Yao brings a taste of Shanghai cuisine to Texas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 February, 2005, 12:00am

China's Yao Ming may have the seven-figure salary, multiple endorsements and an army of agents but one element of the superstar CV has been missing: until now.

The Houston Rockets centre has joined many of the great and good of the sporting world by opening a restaurant. In truth, the Yao Restaurant and Bar, a US$1.5 million Chinese eatery and sports bar in inner Houston isn't really Yao's, but belongs to his father Yao Zhiyuan and mother Fang Fengdi, both of whom are former basketballers. However, given the restaurant's name, and the fact that the walls are plastered with photos of Yao in action, few diners will be concerned whose name is on the lease.

And the restaurant, which officially opens today, has been designed with Yao in mind. The doorways are at basket height, so Yao and his teammates don't have to duck. Yao has his own private lounge where he can put up his size 18 feet and watch his wide-screen plasma television, and the custom-designed chairs in the VIP dining room, which were imported from Beijing, are intended to accommodate his seven-foot-six frame. They have the effect of making those of normal size feel positively Lilliputian. 'When I sit in a Yao Ming chair my feet are dangling in the air,' said operations manager Wendy Ju. Co-owner/chef George Phou said the menu was mostly Shanghai-style, featuring a combination of Yao's favourite home-cooked food - including his mother's own recipe for chicken soup with shitake mushrooms - and contemporary dishes. Peking duck is a particular favourite of Yao's, and one chef will only prepare that dish.

Opening a restaurant is notoriously risky, and many a star has been burned. Michael Jordan's The Steak House N.Y.C in Manhattan is a successful example, though Jordan has little personal involvement, and former Rocket Clyde Drexler has long run a modest but successful barbecue eatery in Houston. However, Shaquille O'Neal's plans for a restaurant in Orlando fell through and Olympic legend Carl Lewis' Houston establishment, Cafe Noir, closed in 2000 after just 15 months in operation.

Meanwhile, Yao is the subject of a behind-the-scenes documentary film which had its premier during All-Star weekend in Denver. Entitled The Year of the Yao, the 88-minute film chronicles Yao's first season in the NBA, his struggles with the cultural and language barriers and his on-court battles with the likes of O'Neal. 'It's an interesting story,' said Yao. 'It will give me a lot of memories.'