy affair and whilst being a Chef de Cuisine in training at restaurants first in France (he interned at Alain Ducasse’s Plaza Athenee) and later in Hong Kong, Christian’s personal food philosophy was distinctively plant-based. As a child, he spent his weekends at his family’s country house- a converted farm- on the outskirts of Paris surrounded by barnyard animals and pets of all kinds, nurturing a deep love of animals. While he is not dogmatic about avoiding meat, he wasn’t raised eating too much of it and when meat was served, where it came from and how it had been reared was important. A chance meeting with Bobsy Gaia, himself the founder of Life Cafe and a pioneer of Hong Kong’s organic and sustainable F&B scene, resulted in the two of them setting in motion the launch of the first MANA. Both believed there was a gap in the Hong Kong market when it came to consciously created, casual plant-based foods that had mass appeal.
When MANA! Fast Slow Food opened its (reclaimed wood) doors in 2011, they took a big risk. Still, convinced that consumers would respond to their brand of triple bottom line capitalism- ‘Eat Like It Matters’ is their slogan- with its focus on reducing waste (MANA on Wellington is today Hong Kong’s only zero waste restaurant), a build-out made entirely of recycled materials, the daily composting of all their unused food scraps, its emphasis on sourcing from local farmers, its additional ‘environmental fee’ to cover the biodegradable utensils, takeaway boxes and plate ware, Bobsy and Christian were committed to a longer term vision for their restaurant. That being said, they did not want to limit their clientele. The name of the restaurant was specifically chosen without the words vegan or plant-based. Both firmly believe there is space in everyone’s diet for MANA’s offerings be it a daily affair, lunch only or a once in a while experience. Their mission is not to convert but rather to complement people’s existing lifestyles. Turns out they were spot on- MANA! Fast Slow Food is full everyday, with long queues of activewear-clad gym bunnies, clean-eating yummy mummies and fitness conscious urban professionals grabbing their organic salad boxes and hand-rolled grilled veggie flatbreads. Everything is freshly made to order. The flats are baked daily each morning. The vegetable are from Hong Kong organic farms and vary with the seasons. The smoothies are blended on demand. Their ethos prevents any compromise on quality or sustainability alike.
MANA Raw – Wild Juicery has only been around a few months but Central’s first totally raw cafe is already a popular lunch spot. On the menu: vushi (raw sushi) and crunchy collard wraps, chia puddings, a custom smoothie bar, cold pressed juices and their Wild Coconut line- they blend the insides of a coconut, flesh and all, with dates and your choice of superfood: spirulina, turmeric, blue-green algae, cayenne pepper or pink Himalayan Salt & Lime. Christian is working on much more. After a few weeks checking our the raw food scene on the US’s West Coast, he is spending a lot of time in MANA’s test kitchen working on new products like tree nut cheeses, fermented salad dressings and MANA sauerkraut.
When not working, fitness continues to be a priority. While his rowing days are over, Christian is an avid yogi (and a trained Kundalini instructor) and competes in ultra marathons. He recently completed the 4 Deserts one in Chile’s Atacama Crossing. On the nutrition front, he admits to being raw organic vegan 85-90% of the time. That’s what works best for his body but he is quick to point out that he is not dogmatic. The rest of the time he exercises free will and his best judgement, stating “life can’t be so strict.” He starts every day with a seasonal cold pressed juice of whatever’s in his fridge and he mostly cooks for himself but he did share that his favourite place to eat (other than MANA!) is O Veg in the New Territories, a rustic jazz-music-playing cafe open on weekends only and set on a private organic farm run by the owners themselves, who live and breathe the term ‘sustainable lifestyle’.
Exclusive Green Queen Scoop: What’s next? Well, we are absolutely thrilled to be the first to announce that MANA’s third outpost, MANA Cafe! is going to open its doors this June on Pound Lane in trendier-than-thou Po Hing Fong. Lazy brunch, fabulous coffee and their signature open flats are all on the menu and we simply cannot wait!
Photos courtesy of MANA! Fast Slow Food, Mana Raw- Wild Juicery and Green Queen.
November 2015 Update: Christian is no longer part of the Mana group.