Inside the Fook Lam Moon family feud that spawned Seventh Son
A family feud has divided the Chui restaurant empire, pitting one brother against the other in rival outlets,writes Bernice Chan
The signature crispy chicken looks darker than most, but the skin is delicate and crunchy, while the barbecued suckling pig is a caramelised shade of matte russet, the meat tender and flavourful.
Although the food tastes similar to that of the venerable Fook Lam Moon, the decor is more contemporary, and the restaurant - Seventh Son, on Tonnochy Road in Wan Chai - is new.
A three-year court battle has divided members of the Chui family behind Fook Lam Moon, the restaurant chain founded by Chui Fook-chuen.
One of the founder's sons, "Brother Five" Chui Pui-kun, used to manage the restaurants, while another, "Brother Seven" Chui Wai-kwan, worked in the kitchen for 50 years.
Now they have gone their separate ways: Pui-kun is looking to diversify Fook Lam Moon and Wai-kwan is hoping to build a new empire.
The feud began in November 2009 when Pui-kun filed a defamation suit against his younger brother, accusing Wai-kwan of circulating libellous letters to shareholders and directors. They filed petitions to take over each other's shares until finally settling out of court in December.
"The most fortunate thing is that no one did anything illegal," says Daniel Chui Tak-yiu, director of Seventh Son, and Wai-kwan's son.
Under the settlement terms, Pui-kun kept the two main restaurants - the flagship on Johnston Road in Wan Chai and the other on Kimberley Road in Tsim Sha Tsui - while Wai-kwan has the three restaurants on the mainland and four in Japan. The latter opened Seventh Son last month. "We had a lot of conflicts in the way we saw the business," explains Daniel, who was responsible for day-to-day management. "Father was very upset because he invested 50 years of his life in Fook Lam Moon, but we tried to console him, saying, 'You have the passion and know-how'. Losing the name is not important. Grandfather's business didn't have a name when he started."
Seventh Son is located on the fifth and sixth floors of a building just a few streets away from the Wan Chai branch of Fook Lam Moon, where wealthy patrons' cars are often seen parked outside.
"This place is not ideal, but we need good access. At Fook Lam Moon, residents in the area complain about customers double parking. But here it is a commercial area, so we're OK," says Daniel.
He indicates that the family rift began with Pui-kun complaining that the restaurants were not making as much money as in the glory days leading up to the handover.
"And he would query our competence," Daniel says. "But 1997 was so different, as there was no minimum wage, property wasn't as expensive as it is now, people were spending as if there was no tomorrow. That was an anomaly."
Family patriarch Chui Fook-chuen started cooking at the age of 14 and began his career as head chef for the prominent Hotung family. After honing his culinary skills, he set up a catering business in 1948.
Wai-kwan remembers helping his father prepare the ingredients, which they would carry along with their cooking implements to clients' homes, where they would cook.
"I was not academically minded and didn't have good grades, so my father suggested I learn to cook," he recalls.
"At 7am my father and I would get up and buy ingredients. You couldn't get your staff to do that because they worked late the night before. Then I started learning how to make dishes. My father would let me try the dishes so I would understand the standards we had to meet and how to satisfy customers' demands."
In 1962, his father's main chefs quit and six years later his father retired at the age of 60. Three months later, some of the managers left to open their own restaurants. Wai-kwan began to doubt his competence and worried it would be the end of Fook Lam Moon.
"But then I was asked to cook a banquet for a connoisseur at his home, for 50 people. Afterwards he praised me and it gave me confidence, knowing that clients would come back to the restaurant."
Fook Lam Moon is best known for its expensive dishes, such as braised abalone, shark fin, fish maw and bird's nest. Home-style dishes such as crispy chicken, dim sum and steamed lotus leaf rice are just as popular.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the menu at Seventh Son looks similar. "It's my menu. I created it," Wai-kwan says. "It's more family-style dishes" - although he adds that he likes cooking with the expensive ingredients.
Daniel says the menu is seasonal and the dishes have stood the test of 50 years. Suppliers of Fook Lam Moon are also now supplying Seventh Son.
Wai-kwan seems pleased with his new venture, and welcomes customers at the door. A new Seventh Son will open soon in Shanghai, while the rest of Fook Lam Moon's outlets in the mainland and Japan will carry the new name.
At Fook Lam Moon's two Hong Kong locations, Pui-kun has recruited his children, Duncan Chui Tak-keung and Janet Chui Shuk-wah, to help run the business. While they aim to retain the restaurants' high standards, they also want to reach out to new customers.
In April, the Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant hosted its first wine-pairing dinner with French wines from Burgundy, followed by another with Alsace wines in September that was organised by Sopexa and Wine Now editor Lau Chi-sun.
"We hope to have these wine dinners every two to three months, and we are seeing more people drinking wines with their meals here," Janet says. "Some customers bring their own wines, but now we have a sommelier to help."
Fook Lam Moon launched another initiative this year when it sold its mooncakes commercially for the first time. Previously, its limited-production, high-end mooncakes were sold exclusively to restaurant patrons. Since it began selling them separately, it has expanded production, Janet says.
The mooncakes, made with white lotus seed paste, salted yolks and seaweed sugar, were priced at HK$680 for a box of four, or six mini ones, competing with The Peninsula's most expensive ones at HK$1,080 a box.
Although they can be bought in the restaurants or online, sales were not as strong as was hoped, possibly owing to the clampdown on the spending of public money on luxury items on the mainland.
Janet will not reveal how many boxes were made or sold, saying only that they hope to expand the restaurant's retail division. "We want to make the brand more recognisable ... People may find the name intimidating, but they don't have to walk in to try it because they can buy things like mooncakes and XO sauce," she says.
Among Wai-kwan's challenges will be the prospect of rising rents. But that won't be a problem for Pui-kun, who owns the properties where the Fook Lam Moon restaurants are located. This means their only concern will be focusing on the quality of the food and service.
"When you order stir-fried vegetables for HK$100, we make sure they are the freshest, best vegetables for you. We serve you quality," Janet says.