1. What does the Michelin star mean in China and what does it mean to you?
Michelin of course creates and sets the standard for fine dining experiences worldwide. As Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB) has always aimed to provide the best fine dining experience in Beijing, it was crucial for us to be recognized for what we do. I am delighted that an equivalence has now been drawn between Beijing’s top restaurants and the dining in other leading gastronomic centres of the world. We can argue about the details, but the larger point is that this puts TRB on a global map.
2. How have Chinese tastes in fine-dining changed over the time that you’ve been a restaurateur in Beijing?
When I arrived in Beijing, there were a handful of western dining venues and none of them charged more than $40 a head. The market is now bursting with dozens of western restaurants and Temple Restaurant just got through Covid charging more than $160 a setting. Twenty years ago, a western meal in Beijing consisted of a Shiraz paired with a well-cooked steak. If you were lucky the waitress put the right plate in front of the right guest, and even that was a challenge. Now, we offer the same dining experience you’d find in London or Manhattan. Our ingredients are global – foie gras from France, caviar from Iran, A5 Wagyu from Australia, and our cooking techniques marry the most skilled techniques of east and west. Have things changed? It’s incomparable. Only in China can things move that fast.
3. Has the quality of restaurants changed in China over that period?
The wealth of Chinese clients, who these days, return from holidays and business travels in all corners of the globe, and indeed China, has created a really enterprising restaurant culture. But it is not for the weak or faint-hearted. There are no laws protecting tenants and as I don’t speak Chinese, I am often signing contracts based on nothing more than trust. Some would call me naïve, but after working here for over 20 years, opening many restaurants and with a degree of success, I think I have learned well enough how things work. It’s a challenge that also gives a lot back. Back to your question – 20 years ago, quality was mediocre in every area of Chinese gastronomy outside the top hotels from the quality of the food, to service to technical skills, to front of house to the décor to technology to the overall experience. It was poor compared to the highest international standards, many steps below what I provided at the Dorchester for example, but I similarly cannot over-emphasize how much that has now changed. China is competitive now, but we are competing up and the fashions that we set are being replicated in other countries. Technology for example from online menus, to offline menu booklets to payment systems. I now see some things happening China that over time filter across to other countries. It’s an exchange. Meanwhile, restaurant choice, quality and concepts rival the international standard in many of the obvious ways. Because of their native interest in gastronomy, the Chinese client is as knowledgeable and discerning as a French or Italian, even though the tastes and techniques might be different. What has amazed me is how open they are to new experiences. For example, there are concepts that have succeeded in Beijing that I don’t think could survive elsewhere.
4. What excites you about China now?
Apart from Temple TRB, which is my flagship, I have about a dozen restaurants operating under different concepts. I love rolling the dice on a new concept and when it works there’s the opportunity to expand across the city and nationally. My particular challenge is learning how I can grow my network of businesses profitably. Quality is part of my blood, and so operating in lots of venues where I can’t personally be present while insisting on the delivery quality I would expect is what sets our restaurants apart. It can take months and years to build a restaurant, but it only takes days for all that hard work to fall apart because of poor execution. That is the knife edge on which I live. Apart from TRB and my chain of Belgian style cafes with snacks and salads, western guests would be interested in “Fork” in Beijing, offering high quality western food at about $100 a head and also in “Jamon”. This is my Spanish restaurant. Who knew that Chinese LOVE Spanish food? Touch wood, its success keeps growing, but I hope western visitors would love to try all of my restaurants.
5. Anything else you want to say?
China has of course changed so much over the Covid period. Some of it good and some bad, but what hasn’t changed in Beijing or indeed in China is the speed of change itself. That is a constant and it’s why I love being here with my wife and kids. We stayed through Covid and have no plans to move – it’s our life. Yes, China has an unrivalled past. My TRB is housed inside a Qing dynasty temple, for example. But for my kids… if you want to glimpse where the world is going, that’s here too now. That’s why visitors should come and eat at my restaurants!