Partners in Life, in Business, and in Katsu Sandos

The duo behind TOU, TATA Eatery, and Solis tell all

We’re hearing from one of our most exciting and successful partnerships: Ana Goncalves and Zijun Meng are the power team behind TATA EateryTOU, and the newly opened Solis. What started off as a food stall has since grown into multiple pop-ups and permanent sites, each with its distinct culinary identity. Ana and Meng also happen to be life partners. So how do they balance and navigate that thrilling, and often challenging, landscape?
This is for anyone thinking of setting up a business with their life partner, or moving from popup to bricks-and-mortar, or starting a popup with some big future ambitions, or making a big career switch – and making a BIG success of it.
Ana and Meng talk inspiration, strategy, learning, taking leaps and taking risks, tuning in to their own heritage and treasure-hunting gems from the community and teachers around them. There’s a lot to learn from these two and we’re excited to share it with you.

Both of you have taken circuitous routes into cheffing, with backgrounds in art and design. How has this shaped your approach to cooking and to your business?

A: From the beginning of my career, I always felt I needed to be part of a restaurant, what’s more, one that’s doing something amazing and unique. When I first came to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu, I already had my eye on Nuno Mendes. I saw what he was doing and loved how unique his approach was. A bit like design or art, for us, it’s about creating something new, something unique and something that really pushes the limits, whether that’s presentation, taste or the general concept. We’re always trying to think outside the box.

M: For me, it’s driven by my fascination with form and movement, something you can often find in our cooking and something that has helped us be authentic and original.

Your food isn’t a straightforward fusion of your heritages, despite initial assumptions. How did you develop your distinct culinary voice, drawing on your backgrounds but also going beyond them?

A: When we first created TĀTĀ Eatery, we tried to focus more on fusing Chinese and Portuguese influences, as this was the narrative we knew and had been created for us. As time went on however, we began to find our own language, taking inspiration not only from our background and heritage, but also from our travels and other concepts we admired. We call it confusion rather than fusion.

M: My culinary journey started in a western kitchen with a big Japanese influence and it was here that I met and worked with many chefs from across the world. My heritage has always led me to focus on the texture and complexity of flavour in a dish, but the culinary knowledge of these chefs opened my eyes to the wide range of cuisines out there. My curiosity has always allowed me to be influenced by other cultures, but always with my own style.

You’ve grown Tātā Eatery from a street stall to pop-ups to multiple permanent locations. Was this always the vision? What were the biggest challenges of this journey, and what were the biggest joys? How did you navigate the logistics and finances of opening your own restaurants, and what advice would you give to others hoping to make this transition?

A: Our vision is ongoing, it’s a sketch that is never finished. Nothing we’ve done was planned, and we take life as it comes. In the beginning, we didn’t have a grasp of things like finances, which was tricky as it led us to be over-cautious before we learned how to find a balance. We’ve learnt a lot from great industry friends like Nuno Mendes, Leo Carreira and his wife Hayley. The biggest challenge is always putting your own money at risk and the potential for failure, but the biggest joy is when people leave happy after a meal with us, wanting to come back and bring all their friends. Then you know you’ve done your job well!

In terms of advice, I think having a support network of people that have experience in the areas you might not be proficient in is pretty crucial. Do the numbers before diving into a restaurant and make sure you know from the get go that you have a grasp of the finances.

M: Our journey has unfolded in its own right. I think we most enjoy being able to cook different styles of food at different places. Having that freedom of creativity is really special, but also having the courage to deal with it and take chances, rather than only fantasising about it is important. Our journey was tiring, doing almost everything by ourselves, with no guarantees or certainty of our next paycheck. One of the biggest challenges for me is becoming aware of stress and finding peace with it. I don’t have much personal time and spend a lot of it thinking about work, so it’s really important. My advice would be to embrace stress, and push your mind and body, rather than settling into a comfort zone.

The Katsu Sando was such a viral dish, a real trend-setter. How do you feel about food trends, and what impact did it have on your business? How do you balance capitalising on that success whilst evolving and expressing other culinary ideas and passions?

A: I think trends are financially attractive. It was great to launch TÓU back in 2019, we gained a huge following and it’s helped people understand our brand and paved the path for us to pursue other adventures.

M: Personally, I’m not a fan of the term “food trend”, it was a coincidence that the Sando became one. The biggest impact was that it brought us a lot of attention in the media and gave us the confidence to create more dishes that others could be inspired by.

When Arcade closed, your sando was homeless for a while. What did the closure mean to you, and are you excited to be bringing it back to Tóu, and how has it evolved?

A: It was a big turn for us. That was the year everything stopped, but also when we started developing other concepts. We didn’t have much time to think about it, but we knew it was time for a pause on TÓU. We’re so happy now that we were able to incorporate some funky bubbles into the mix, as we bring it back and try our hand at some other really fun concepts. We have some great plans for the brand in the pipeline, so let’s see what this residency brings.

M: It was a pity that we couldn’t develop the brand further, but also helpful in a way that we had plenty of time to think about what we could improve. We actually used some of our time during the pandemic to test out new ideas, and now, after years of discussion and testing, TÓU is ready as a concept and we’re so proud to share it with the public. It started as a simple counter serving sandos and rice bowls, it’s now evolved into sandos, sundaes and Pet Nats.

Solis might seem like a departure from your previous culinary signature. How does this concept fit into your culinary and business journey, why was this opening important to you, and did you find that people were more or less receptive to this different direction?

A: It’s very different, but also, something we’ve always wanted to do. It’s casual and simple and draws inspiration from those amazing cuisines that are no frills, just absolutely delicious! From a business perspective, it’s about doing something outside of our comfort zone and adding another concept to our portfolio. It’s a huge project for us, with numbers we’ve not seen since our time at the Firehouse. I think people are more receptive and are pleasantly surprised when they see the simpler concepts work.

M: Solis is a new adventure for us. It was an opportunity that came through one of our friends and one that led us to step out of our comfort zone and cook for a new, bigger audience. Some of our clientele followed us on the adventure, others didn’t, but the whole thing has helped us expand our network and experience operating in a new environment.

The Katsu Sando’s impeccable sourcing, cooking and geometry also express your huge level of perfectionism. How does this manifest in your businesses day-to-day and how do you uphold it across multiple extremely diverse sites and concepts? Is it more of a challenge when you are a resident in someone else’s space, versus in complete control of your own site?

A: We’re perfectionists to our core, so it’s something we battle with, but slowly we’re starting to trust our team and let go of certain aspects. It gets easier with time; we’ve realised we can’t be everywhere at once.

M: We are very lucky to work with such great and professional people, who share the same vision as us, without them we couldn’t do what we do. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that “completely in control” is just a fantasy word, though it is definitely easier to operate without a fixed lease to pay.

You are in an unusual position of having both permanent sites and residencies, running simultaneously. We often think that the industry is divided between people who live for the thrill of working an opening, and people who thrive on the stability of an established venue. You have both! How do you feel about each one, and how do you juggle that balance?

A: I personally love an opening. The build-up is everything, from the concept to development, the sourcing and finally, you’re open! It’s all your hard work right there for everyone to enjoy. Having a permanent location and to feel that stability is something new for us, until recently we lived pop-up to pop-up, residency to residency, so Solis has been a new feeling and one that we want to keep.

M: It’s definitely a challenge, but fortunately, we have a very capable management team in both our live concepts. I’m always a bit pessimistic about “new openings”, but I guess looking back we’ve done something right. Perhaps learning to let go of any ego through meditation and Buddhist studies helps.

You are both business partners and life partners, which must make work/life balance even trickier. What are the advantages and challenges of working so closely with your significant other?  What tips would you give to other couples considering going into business together? 

A: Both my parents work together, so it’s a dynamic I’ve grown up with and one that I’m familiar with. I love it, because we’re constantly talking, improving and evolving, but it’s also a great way to get to know more and more about one another. Communication is key, and boundaries are important.

M: The most important thing has been to be aware of the differences between us and learning to be more accepting of each other. The challenges that don’t break us only make us stronger. My tip? Get ready for couple therapy sessions!

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