How entrepreneur Ignace Lecleir became a beacon of excellence on Beijing's dining landscape
Belgian restaurateur has come a long way since opening his first venue in a former monk's compound
Heritage, character and charm come as standard at Ignace Lecleir's ever-expanding range of Beijing dining establishments. There is Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB), located in a Ming dynasty-era compound once used to print Tibetan Buddhist scriptures; the just-opened TRB Bites@The Courtyard, overlooking the moat, and vermillion walls, of the Forbidden City; and Copper, an event venue in a former hutong nail factory.
It is an impressive spread of options, but far from the full panoply. The indefatigable Lecleir also operates a wine-delivery service and a catering business that can organise canapes for 1,000 guests at an embassy reception, dinner on the Great Wall, or a simple cheese sandwich for a hungry office worker.
In just a few years, the Belgian has gone from hired hand - he was maître d' at star chef Daniel Boulud's restaurant in the city - to one of the most active expatriate restaurant industry entrepreneurs, with a total of 140 staff on the payroll.
Not bad for an individual who admits his first outlet, TRB, was a risky venture that could easily have tanked. The restaurant is located in a compound where monks once laboured to print Tibetan scriptures for the emperor; permission to use the 600-year-old space for commercial purposes was not easily granted. It also had the disadvantage of being located in a scruffy and narrow hutong, which is fiendishly difficult to find.
Lecleir persevered and was allowed to use one corner of the compound - a more modern building, previously used to make the city's first black-and-white TVs - as a dining spot. From day one, its classy decor, flawless service and gourmet food proved popular with Beijing foodies and in-the-know visitors.
"There was a big possibility it might not work out, it was like going to the casino," recalls Lecleir, who invested his savings in the venture. "I thought I would give it everything and be ready for a big disappointment.
"I wanted it to be a place which was part of the community, where people go to celebrate special days and moments. There is a bit of everything on the menu, some of it pushing fine dining and some that is maybe more like a high-end brasserie."
Among the most popular dishes are all-day-braised short ribs with bread dumplings, and foie gras with lobster and truffle mayonnaise.
Diners, who spend an average of 700 yuan (HK$850) to 800 yuan on an evening meal, can also choose from an extensive wine list that includes some of trained sommelier Lecleir's personal picks, along with vintages from the finest local wineries such as Grace Vineyard, Silver Heights, and Chateau Helan Qingxue.
In the first few years , Lecleir was a ubiquitous presence, wafting between tables and gently chiding staff when they made mistakes. The restaurant established a loyal following, known as a place where service was impeccable, the food consistent and the decor sophisticated.
"Ignace remains a beacon of excellence for everyone else in the industry to try to move towards," says Sarah Keenlyside, founder of the Bespoke Travel Company, who counts Johnny Depp, Matt Damon, Jennifer Connelly and Katy Perry among her clients.
"The truth is when it comes to service, no other restaurant comes close in Beijing - or Shanghai, for that matter. And in a country like China with no real service culture, this is no mean feat. In fact it's wholly remarkable. He's completely nailed the "black tie service with a blue jeans attitude" thing, ensuring every member of his staff is polite and sweet without fawning, and chatty and laid back at the same time as being incredibly professional."
The challenge now for Lecleir is to see if those service levels can be maintained at the new venue, TRB Bites@The Courtyard, where the menu is less fussy. The space was formerly occupied by chef Brian McKenna, who has switched culinary gears to focus on a soon-to-open Beijing gastro-pub.
Dishes at TRB Bites@The Courtyard include lamb loin with mustard seeds, squid with cauliflower purée, pork with purple potato and Belgian-style blood sausage accompanied by dates and onions. The three-course fixed menu is set at 158 yuan. Seating is on three levels, with a window seat one of the most keenly sought in the capital. The view towards the Forbidden City's walls is magical, especially in winter when the moat water freezes over.
The restaurant's open kitchen will see local chefs work under the supervision of expatriates from France, the Netherlands and Germany. For a time Lecleir used almost all Chinese chefs, even paying for trips to Hong Kong so they could witness the hospitality industry at its highest levels, but came to realise an expert international hand was vital.
Still, even with locals and expatriates working harmoniously together, there is scope for error and misunderstanding. Lecleir's favourite anecdote about the haphazardness that is part and parcel of Beijing life concerns Paris guest chef James Henry, from the restaurant Bones, who had plans for an elaborate French haute cuisine chicken kidney dish.
"He ordered kidneys and the supplier brought turkey testicles," says Lecleir. "The chef cooked it anyway and thought it was delicious. We described it on the menu as turkey testicles naked in puff pastry with truffle sauce. Guests were curious and those that tried it liked it … but it didn't become a staple on the menu. How did they make the mistake? Sometimes it is better not to ask."
Not that Lecleir has the ability to quiz suppliers in their native tongue. Despite being a linguist, who counts Dutch, French, English and German among his repertoire, command of Chinese has so far eluded him.
At work, the boss relies on bilingual staff; when out and about socially on his one day off - Sunday - he can count on his three Putonghua-fluent children.
Language obstacles aside, the restaurateur has come to understand the often-arcane Chinese business ways and means. The methods are rather different to those in previous professional postings in London, New York, San Francisco and Paris, or on the Crystal Cruises ship where he met his wife.
He says: "As an entrepreneur, you walk on thin ice, which cracks a lot. It is a very uncomfortable feeling, you get used to it but you don't want to get used to it. You learn to do business, you learn a lot about yourself and the culture, and how certain things are done. Sometimes I like it when things are not so easy, it is an interesting environment and there are a lot of opportunities.
"We were not affected by the austerity drive, that kind of really high spending is not really our market. In the beginning, we had some complaints we were too cheap."
The businesses are clearly thriving, but Lecleir maintains money has never been the main motivator. In many ways, he is an accidental entrepreneur: TRB came about when he was training for the Great Wall marathon, rather than actively scouting for locations.
He says: "I saw the place as I was running past and started to ask some questions. I was looking to stay in Beijing, but wanted to find somewhere that had charm and character and personality, a place where you could go often. It is certainly not the easiest to get to."