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Seven years. A long time if you’re waiting to get your Hong Kong permanent residency, but a short one for building a burgeoning empire of 14 (and counting) restaurants and bars. Manuel Palacio has done both of those since opening his first restaurant Pirata with his co-founder and mentor Christian Talpo in 2013.

Janice Leung Hayes and Pirata Group co-founder Manuel Palacio sit down to dinner at The Pizza Project in Starstreet Precinct

As Manuel and I sit on the balmy terrace of the group’s newest endeavour, The Pizza Project in Starstreet Precinct, he reflects on why he’s been so keen on opening restaurants in this precinct (one of his other restaurants, Pici, is just around the corner). ‘I used to live here, actually,’ says the Madrileño. ‘It feels European, and it has really been planned with an ecosystem in mind — you have cafes, gyms, restaurants, shops, a really good variety. For example, we wanted to open a pizza restaurant here before, but were told that we couldn’t because there was already another pizza restaurant in the area. Now that it’s gone, we were able to open The Pizza Project here.’

The kitchen team creates favourites like the Nduja as well as Starstreet Precinct exclusives like the Bresaola

Over carbonara pizza, a riff on the classic pasta dish upscaled with pancetta, quail eggs and smooth fior di latte cheese, Manuel gives me a brief history lesson. Before it became The Pizza Project, the space was occupied by Madame Ching, another Pirata Group restaurant serving Westernised Chinese food. It didn’t prove as popular as the team had thought, and they decided to close it. ‘We got arrogant. We thought we could do anything. I had a slice of humble pie,’ says Manuel. In a way, Pirata did deserve to be a little ‘arrogant’ at the time — their portfolio of cuisines spanned from Italian to Nikkei, and their most popular concept, Pici, a fresh pasta bar, grew from what Manuel calls ‘a little project’, in a humble shopfront on nearby St Francis Yard, to five outlets spanning Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories, in the blink of an eye. ‘I never anticipated the success of Pici. I knew we were going to be busy, but I never anticipated serving ten thousand people a week,’ he says.

The oven bakes the pizzas on stone, giving them just the right amount of crunch

To Manuel, surprises and bumps in the road are opportunities to learn, and learning is a sign of success. Having spent almost two decades in hospitality, starting as a dishwasher at a hot chocolate and churros shop in Madrid at age 15, he’s learnt a lot about the business. ‘There’s no secret to running restaurants. You work sixteen, eighteen, twenty-hour days, and it’s your passion,’ he says. ‘When we opened Pirata, I’d stay in the restaurant after it was closed, just touching the furniture, caressing the walls. I loved every part of it,’ he reminisces, chuckling at the thought of his own naivete.

Left: The popular Carbonara Pizza, a take on the classic pasta dish with quail eggs and pancetta. Right: The table is set with a variety of favourites

The pesto pizza arrives, the Italian basil paste complemented by cherry tomatoes and three cheeses (creamy burrata, fior di latte and buffalo mozzarella) on The Pizza Project’s trademark base, as Manuel tells me about the group’s wide-ranging concepts. These are the result of his and Talpo's inspirations, which he says are ‘intuition; it’s from the gut’. From there, his first medium of ideation is not through food, but music. In his late teens, he founded a hip-hop record label (‘it wasn’t successful, obviously,’ he laughs), and music remains one of his most important creative outlets. ‘I do the music selections for all our restaurants,’ he says, and he fleshes out the concepts from there. ‘Of course, I do market analysis and run the numbers, but in the beginning, it’s intuition.’

As we tuck into a piquant nduja pizza with smoked scamorza and fior di latte, Manuel tells me another lesson he’s learnt: ‘Every day you start from scratch. You’re only as good as your last service,’ he says. He wants everyone to feel good when they come into Pirata’s restaurants, so good hospitality, consistent experiences and an accessible price point are key.

Piquant Nduja Pizza, creamy Pesto Pizza and egg-topped Carbonara Pizza make a perfect combination

Feeling good is something Manuel has had to work on for his own well-being too. His first year or so in Hong Kong, before starting Pirata, was tough: ‘I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong,’ he says. ‘I just moved here a little bit blind. I came by myself, I didn’t know anybody, but after a year, I started meeting people, and I fell in love with my girlfriend.’ In his fourth year, despite — or maybe because of — leading a fledging restaurant business, he ‘got bored, thinking it was too small, and that’s when I started discovering nature. Once I discovered it, Hong Kong became my favourite city in the world.’ He now goes trail running several times a week, clocking up 100 kilometres a week, be it to The Peak or in Sai Kung.

2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, but especially for the social nature of the hospitality sector, and for Manuel personally, as he has watched friends and family around him fall victim to mental and physical health issues. Maintaining a balanced lifestyle has been key. ‘I love people,’ he explains — it’s why he’s in hospitality, after all — but being a busy, creative entrepreneur, these experiences have taught him to take time to love and care for himself too, which is perhaps the most important lesson of them all.