This article was also published in the Financial Times.
As we walked down the stairs from the branch of the Lei Garden restaurant on the first floor of the CNT building in Hong Kong's Wanchai district, our investment banker friend explained with perhaps a touch of envy in his voice that, "It's a bull market here for taxis and restaurants at the moment. It's hard to find a taxi after dinner unless you have already pre-booked one and unlike even a year ago it's much, much harder to book a table on the day. At some places you now need to book even a week in advance."
Part of this may be purely Hong Kong economics. My friend had earlier been lamenting the end of what he considered Hong Kong's best Italian restaurant in the former Ritz Carlton Hotel, a building that has just closed and will soon be knocked down to make way for a higher yielding but less hedonistic office block.
But neither of us could hide our enthusiasm for the dinner we had just enjoyed even though it had begun somewhat worryingly for me. My request for Cantonese food had been welcomed by our friends but they, having booked the table they had with typical consideration, had gone to the trouble of pre-ordering the food without fully realising that looking at a menu is for any restaurant correspondent almost as exciting as eating the food.
My disappointment lasted the couple of minutes it took to walk up the stairs and into the restaurant. It was vast, brightly-lit, packed and noisy with a décor that can only be described as mundane. In contrast to Europe and the US there were clusters of waiting staff everywhere and the private room that we were escorted into immediately revealed other distinctive points of difference. No sooner had we sat down than anyone who put their coat on the back of their seat had it immediately covered in a thick plastic protective cover to prevent any spills by waiters. All of the waiting staff were wired at the ear to the kitchen and reception, a link that made them extraordinarily efficient throughout the evening.
The room was taken up by a large round table, a revolving lazy Susan and a small, discreet but long menu. But before I had really had a chance to take it all in, the conversation, probably inspired by the news that the Hong Kong duty on wine imports had been abolished that afternoon and should bring down the price of wine in restaurants, got under way. Someone confessed that he had missed Asian food so much on a recent business trip to the Middle East that on his arrival back in Hong Kong he had called in a restaurant before going back to see his children (they would have been in bed, he added). My neighbour, a renowned cook, immediately told me that I must start planning my next trip to Hong Kong for the end of October or November when the hairy crabs will be back in season. And a third explained how a brief stint working at the branch of Lei Gardens in Singapore had destroyed his long held dream of working in the restaurant business.
Until then he had held a series of high-powered jobs in IT in the US but a love of food kept nagging away at him to make a career change. When I asked him for more specific reasons for the end of the love affair he said that there had been two. One, I believe, is international, the second very specifically Chinese. "The first thing I realised is that running a successful restaurant is not the romantic notion anyone on the outside believes it is," he explained. "It's the attention to detail in everything that is so obviously crucial and I remember most clearly the spot checks that used to take place in all of the different branches. It would be just after lunch and someone from Head Office would arrive unannounced, call on a particular manager and conduct a stock take on all the chop sticks, for example. This was important because they can easily get put into the rubbish when the tables are being cleared."
While Western restaurateurs face the same problem with even more expensive cutlery, the Lei Garden's approach to keeping its chefs on their mark was very different. Every Wednesday afternoon a tasting is held at one of their 18 branches throughout Asia, for which the Head Chefs would be asked to produce a series of their more standard dishes and some new ones (changing the menu frequently has been another vital factor in this group's success). But whereas in the West the emphasis at such tastings is invariably on finding the best and on encouraging the chefs, here it is the opposite. What was wrong was highlighted rather than what was right and the chefs had to be humbled rather than elevated. If the chefs begin to think they are too good, the senior management philosophy runs, they will leave tomorrow.
Certainly, there was no mention of the chefs involved in our meal anywhere on the menu and no sign of them at the end of the meal. Instead, it was a vindication of a well-run, talented kitchen working in harmony with a hard-working waiting staff.
There was also vindication of not just the pure, unadulterated pleasures of Cantonese food but also of the importance that the contrasting texture of the ingredients plays in the sequence of dishes, a big difference between what Asians find so exciting in their food and those of us in the West. This began with a series of small servings of what were referred to as 'appetisers' and included most memorably thin, crisp slivers of puffer fish and fried sheets of bean curd filled with mushrooms.
This was followed by the return of a large Alaskan king crab that had initially been brought into the room crawling over a large silver tray but now reappeared steamed and cut into mouth size pieces, cooked with sweet Hua Diao wine on top of a mound of beaten eggs. Contrasting textures and colours followed with a soothing dish of a poached fish puff, made from the meat of the white fish, floating in a bowl of creamy fish soup and sautéed mantis shrimp with salt and pepper. The two final dishes, steamed rice with sausage, liver and wind-dried duck and another soup, this time of a poached cabbage in a thick broth, had been thoughtfully chosen to protect us all from the cold of the winter.
Subsequently, I was to learn that the successful Lei Garden group, with numerous branches in Hong Kong, two in Guangzhou and outposts in Beijing, Macau and Singapore, was the creation 30 years ago of the obviously very determined Chan Shu-Kit, now in his mid 70s. The son of a general in the Kuomintang army, Shu-Kit has successfully applied the lessons he learnt in military school and as an engineer to what is obviously now a highly disciplined business - albeit one that incorporates his personal beliefs such as ensuring that his staff meals offer a good daily intake of fruit.
The following day I met a young Singapore-born lawyer, now one of many working in Hong Kong thanks to their mastery of Mandarin and English, who described the cooking at the Lei Garden in Singapore as 'classic Cantonese'. A description I could only heartily concur with.