Long-distance call

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2010, 12:00am

At Yam'Tcha, a Michelin-starred fusion bistro near the Louvre Museum, in Paris, curious diners often ask owner Chan Chi-wah what 'Yam'Tcha' means. A Hong Kong native, Chan explains the word translates as 'drink tea' and reflects an unconventional menu that offers a variety of Chinese tea to match the French-with-a-hint-of-China dishes prepared by his French wife, chef Adeline Grattard.

The idea is apparently a popular one; the restaurant has been booked a month in advance since its opening in March last year. But the thriving business has proved challenging for Chan, who brought to end three decades in graphic design at the age of 50 to try his luck in the restaurant trade.

'Running a restaurant is a time-consuming business. I have so little free time, with only one hour each day to see my daughter. I rarely get to sit down to drink a cup of tea!' he says.

Chan's ties with the French capital stem from a mid-20s curiosity about European culture. 'Having been in Hong Kong for so long, I really wanted to see something new. In those days, I found the British people in Hong Kong a bit strange, and I was curious to know how life was different in continental Europe.'

In 1985, he quit his design job and packed his bags. Finding France 'an open society highly tolerant of foreign arts and cultures', he took a French language course in a small town for a year before enrolling in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux, to study communication and design. Upon graduation, he found a graphic design job in Paris.

Chan felt at home in France and became savagely critical of his hometown.

'Whenever I returned to Hong Kong, I would criticise almost everything. I thought people were narrow-minded,' he says. 'But I was young, ignorant and hot-headed. Now I know better the reasons behind things and I actually admire the Hong Kong people for their resilience despite the stress in the city.'

In 2007, Chan and Grattard, who used to work at a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, came to Hong Kong, where he undertook a design project with a newspaper and she honed her cooking skills at a local restaurant. A year later, their daughter was born and the couple returned to Paris to open a restaurant that offers experimental dishes, such as foie gras marinated with Shaoxing wine and accompanied with French herbs.

Just as his clients appreciate the fusion food, Chan also admires French people's attitude towards eating.

'If they like the food, they thank you. In Hong Kong, it's always the restaurant staff who thank customers,' he says. 'We've got clients who have written us poems and sent us thank you cards. A couple of people have even cried at the end of the meal. One of them said he never knew foie gras could give him such a unique sensation.

'That was really over-the-top! But I love their approach.'