Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am

When journalist Jennifer 8 Lee (the subject of last week's column) walked into Hong Kong-born Sam Lau Chi-ming's restaurant three years ago, it changed his life - even though it couldn't save his business. Lee declared Lau's Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine to be the 'world's greatest Chinese restaurant outside of China'.

Lee shone a big spotlight on the chef's little corner of Richmond, a suburb of the Canadian city of Vancouver. Until Lee published her review in a book about Chinese food around the world - Fortune Cookie Chronicles - in March 2008, Zen had had a small but loyal following. 'Small' was, unfortunately, the operative word; in the six months between Lee eating at his restaurant and her book being published, Lau struggled to keep Zen afloat. Her review kept the business running for a few more months, as new clients went to try Lau's fare: Cantonese food with Western influences.

'Ten, 20 years ago, you could say Chinese food was world renowned but the quality really went down in the last five to six years,' says Lau. 'It's garbage now. Even in Hong Kong, the Chinese food is not as good as it was 20 years ago.'

The self-taught chef credits his new-found renown to having practised his craft daily for decades. His first job after emigrating to Canada in 1979, when he was 18, was washing dishes at a restaurant, but his real occupation at that time, Lau says, was observing.

'The cooks in the kitchen don't want to train you, so I watched them and I wrote down everything I saw,' says Lau. 'After everyone left at 1am or 2am, I would stay in the kitchen and I just practised.'

There was one dish he made over and over because he knew if he got it right, he could ask for a promotion. Yangzhou chao fan is a standard Cantonese-style fried-rice dish but perfecting it takes patience and practice, says Lau.

'I practised making that dish for more than a year, repeating and repeating every day. People kept asking, 'Aren't you bored making Yangzhou fried rice?',' says Lau.

Finally, Lau let the other chefs try it.

'They said, 'It's good; you can be a chef' and that's how it worked out,' says Lau, who grew up with a sister and two brothers in Sha Tin. His father was a sailor and his mother a housewife.

Lau operated Zen, which was on Richmond's Alexandria Road, also known as 'Eat Street', together with his sister. She managed, Lau cooked.

Unfortunately, the decor and the location did not match the chef's creations; the dated-looking facility on the second floor of a suburban mall left customers grumbling. Zen shut down in 2008 but Lau was determined to rebuild, this time with an establishment that matched his skills. He spent 18 months making sure the new Zen restaurant, which opened in time for the Winter Olympics, which were staged in the area in February, was as good as he could make it.

Running a kitchen is time-consuming and for three decades, Lau found it impossible to return to Hong Kong. While starting up his new restaurant, he returned a number of times, to find kitchen supplies.

'When I got to Canada, I felt homesick all the time. Now I can't stay in Hong Kong for too long. I was there three months ago and, three days in, I wanted to get a ticket to come back to Vancouver,' says Lau. 'I didn't have that 'home' feeling any longer. Now my home is my restaurant, my kitchen.'