Family is the essential ingredient for Kam
There are certainly some advantages to being the boss' eldest son. For Kam Kinsen, who holds that title in the Yung Kee Restaurant founder's family, it meant his favourite quick lunch from his teens - noodles with roast goose oil - has been memorialised on the menu as 'prince noodle'.
But with that inheritance came a big bowl filled with responsibilities, not the least of which is how to keep the celebrated 64-year-old establishment fresh while retaining its traditional flavour.
The restaurant is very much a family business. Founded in 1942 by Kam Shiu Fai, otherwise known as 'Roast Goose Fai', it and its secret roasting recipes are now managed by Kam Kinsen with the support of two brothers and a sprinkling of the third generation.
Once a seven-table establishment in Sheung Wan, the restaurant now takes up six floors - including two for members - of the self-owned, 11-storey building in Wellington Street, and serves about 3,000 customers a day dim sum, lunch and dinner, as well as boxes and boxes of roast goose takeaway.
While the family doesn't open its books, a back-of-the-envelope tally of its sales of roast goose alone spins a daily gross income total of about HK$108,000 for some 300 birds, and during the Mid-Autumn Festival or Lunar New Year period, HK$144,000 a day for the 400 sold daily.
The year 1964 proved a key year for the establishment and its current director. It was then that Kam Shiu Fai, frustrated about having to move every time a landlord raised the rent or redeveloped, spent HK$1 million on the Wellington Street building. That was a bold move for a man who, as the youngest of seven children, grew up poor, and was forced at the age of 16 to work as a chef's apprentice for HK$18 a month.
That year also marked Kam Kinsen's entry at Yung Kee. He was later joined by his two brothers. While called 'princes' by other staff and customers, they certainly didn't act regally - helping their father to do everything from roasting the goose to buying vegetables, taking orders and tallying accounts.
'This is a family business and it needs the family members to support the operation,' Mr Kam said. 'My third brother, Kam Kwun Kee, was the best among us in roasting so he is in charge of the barbecue and the kitchen. My second brother, Kam Kwun Lai, is an engineer so he cares for the interior design, electricity and water works of the restaurant. I take charge of the staff management, as well as the menu because I like creating new dishes.''
In 1986, Kam Kinsen began taking over management control from his ageing father, who, until he died two years ago, was a constant presence at the till.
At a time when Hong Kong had reached a global status, his first major contribution was to promote Yung Kee on the international stage. He encouraged his chefs to compete worldwide for awards, and they have since netted more than 70, most notably the French Cuisine Association's Commanderie Des Cordons Bleus de France. To attract tourists, he designed special 'Flying Goose' souvenir packaging. Now 30 per cent of the customers are from overseas.
In 2000, he began providing in-flight meals for Cathay Pacific. 'I chose dishes that tasted better after being reheated, such as curry beef or roast goose,' he said.
A food and wine lover, Mr Kam also introduced contemporary ingredients to the mix - such as Japanese seaweed and mini-crab roe - and promoted matching Chinese dishes with French and Australian wines. But he rejects any suggestion of expanding Colonel Sanders-like or listing on the stock market, even though investment banks have raised the idea with him. 'Being small means quick decisions and better control of the quality of food and services,' he said.
His challenges, he said, were created mostly by outside forces, from riots of the late 1960s, to economic crashes. Most severely, the repeated cases of bird flu - three times since 2000 - have led to bans on goose imports. 'To cope, we have created the new dish, roast leg of lamb,' Kam Kinsen said. 'During Sars, when people dared not dine out, we expanded our takeaway department and offered a delivery service.'
After more than 40 years at the restaurant, Mr Kam - as his father before him - shows no sign of losing interest in the job or the food.
'I eat roast goose almost everyday to check the quality. I like the piece between the goose neck and the belly, which smells good and tastes the best,' he said.