Banquet ban bites
New leader Xi Jinping’s December clampdown on exuberant entertaining by the mainland’s seven million government officials seems to have worked. Shanghai’s gourmet restaurants and posh hotels have seen business slump 20 per cent since officials were limited to four courses plus soup, with no more claret and expensive spirits.
So reported The Shanghai Daily, with the austerity drive so far costing city eateries 60 million yuan (HK$74 million). The end of the gravy train means hotels and restaurants must recoup lost revenue with creative cost-cutting. “They have to explore more avenues for making profit but the tactics vary, case by case,” says one top Shanghai hotel. Beijing has been hit harder, with revenues down by half since early January. Hotels such as the Hilton Wangfujing, 15 minutes’ walk from the government district and Tiananmen Square have really felt the pinch, according to executive chef Randolph Ng. Lunar New Year would typically be peak season, but this year he’s scrambling to compensate with more external catering, according to seafoodsource.com. This mine of fishy information reveals that fish is pivotal to lavish banquets, when officials like to reflect their status by scoffing expensive fish, like grouper.
But times are now tough for the eateries. Food inflation jumped 20 per cent in the run-up to Chinese New Year, due to supply shortages and opportunism by distributors. Ng, who allots 40 per cent of his food budget to seafood, relies heavily on high-value species like grouper and salmon. Even though wild stocks are under threat, the Hilton serves both wild and farmed grouper. It charges 200 yuan per 50-gram serving of wild, line-caught grouper, says Ng.
The Singaporean chef has seen his cosmopolitan clients’ tastes change in seven years in the mainland. Sashimi is the thing now for banquet starters. “Four years ago, no one offered sashimi. Now it’s in banquets and a la carte in many restaurants.” Ng puts such new trends down to mainlanders travelling, and then wanting the same food at home. Or they take photos of seafood establishments when travelling and then open an identical restaurant when they come back home.
But diners are picky. It must be Tasmanian oysters and New Zealand mussels – locally farmed shellfish just won’t do, due to the dredging harvest methods which means shells are too sandy. Austerity be damned – expect to pay a lot more in the mainland’s top city restaurants .