Yes, he’s back! Right at the centre of Hong Kong’s plant-based food scene with his latest concept in the heart of Central’s Soho, TREEHOUSE. In an exclusive interview, Green Queen sat down with the man behind Hong Kong’s newest healthy veggie haven, Christian G. Mongendre, who shared his story about falling in love with plant-based food, his travelling journeys that led to TREEHOUSE and the change that he hopes to inspire.
GQ: We loved our experience at TREEHOUSE, could you talk a bit about your journey leading up to it?
CGM: It has been a long time coming. I originally started this journey when I went to cooking school where I discovered the benefits of plant-based foods and learned about the food system. I realised that I had to focus on delivering exciting quality food that could reach the masses, so to speak. When my mother fell ill, and was diagnosed with cancer, it pushed me even more. It motivated me to provide food that would have a positive impact on our bodies, and on the planet, leading me to start MANA!, its offspring locations, HOME Eat To Live, my franchised restaurant in Lisbon, and now, TREEHOUSE.
GQ: What is the core mission at TREEHOUSE?
CGM: Essentially, we want to create environmental, cultural and spiritual profit. From anyone who eats our food to those who work with us, we want everyone to recognise our brand as delivering high-quality, healthy food. Businesses are a catalyst for change. It is misguided to only place the onus on consumers to make impactful decisions, so companies have to drive the good example for people to understand and follow positive choices. Ultimately, our goal is to inspire people to do just this – to make a difference.
GQ: What made you fall in love with (plant-based) food?
CGM: Personally, I had never enjoyed much the experience of eating meat and fish and never ate much of it in my childhood. Being raised in France, then moving to Hong Kong, I started to fall into what most people were eating and didn’t have a full understanding of food. I did eat some white meat, but didn’t naturally enjoy it. Then, as soon as I became aware about animal cruelty and the problems in our food system and started to experience a vegetarian diet on a conscious basis, I fell in love with plant-based food. I saw results in my competitive rowing- I was recruited in college – this was a huge part of my food education. The more plant-based I ate, the more my mental strength, physical recovery and stamina improved. It was like a superpower! I also stumbled upon the healing side of plant-based food when my mother became ill, and saw how it could become a powerful preventative tool against diseases.
GQ: The menu at TREEHOUSE is based on fresh, whole food ingredients, a rarity in Hong Kong. How critical is the need for healthy nutritious meals in the city, and in Asia more broadly?
CGM: One of the biggest sources of pollution in the world is food waste and the footprint derived from the meat and dairy industry, on top of our contaminated oceans. So it is absolutely crucial that we stop focusing on labels like “vegetarian” or “vegan”, because everyone needs to be eating more plant-based whole foods to lower our overall impact on the planet, no matter where you are in the world. Whether you are conscious about it or not, eating plant-based whole foods matters because what we put in our bodies guides change.
GQ: We spoke earlier about the travel inspiration behind many of your dishes on the menu. I’d love to know a bit more about how your personal travelling journeys feed into your food creations.
CGM: After both my parents passed away, I travelled for a whole year, all around the world without a set itinerary. It was during this time that I really managed to find out about the international standard in terms of vegan and vegetarian food. I went to so many places. India, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia, Qatar, just to name a few, and checked all these cool exciting things out. As a food lover, a vegetarian who loves cooking and cares about ingredients, it was wonderful to be able to learn and understand different food cultures. I picked up knowledge about what ingredients worked beautifully together, the cultural history behind certain foods, which foods should be eaten at what times. Travelling is what fuels what I do, keeps me excited and searching for the next food to fall in love with.
GQ: What is your favourite item on the menu, and why?
CGM: This is really hard because I design everything on the menu to appeal to all the different cravings you can have, from something “naughty” so to speak, to filling or light and healthy. But one thing I’m really proud of is our sourdough flatbreads and buns that are proofed for 24 hours. They are super digestible and lighter [than commercial bread], a major upgrade.
I’m also really proud of the customisation aspect of my menu. People can tailor their meal exactly for them, a core part of our self-experience with food. Ultimately, food and diets are not universal, there is no one-size-fits-all, so letting people personalise is so important, even if it is operationally more complicated from a restaurant perspective. It is what allows people to fine-tune their eating habits and reconnect with their food intuitions.
GQ: Your return to Hong Kong’s plant-based food scene was met with such positivity, what does it mean to you?
CGM: Yes, a lot of my old customers, whether they visited MANA! or HOME Eat to Live, were really emotional when I closed my previous venture here in Hong Kong. Maybe it was something about how fast it happened, but also, I didn’t realise how big a gap was left. Building TREEHOUSE, I never imagined that such a positive response would come two years later, that people were still looking for our food. So it was really humbling and extremely nourishing for me, especially since this journey has been a difficult one with lots of ups and downs. It is what keeps me energised and focused on the bigger picture of the impact we’re trying to create. We are so grateful!
GQ: What is the biggest misconception about your food at TREEHOUSE?
CGM: A lot of people don’t realise the effort, labour and time it requires to make fresh food from scratch, every single day – from our own bread recipe to our toppings. Our dedication to freshly made delicious food comes with a lot of hard work. We really care about the way we prepare food, where we source ingredients, and we constantly want to find better supplies. This is difficult! I don’t want people to compare us to a cheaper sandwich from a corner shop, because our food is high-quality and is an investment in our bodies and the environment. It is tough trying to achieve a foolproof clean supply chain – from ingredients to the recycling aspect – but we are ultimately trying to get there.
GQ: If you could make everyone adopt one eco-habit, what would it be?
CGM: Forget the idea of plant-based eating once a week, it should be most of the week! I’m not saying we have to all be dogmatic vegetarians, but we seriously need to cut meat intake down. It will not be a detriment to our food experience. Instead, it would have a tremendously positive impact in terms of quality, taste and health.
GQ: As a leader in the plant-based movement, what advice would you give to someone who looks up to you as a role model?
CGM: I don’t know if I am qualified as a leader by any means! But if I had to say, it would be to lead with your mission, and not be driven by just what is sexy or trendy. It is really hard to build something from the ground up, it is an imperfect process that requires finding the medium between what is ideal and the reality. But that shouldn’t stop innovation and improvement. We can’t always have things right on day one, but can consistently push to do better. What is the best that you can do today, and how can you be better tomorrow? Be relentless at every stage. Learn from every experience. This is the mindset that gave me the perspective I needed to build my ventures, and tomorrow will always be another surprise that will help me grow the dream I have.
GQ: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing young people today, and what would you say to them?
CGM: More so than ever before, younger generations are being brought up in an uncertain world where major climate change events are happening. The question will be about how to make our climate crisis less damaging, and to lessen our impact on the planet. Being born in a world where change is needed now, younger people have to find what they are passionate about and love, and do something to contribute to the wider mission. Don’t focus on monetary rewards, but let’s unite to find solutions for this planet – whether it is clean energy or stopping the pollution of our soil, air and water. So my advice is to follow your dreams and be resilient to the cause you have chosen to partake in. It can be a long road to find your purpose, but it is a rewarding one.
GQ: And of course, for our last question: if you had to choose, team rice or team noodles?
CGM: This is so hard. Pasta is my ultimate comfort food, but I love rice so much as well. Honestly, I just can’t choose!
Images courtesy of Green Queen.