Life after the goose feud: brothers open new restaurants in wake of Yung Kee battle

Brothers move on from a feud over restaurant empire built by their grandfather

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2014, 10:40am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 October, 2014, 8:21pm

Kam's Roast Goose does a bustling business in its small shop in Hennessy Road. Working in cramped quarters, the kitchen hands move easily around one another, quickly cutting up roast meat to fill orders streaming in from customers.

The owner, Hardy Kam Shun-yuen, 41, keeps a watchful eye to ensure operations run smoothly, and lends his workers a hand whenever it gets hectic. He had worried initially about lost business because of the Occupy Central protests, especially since the restaurant has been open for almost four months. But the barricades have not extended to Wan Chai, and diners have been queuing up for his signature roast goose and char siu.

The modest premises are a far cry from Yung Kee, the ornate, multi-storey dining palace in Central where he and his older brother, Kevin Kam Shung-hin, learned the ropes of the business.

Together with Kam's Restaurant, which Kevin launched in Tin Hau, each brother now has his own outlet, but both take pains to preserve the rustic flavours and traditional cooking techniques on which their grandfather, Kam Shui-fai, built the enormously successful Yung Kee empire.

The Kam family had been locked in a bitter feud after their father, Kinsen Kam Kwan-sing, and uncle, Ronald Kam Kwan-lai, fell out over how Yung Kee should be run. A long court battle continued even after Kinsen died suddenly in 2012. His widow, Leung Sui-kwan, took up his application to either wind up Yung Kee or have Ronald buy out Kinsen's share of the business.

But Hardy says the brothers were already thinking of opening their own restaurants while the hearings were still in progress, and their father's death strengthened their resolve to sever ties with their uncle's family and make a fresh start.

"Opening these restaurants is what my father would have wanted us to do," Hardy says. "He wanted us to be in the restaurant business, so why not open a new place? There was no point in us staying there. It was best to just step aside."

Kevin and Hardy have fond memories of how their grandfather dropped in at Yung Kee every day. Even though he had handed over daily operations to their father and uncle long before, the elder Kam would come in to greet regulars and check on things before heading off to play mahjong.

"When we were growing up, we didn't see him on a daily basis but [met him] on Sundays for dim sum," Hardy recalls. "He would take us to the grocery store to buy fruits and candy, not only for us but for the staff, too.

"Chef Wong, who is with me now, still remembers my grandfather buying cigarettes for him some 30 years ago."

The brothers recall the patriarch as a consummate restaurateur who observed his customers closely to try to anticipate their needs and get a feel for their preferences.

"When he saw a lady coming in, an office worker or a family, he would already have a good idea of what they would want to eat," Hardy says. "For a family, he would ensure some of the roast goose would be boned so that it would be easier for the kids to eat. For women there would be leaner cuts, and for those who like to drink alcohol, [he had] the back or hip area of the goose to chew on."

Kam Shui-fai did not tell his grandchildren much about how he turned a small dai pai dong that he opened in Sheung Wan in 1942 into a restaurant empire that was estimated at HK$1.5 billion a few years ago. Even so, Hardy and Kevin learned from their father.

Kinsen made sure they worked their way from the ground up. And when lunch service was over at Yung Kee, he often took the brothers to different restaurants to taste dishes and learn what diners enjoyed. They also served as guinea pigs to taste new dishes he created.

After finishing his accounting degree in Vancouver, Kevin did stints in every position to pick up the knowledge he needed, from roasting geese in the charcoal-fired ovens to stir-frying dishes with other line cooks and waiting on tables.

"I was already interested in cooking before I started learning at Yung Kee," he says.

With two years of experience in the kitchen, Kevin became proficient at wielding the wok and prepping ingredients, and as a waiter, he honed people skills. He also learned how to work with suppliers. Hardy had similar hands-on experience, mostly in the barbecue section, before taking up management duties, shadowing his father at weekly meetings with staff and industry representatives.

Although Kinsen had been portrayed during court hearings as a micro-manager who intimidated his staff, Hardy and Kevin simply view their father as a man who insisted on high standards, and both brothers opened their new businesses this year on July 2, their father's birthday, to honour his memory.

Kam's Restaurant in Tin Hau, like Hardy's roast goose outlet, is a small venue: it seats just 60 people, and there is room in the kitchen for only two woks and an oven to roast meats.

"We make things the traditional way. The colour and taste of the sauces bring back memories for customers in their 50s and 60s," Kevin says. The menu is kept to about 70 dishes, "to keep it simple", and the restaurant has been humming since it opened four months ago.

Although it would have made sense for the brothers to open a restaurant together, Kevin cites several hurdles that many restaurateurs face.

Opening these restaurants is what my father would have wanted us to do
Hardy Kam, restaurateur

"When we were looking for venues six months ago, it was difficult to find a place around 5,000 square feet. And if you have a bigger restaurant, people expect more dishes like dim sum," he says. That also meant having to hire more waiters and chefs when restaurateurs around the city are struggling to staff their operations.

"We're happy with what we have now ... Having the two shops [one focused on roast meats, the other on family-style dishes] lets people know we offer a diverse menu and that they're run by two brothers," Hardy says. "It gives us a chance to test different ways to do business and helps build our confidence."

All the same, the brothers hope to open a bigger venue this year.

During their 18-month hiatus, Kevin travelled extensively on the mainland to find new ideas for his upcoming restaurant. "I tried a lot of kinds of noodles and learned how to make them and the soup base from some sifu," he says with a smile, a hint of what is to come.

The brothers have been taking a collaborative approach in running their businesses; when introducing a new item on the menu, Kevin often involves staff in figuring out the preparation, presentation and how to sell it to customers.

"We all have a common goal and it's easier to work in that kind of environment," he says.

Hardy draws on chef Wong's experience, and he says the consultations work well.

"It's fun and interesting to be able to make things, to take different ingredients and make something that people will eat and enjoy. That gives me satisfaction," Hardy says.

Kevin is glad when he sees regular customers from the old days stream into his restaurant to enjoy the classic home-style dishes. "We're happy to see each other, and they can come here and meet me," he says.

Besides Hardy's relationship with chef Wong, both brothers acknowledge that experienced staff who joined them from Yung Kee have played a crucial role in their success so far.

"They know who we are as people and how we deal with people. They had a good bond with my father because of how he treated them. They grew up with the restaurant and now they are helping us, the next generation," Hardy says.

But that doesn't mean Hardy will push his two children, now just three and nine years old, into the restaurant business.

"Our father brought us in to see if we were interested," Hardy says. "He would say: 'Try this, if you like it, that's fine.' My kids come to the restaurant and see what I do, and hopefully later they will join me."