'Tycoons canteen' puts its success down to simple ingredient: quality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am

The key to serving tycoons, muses Chui Wai-kwan, can be summed up with one simple word - 'quality'.

'All the tycoons are successful in business because they are smart and know how to price things,' he said.

Mr Chui, the 59-year-old managing director of Fook Lam Moon Restaurant, should know. It has long been known as the 'tycoons' canteen', dishing up rich food to even richer patrons in Hong Kong, Japan and, most recently, the mainland.

'Only if we serve them with best quality food at reasonable prices will they come back to us,' he said at his flagship restaurant in Johnston Road, Wan Chai, with its paparazzi campground outside.

Founded by Chui Fook in 1948 to cater for lavish home banquets in Hong Kong, the enterprise was passed to two of his seven sons in 1968, including Chui Wai-kwan and now the grandchildren.

It has grown into two Chinese fine dining venues in Hong Kong and four in Japan as well as a joint-venture restaurant with the Shangri-la Hotel Group in Shanghai in 2004, and another is due to follow in Beijing next year.

In its Japanese venue, the most expensive order was a one million yen (HK$65,000) turtle soup for four and the highest bill was 1.2 million yen paid at a table for two that consumed a pair of 200-gram abalone.

'While, HK$65,000 for turtle soup sounds sky-high, buying the special type of turtle cost over HK$40,000,' he said. 'Adding valuable Chinese herbs and the cost of flying the ingredients to Japan came to well over HK$60,000.'

In Hong Kong, the restaurant has served HK$100,000 per table for premium shark's fin soup, abalone and bird nest.

The tycoon network can be traced to when the founder was head chef for many wealthy families, such as Sir Robert Hotung's, the richest in Hong Kong in the 1920s. This evolved into a catering business - fook lam moon translates as good fortune arriving at your door - which rode on the trend in the 1950s and 1960s of rich people entertaining lavishly in their deluxe villas and gardens.

Nowadays, with restaurants largely supplanting home catering, the Johnston Road establishment regularly hosts tycoons, such as Chinese Estates controlling shareholder Joseph Lau Luen-hung and his brother Thomas Lau Luen-hung, who runs the Sogo department stores in Hong Kong and China. Henderson Land chairman Lee Shau-kee has been a loyal customer for four decades and likes to go there for his birthday banquets and dim sum.

The biggest contributor to the success of the venture has been Chui Wai-kwan, better known to his family and clientele as Brother Seven, because he is Chui Fook's youngest son.

Apprenticed to his father at age 14, Brother Seven learned the importance of using the best ingredients. 'My father believed if the ingredients were wrong, the food would be no good no matter how good the chef was,' he said.

Brother Seven took over the kitchen at 20, when his father retired. An elder brother, Chui Pui-kwan, or Brother Five, is an accountant and looks after the business' finances.

As home catering began losing its appeal due to the shrinking of dwelling spaces, the brothers in 1972 set up their first restaurant in Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, and then a decade later moved to the current 10,000 sq ft, three-floor property they own. The Tsim Sha Tsui branch was established in 1977.

Certainly the most ambitious move for Brother Seven, who does not speak any English or Japanese, was to team up with Hajime Mori, a Japanese businessman and big fan of Fook Lam Moon cuisine, to set up the joint venture in Tokyo's Ginza district in 1989. 'Many road signs in Japan have Chinese characters, which meant I, and the chefs I took there, could not get lost. Rather, the difficulty was finding the right ingredients,' he said.

To solve the problem, he air-freighted in ham and other delicacies from Hong Kong and hired a local farmer to raise the special type of chicken needed for the restaurant's signature dish, deep fried chicken.

As an unknown brand in Japan, the first year there was terrible, but gradually businessmen and politicians starting to frequent the restaurant for the shark's fin soup, giant abalone and turtle, which has now been taken off the menu due to environmental concerns.

Branches have since opened in Osaka in 1994, Marunouchi in 2002 and, last month, in Toyota's headquarters in Nagoya.

Compared with Japan, the expansion in China has been smoother with it being easier to find the ingredients and the Hong Kong chefs being more willing to work there, Brother Seven said.

Now 59, the same age as Fook Lam Moon, Brother Seven has handed over the reins of the restaurants in Japan to his 28-year-old daughter, Michelle Chui Suk-man.

His 32-year-old son, Daniel Chui Tak-yiu, will join her there later this year. Both worked as doctors in Scotland but now want to preserve family values.