Top chef goes for his own Golden touch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 October, 2010, 12:00am

Harlan Goldstein is not a lawyer or marriage counsellor, but based on his experience, to be a successful restaurateur it would help a whole lot to be both of these things.

The larger-than-life American celebrity chef would sooner part with the best-kept secrets of his most famous recipes than go into the unhappy details of how he ended up severing his connections with business partners at Harlan's - the eponymous restaurant he co-founded with the partners in 2004 in the International Finance Centre (IFC) in Central.

The dispute between the partners was settled out of court two years ago. However, Goldstein parted ways with his ex-partners without the right to use his own name for other businesses, since he did not own the 'Harlan's' trade name. This is why he would have better protected his interests had he been a lawyer and a marriage counsellor as well as a chef.

'My advice is, when you first get 'married', everything is lots of love. But you should also protect yourself in case you get a divorce,' he says.

'Shareholder agreements, like marriage vows, should be fair to both parties. If it's your name that is being put on the door, make sure you own the trademark,' said Goldstein, talking over a table in the restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong that he went on to establish called Tuscany by H - which will shut down this month as he prepares for yet another venture.

Not many people are aware that despite the continued use of the Harlan name, Goldstein has not been involved in the operation of Harlan's for over two years.

'There is a lot of confusion over why a restaurant is called Harlan's when there is no Harlan,' he says.

The brand confusion saw Goldstein launch a Facebook campaign in July to clarify his detachment from Harlan's soon after the restaurant relocated from the 88-storey IFC to The One, a 24-storey retail complex in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, to escape soaring rents.

Now, with Harlan's having exited from Central and the imminent closure of Tuscany by H, Goldstein is preparing to set up a new restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong. Together with Simon To, a friend of six years and a regular customer wherever he happened to be operating, Goldstein will open Gold by Harlan Goldstein in the third week of November.

To is chairman of Hong Kong stationery manufacturer Worldwide Stationery.

Between running Tuscany by H during its closing weeks, making sure the new restaurant in Lan Kwai Fong Tower on Wyndham Street will be ready for the grand opening, and photography sessions for an upcoming cookery book, Goldstein has been squeezing in gym sessions to work off the many nibbles he has sampled while coming up with new dishes.

'I find cooking challenging, rewarding and also very creative, so I became very interested in food, and of course I love to eat,' he says when asked about his passion for cooking. 'I had a lot of chefs who inspired me ... I had a lot of mentors that I worked for.'

In his Facebook page, he lists as his favourite television programmes Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Bizarre Foods and MasterChef Australia.

Having spent his early life in the working-class, Lower East Side neighbourhood of New York City, home to many immigrants, the 49-year-old has learned his trade the hard way.

At the age of 14, he began working after school at his uncle's restaurant in Florida. After a few years of part-time work, he was sent by his uncle to work and learn at the luxurious lake-side Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland, followed by stints in France and Italy.

'It was very hard-going, thorough training in Europe because it was very disciplined, the hours were very long, the pay was very little,' he recalls. 'You had room and board and my mother had to send me money to help me ... this really was the school of hard knocks.'

By long he meant 12-14-hour days, six days a week; and by little, he was referring to the US$50 a month spending money he was paid. But the hard work in Europe paid off as he landed jobs in five-star hotels and restaurants in New Orleans, Dallas, Chicago, Orlando and Hawaii.

He climbed to the No 2 chef position in a major hotel in Hawaii before moving to Asia in 1991 at the age of 28, where he began a three-year stint as executive chef at the China World Hotel in Beijing, operated by Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, a sister company of SCMP Group, which publishes the South China Morning Post.

It was another decade before he co-established Harlan's in IFC. His break to build his own brand came seven years after he had worked as executive chef at the Shangri-La-run Aberdeen Marina Club in Hong Kong, when one of the club's restaurants was named after him.

It was this level of confidence that propelled him to realise his dream to open his own restaurant.

After opening Harlan's in 2004, he co-invested in a private dining room called Private H that was popular with stockbrokers and bankers, as well as an Italian-Mediterranean restaurant, H One; a New York-style lounge bar called G Bar; and a venue for lunch buffets and parties called The Box at the IFC. In 2008 he left the IFC partnerships and continued to run Private H and Tuscany by H.

Opening a high-end restaurant in a prime area is a challenging and risky affair, particularly when staff salaries and rents - the biggest costs of restaurants - rise faster than menu prices, he says.

New restaurant openings in Hong Kong on the back of a strong economic recovery, combined with competition for talent from new hotels in casino-rampant Macau, have driven up average salaries in the restaurant business by around 15 per cent in the past year.

With the world's third most expensive street-level shop rents after Paris and New York, soaring rents in Hong Kong are sending some restaurants upstairs or to areas further from the central business district.

'It is getting extremely difficult now that landlords are raising prices so high. Supply is so tight,' Goldstein says. 'I waited a year and a half to find this location. I was offered many sites, including one in Kowloon that I turned down because my customer base is mainly on the Hong Kong Island side.'

On the plus side, a good reputation can overcome a poor location. 'If you are established today and your food and service is good, no matter where you are, they will find you. So location is not always the most important thing,' he says.

His new 5,000 square foot restaurant to be called Gold by Harlan Goldstein, will be set up in a property with a six-year lease, but he would not disclose the rental rate. According to Centaline Property Agency, however, rentals at some ground floor restaurants in Central could range from HK$60 to HK$150 a square foot, compared to over HK$60 on the first floor. Rents have generally risen over 20 per cent in the past two years.

Taking advantage of Wyndham Street's popularity as a night-time haunt, his 90-seat restaurant will be converted into a lounge with a small dance floor after 10.30pm with music played by local and international disc-jockeys. It will feature an outdoor terrace that can accommodate 30 people serving tapas, Rioja wine and sangria.

'I just came back from Ibiza [in Spain], the capital of music, party and clubbing, to do research and make contacts with DJs there. I want to bring in visiting DJs for special nights,' he says.

'I'm branching out now [into late-night entertainment]. It will be my new style ... I'll be offering something different to two different types of customers.'

It will be luxurious, targeting per-person spending of HK$700 to HK$1,000 including wine.

The wine list will start at HK$430 a bottle and go all the way 'up to the moon', at HK$100,000.

One thing for sure is that this time around, Goldstein has been extra careful to keep ownership of his trademark and in his choice of partner. 'I'm very selective this time, [Simon] is a very loyal and good friend,' he said.