September 2019 Alumni E-News Spotlight: Caroline Chou ’02 Finds Success Blending Design with Food
Connie Ma, Alumni and Community Outreach Officer

For most people, running a restaurant and a design studio would mean taking on two separate full-time jobs. For Caroline Chou ’02 and her husband Kevin Lim, it is a serendipitous combination that enables them to fully flex their creative muscles as co-owners of OPENUU Design Studio and Mean Noodles. This year, their hard work and creative innovation bore fruit when Mean Noodles was awarded the 2019 Will Ching Award by the International Interior Design Association (IIDA).

Caroline remembers that the first time she encountered design was at TAS. “My first encounter with architecture and design was in our 8th grade woodshop class. I found it wonderful to work with my hands and to design and produce something,” Caroline recalls. In upper school, she went on to take both a design class and a drafting class with TAS faculty Tom Agostine which influenced her subsequent studies. Through her college years at Wellesley, Caroline studied computer science, but kept a focus on design, sometimes even cross-registering for classes at MIT. After college, she embraced her design side fully, returning to graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she earned a Master’s degree in Architecture.

Caroline Chou '02 and Husband Kevin Lim

Caroline Chou '02 and husband Kevin Lim

It was during her time in Boston when Caroline met her future husband, Kevin. A native of Hong Kong with roots in Malaysia, Kevin had earned degrees in both architecture and culinary arts. In 2012, he convinced Caroline to return to Asia with him, and they settled in Hong Kong. “We came back to start a design business here, because it’s easier than setting up shop in the US, and there are more opportunities in Asia,” says Caroline, echoing a common sentiment among TAS alumni and Asian entrepreneurs. At first, OPENUU, the husband-and-wife collaboration took on every available project. “It was really hard to meet new clients in the beginning, so we did everything we could,” Caroline remembers. “We’ve done warehouse conversions, restaurants, residential spaces, offices, you name it. Then around two or three years ago, when we were doing more restaurants, we started conceiving of this new idea.”

Their new idea was an operating restaurant which doubled as a showroom for their design studio. Kevin wanted to bring a Malaysian noodle shop to Hong Kong so they created Mean Noodles (麵佬到), a play on the Chinese character mian, or noodles. While Kevin and his kitchen team primarily run restaurant operations, Caroline works on the social media and marketing. Caroline and Kevin’s hard work has landed them the 2019 Will Ching Award from IIDA, which “celebrates originality and excellence in commercial design from firms with (5) five or fewer employees.” As a result of this prestigious award, Mean Noodles also received coverage from Interior Design magazine in June 2019.

Mean Noodles in Hong Kong

After a year of operation, Caroline and Kevin have learned a lot, and parlayed that experience into more design projects for restaurants around Hong Kong. “Many restaurant owners encounter problems because the designers don’t understand restaurant operations, and the kitchen consultants provide equipment but usually don’t work with designers to think through how it’s used. For kitchens, the workflow is really important, so how they do service, where to locate the cashier, it’s all key to the operation of the restaurant. Since we opened, we’ve needed to change around some of the table configurations, but it’s great because we’re learning through experience,” Caroline explains.

At the same time, Caroline and Kevin’s design for Mean Noodles reflects current trends in design and dining in Hong Kong. “This style is called modern industrial chic, so we are using a combination of different materials. The floors are concrete and industrial looking, but the tiles are modern and updated, giving it a more stylish look,” explains Caroline. “For the tiles, we were looking for something that reflected Malaysian cuisine, and after going to a hundred tile shops, we found this tile pattern that was inspired by batik, which is a traditional floral fabric motif in Malaysian culture.” With its laksa noodle soup and stir-fry noodles, Mean Noodles belongs to the trend of fast casual cuisine, which is on the rise in Hong Kong, and often accompanied by Instagrammable, stylish settings. “People want to try a new place, and then turn around and post it online for other people to see,” Caroline explains. “So restaurants are receiving these recommendations that often come with food photos. It’s great to have a setting which creates those sorts of Instagram or 打卡 moments. It’s interesting to take part in producing this new trend, and we’re trying to stay on top of it as restaurant owners and designers as well.”

Mean Noodles, exterior

Looking at her career so far, Caroline gives due credit to her experience at TAS, which she attended from Grade 7 through graduation. “Just being at TAS gave me a really good work ethic as well as a more global background. It was a much easier transition from TAS to college because our school was so competitive. Now that I’m starting to look at schools for my daughter, I’m finding it hard not to compare in Hong Kong to TAS, because my experience at TAS was so great.”

In the future, Caroline also hopes to work with younger students and alumni. “Nowadays, as an alumna, I am much more interested in doing mentoring and giving back.” She already volunteers extensively for Wellesley, by interviewing prospective students, and often guides people she meets while interviewing for OPENUU or Mean Noodles. “When I hire and interview for both businesses, those conversations can turn into sessions where I find myself giving life advice. Some people come for an interview and say they’re not sure what they want to do. For my part, I’m not sure if my company is the right one for you, but I’m telling you what we do and our core values as a company, and it’s valuable for younger people to learn that you need to know your own core values and if you’re aligned with mine.”

For the future, Caroline and Kevin have big dreams for OPENUU, including three new restaurants in Zhuhai and a new hotel project in Hong Kong. They are also working on gaining visibility and are always eager to grow and learn. “You can only achieve so much, and then you need to talk to people who have more experience,” reflects Caroline. “We have been doing this for seven years, and we are now at a pivoting point, so we’re trying to move to the next level.”