Iconoclast chef of Hong Kong is back – in Pattaya, with new restaurant in Thai party town
Harlan Goldstein says that he has calmed down since leaving Hong Kong and is happy to be back in the kitchen with new multi-cuisine restaurant Comfort, a passion project that he does not intend to run like a business
Harlan Goldstein, the self-proclaimed “celebrity chef of Hong Kong”, is back – but this time he is about to open a restaurant in Pattaya, Thailand.
Called Harlan Goldstein’s Comfort, the restaurant – which has the tagline “Food for Friends” – will open on March 28 and serve an eclectic menu of various cuisines.
Goldstein abruptly resigned from Hong Kong-based ZS Hospitality Group in September 2016 due to what he says were differences between him and chairwoman Elizabeth Chu Yuet-han. The restaurant group gave him what he calls a “golden handshake” – almost US$3 million – and he decided, after 26 years in Hong Kong, on a change of scenery and moved to Thailand.
“I’ve been here for seven months and originally I wanted to go to Bangkok. I was there for two weeks, then Chiang Mai for two weeks. And then I told my wife [Helen Pong] we should check out Pattaya,” he says.
He explains that the place isn’t just about its seedy undertones. “Only certain areas are like that. I’m in an area that’s surrounded by luxury condos and there are a lot of Russians, Belgians, French and Americans. In Pattaya there’s the low-end market, then the mid-section where people have money and good jobs, and then the mega rich.”
After deciding to settle in Pattaya, Goldstein bought an 8,000 square foot (743 square metre) villa just outside the city by Mabphrachan Lake.
“You could never get that in Hong Kong,” he says, where he lived in an 890 square foot (83 square metre) flat that he sold. “My wife and four dogs are very happy here.” He says he was approached by a Belgian condo owner who he says “checked me out on the internet” and wanted to have a brand name living in the complex to boost its profile.
The chef and restaurateur is now putting the finishing touches on his new restaurant, which he claims the owner has handed to him rent-free for nine years. It features a giant mural of King Kong looking like rapper 50 Cent, an open kitchen and colourful bathrooms, including one called the “banana room” which has a poster listing countries and the lengths of their bananas under the banner “Know Your Banana”. There is also what he calls a Russian toilet, which is pink and has a chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
The menu features 34 dishes – the best of the recipes Goldstein has picked up in 38 years of world travel, he says. From Italy there’s pappardelle with mushrooms, truffles and slow-cooked egg; from Mexico, pulled pork tacos; from America, slow-cooked Sriracha glazed pork ribs; and from Thailand, crispy soft shell crab with yellow curry and roti. He adds there will also be daily specials.
“The dining scene in Pattaya is like Hong Kong 30 years ago,” he says, perhaps hinting that he has been down that road before. Goldstein also says that he is happy to be back in the kitchen, unlike in Hong Kong where he was managing several restaurants at once.
At first Goldstein was worried about sourcing ingredients, but he is pleased with what he has been able to find in Pattaya, while other gourmet ingredients can be flown in from Bangkok.
Goldstein says he has calmed down since moving to Thailand, but admits that he is still not used to things being done less efficiently than they are in Hong Kong.
“What takes 10 minutes in Hong Kong takes 10 days here. I have to bite my tongue,” he says. “Also I have seen that staff will quit if you are difficult. The people here are very friendly and warm, but productivity is like a nightmare. It’s something I have to get used to.”
Nevertheless, Goldstein has done his number crunching and with the low cost of living plus nine rent-free years, his operating costs will be a drop in the bucket compared to when he opened restaurants in Hong Kong.
“I’m not going to run this restaurant like a business and this time it’s 100 per cent my own,” he says. “I feel better taking the risk. A couple of Thai people wanted to be my partner, but I’m pretty set in my ways. I thought I would retire at 57, but I need to fulfil my passion.”