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Food for thought: Gary Stokes talks vegan dining and eco activism

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Hemingway’s founder and managing director Gary Stokes marries vegan dining with marine and eco activism. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Gary Stokes doesn’t pick up guests in a garden-variety car or a common golf cart. No, when Gary wants to pick up  guests he comes racing across the bay in the Amberjack, a quick, well-worn vessel that serves his many purposes. He treats the Amberjack like a sports car, almost screeching to a halt before accepting passengers at the private pier across from the Discovery Bay ferry terminal.

This form of transport is actually apropos for the restaurateur and activist – brash yet somehow lowkey; grounded, but working in two businesses that are, in many ways, all about the show.

The founder and managing director of DB Plaza’s stalwart Hemingway’s, Gary is a classic multi-hyphenate: architect, dive instructor, photographer, restaurateur, ecoactivist, pirate. “Confused,” he calls it, before adding with a chuckle, “Variety is the spice of life.”

Indeed it is. On this oddly balmy day, Gary is also getting ready for  a couple of weeks’ skiing in British Columbia. His wife of 15 years, Margie, and their two kids, Jack, 10, and Amber, six, have yet to experience snow. The Alps is too pricey, South Korea’s been caught up in the Olympics and Japan’s long been out of the question. Of the latter, he says,“I’ve been told it would likely be a one-way trip!”

Gary’s not a wanted criminal by any stretch, but his work with Sea Shepherd, among others, has made him a ‘person of interest’ in Japan, not that that’s likely to stop him from his commitment to conservation.

Getting started

Now 46, the Bournemouth native grew up around the Mediterranean, and so the water is practically in his blood. “I wanted to be an archaeologist in school, so I joined the Royal Navy. As you do.”

He was counselled into architecture, wound up a navy draughtsman, and found a calling in F&B working at a nightclub in the UK one summer. As soon as he left the navy, he made his way to Hong Kong and started an F&B career at the notorious Joe Bananas in Wanchai.

So in 1990, Gary’s wandering days were over? On the contrary. “I left many times actually,” he says. “Hong Kong’s like that. It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship. I worked in Australia for a bit, then came back. I went to the Caribbean, Antigua. Then wound up coming back. Hong Kong’s almost like the mafia! It sucks you back in. It’s always one more year. After about 15 years I decided to face reality, bought some property and that was that.”

Gary met Margie who was also working in hospitality, and the stars seemed to align. By this time, he was working at Staunton’s in SoHo, and also focused on marine photography. He and his brother founded Oceanic Love and some of Gary’s photos (the notorious blue fin tuna shot is still on the site) caught the attention of Sea Shepherd, kicking off his dual-track career.

“I wasn’t doing restaurants when I moved to DB in 2006, I was working as a professional photographer. I lived here for a year back in 1996 [while at China Jump] and I hated it. I was single; it was before the tunnel. It just didn’t work. But when I got married I knew I wanted to get out of the city, do my job, start a family. That was the idea. That’s when I saw the renovation in DB Plaza and thought, ‘That would be a great place for a bar.”

Going vegan

Though the restaurant business is a nightmare of skyrocketing rent and fickle consumer trends, Gary was confident his years working for others set him up to succeed. A Caribbean-style bistro for about a year, Hemingway’s soon made the switch to bar and grill and established itself as part of Hong Kong’s dining firmament. Now it’s vegetarian, well on its way to vegan, right in line with Gary’s personal beliefs.

A potential Hemingway’s sale last year pulled him back into the business he was distancing himself from; he couldn’t stand the idea of another, less committed owner serving more barbeque and putting staff he considered family out of work.

On top of that, he wanted to get his hands on the menu: “As my role grew within Sea Shepherd, I was resenting having a restaurant that served meat because it was very hypocritical,” he explains.

At first it was going to be a slow transition, giving the restaurant time to get the message across that there’s more to vegan dining than lentils and bean sprouts, which Gary admits was his first impression too. But the confusion for staff and diners compelled him to pick up the pace, and jettison lingering non-vegan options quicker. “Giving a vegan something with real cheese was kind of like giving a Muslim pork. That’s just not going to go down well,” he notes.

It’s still early days, but so far DB’s newest dining option is a hit. “We’ve  had so  many new faces coming in, and in 20 years I’ve never had this kind of positive reaction to a menu change,” he says.

Taking direct action

Gary doesn’t preach at Hemingway’s; it’s still an eatery after all. But if asked, he will share what he knows, which grows day by day thanks to his job as Sea Shepherd’s Southeast Asian point man for research, investigations and government liaison.

“It’s supposed to be Southeast Asia, but if something comes up in India or Sri Lanka I might be called on to handle it,” he says. “I never imagined I’d be doing this a few years ago.”

Gary’s activism began with exposing the shark fin industry, tuna conservation and anti-whaling campaigns with Sea Shepherd, and some action by shaming at a seafood expo in Hong Kong in front of an endangered Japanese blue fin tuna exhibit. Describing himself as a “pirate of compassion,” he’s chased his fair share of illegal poachers and whalers across the high seas, and he admires Indonesian Minister of Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, whose hard-line conservation policies to combat IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) fishing includes blowing up fishing boats.

While he admits that we can’t all be quite so extreme in our activism, Gary likes to gently remind people that they can take action in their own way, whether that’s by cutting out single use plastic (he’s been lobbying against plastic marine pollution since the massive plastic pellet spill of 2012), or by avoiding one of the many things (like cosmetics and pharmaceuticals) that are affecting wildlife and driving many species towards extinction.

“We need to stop blaming and pulling the culture or race card on these issues,” Gary finishes. “Nobody is innocent.” Maybe start with your diet.

Image: Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com

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