Businesswoman and society stalwart Bonnae Gokson reveals why she’ll be closing Sevva in May, and what she’s learned in a decade-and-a-half as a restaurateur.
After wining and dining international celebrities, politicians, royalty and, of course, Hong Kong’s social elite for 15 years, Central’s chic dining destination Sevva has officially announced its closure. Feeling slightly sombre over the news – I headed straight over to the restaurant to meet up with its founder Bonnae Gokson.
The Landmark Prince rooftop restaurant, which has enjoyed sweeping city views since it opened in 2008, will close its doors for good when its rental lease comes to an end in May next year. Seated in a quiet corner away from the lunchtime rush, Gokson looks back on her first restaurant endeavour with pride when she opens up about the end of Sevva’s chapter on the Hong Kong dining and social scene.
“The one thing I’m truly proud of is that since day one, people said I’d never survive because I came from the fashion industry.” She says. “‘Give her two years and she’s gone,’ they said. But we lasted a lot longer.
“I never had children, so Sevva was my baby. And launching it was probably like giving birth without anaesthesia,” she says, laughing. “I was asked to give it up, repeatedly. But I never gave up.”
When she speaks about the “glory days”, her eyes light up instantly. “Alber Elbaz, the late creative director of Lanvin – he was even sketching for me. They were so excited for me to start Sevva afternoon tea. My goodness, if you saw the lines downstairs and queues around the building, and then up here in troops, you wouldn’t have believed it. People would wait for probably an hour for afternoon tea. Those were the days and it was like that for a long time.”
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses, especially when you have to shut up shop. Gokson has grown close to her team at Sevva, many whom have been with her since the beginning. “I’ve worked with so many of my staff from day one, so understandably you build a really strong bond. Life is already difficult, so it hasn’t been easy breaking the news to everyone,” she admits.
Fortunately, says Gokson, her famous family has been a pillar of strength during this transformative phase in her life. “I speak to them often – they’ve been extremely supportive,” she says. “My sister Joyce [Ma] always tells me, because she’s closed her boutique before, that everything is a blessing in disguise when you look back.”
Of course, Sevva isn’t Gokson’s only endeavour. Chanel’s former regional director for image and communications in the Asia-Pacific region is also an author, as well as the founder of Ms B’s Cakery and the intimate cafe-bar C’est la B. So how does a fashion expert who can’t cook or bake open restaurants and bakeries? “I think outside of the box,” she says, smiling. “I’m not trained in a certain school. When you train in certain school, you’re trained in what your teacher teaches you, and that’s it. You don’t really look out of the box.
“I’m very inquisitive as a person,” she adds. “I didn’t have any experience in restaurants and bars. I mean, what did I know about that? But now I could write a book. I can certainly tell you about disasters of the F&B business and all the hidden and dirty things that I learned along the way, which broke my heart too. This business can be ruthless.”
Gokson, a well-respected tastemaker, says the definition of luxury has changed in recent years. Instead of simply splashing on luxury brands and experiences, consumers are spending on quality time in beautiful places. “Right now, luxury a totally new game,” she says. “Fresh water, fresh air and peacefulness in a beautiful environment is luxury. It’s the calmness of home and having your friends and family with you.
“Luxury is now also offline. We don’t want to look at our phones, because our phones give us stress.”
With her fingers always in many pies, Gokson knows a thing or two about stress, but these days she finds peace in her spirituality. “I went to Catholic school as a girl, but then later my sister introduced me to a meditation master,” she recalls. “I started going to ashram often on and I learned meditation, how to practice yoga, and to do seva – the act of compassion and caring for others above oneself. This is also how the restaurant name Sevva came about.”
Since then, Gokson says her spirituality has only grown deeper. And she’s not afraid to use it in the workplace either. “I used to teach my kitchen staff, if you’re angry when you cook, that energy transforms into an angry dish. I used to tell them all that and they used to just look at me like I’m crazy,” she laughs.
So what’s next for the woman who’s been dubbed style icon, fashion guru and even “queen of cakes” over the years? “Firstly, these famous accolades, it only lasts for a certain while,” she says. “It’s fantastic when you’re up there, but always remember: what goes up must come down.
“Personally, I like to see myself as a visionary. I’m also a tastemaker. Let’s call it that,” she says with cheeky smile.
Where Gokson will go next she’s yet to decide. “I was born and raised here, so of course I feel very strongly about Hong Kong,” she says, “but I do know I want to chase rainbows and sunshine, wherever it takes me, wherever the world is happier. I want to be a global citizen.”
A long-deserved holiday would be a good start, but Gokson says she values time with her loved ones more these days. “Having been everywhere is nice and fine, but now I want to be with my friends,” she says. “I want to be with the people I care most about and maybe enjoy certain places together.”
Whatever Gokson decides to do next, it certainly won’t be retiring. Instead of taking some time off, she wants to keep working full steam. “I’d go bonkers without work. I seriously think I would,” she admits.
While she rarely speaks about the legion of celebrity pals she’s made over the years – “I was trained to be tight lipped, because babbling shows your character” – she coyly reveals it’s friend and fashion legend Iris Apfel that’s inspired her to keep working. “My friend Iris, who is now 102, taught me to keep going,” she admits. “She’s still designing carpets, sunglasses and things like that. When you’re getting old and still have the opportunity to work, it’s a great blessing.”
“If you’re lucky enough to get old, you should celebrate it.”