Vancouver The quality of chef Sam Lau's high-end Chinese cuisine stands out in Richmond, where every other shop is offering cheap noodles or an all-you-can-eat buffet. But his acclaimed menu shares one thing with those of many other Vancouver restaurants - a wafer-thin profit margin. In fact, Mr Lau's Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine was on the verge of closure when he got the biggest break of his life. A New York Times reporter, who has trekked around the world eating in Chinese restaurants, this month named Mr Lau's eatery 'the greatest Chinese restaurant outside China'. So unassuming is Zen, which is on the second floor of a mini-mall, that author Jennifer 8. Lee - and yes, that's how she writes her name - says she drove by the place twice before finding it. 'I thought that was part of the charm, part of what people love about Chinese restaurants: the secrets, not the obvious ones,' says Lee. 'The food was really quite good, very creative.' But what prompted Lee to label Zen 'the greatest' was the chef's skill in getting Chinese people to try his cutting-edge food. Chinese people in the west rarely eat such modern cuisine, Lee discovered. She thinks it may have something to do with people's reluctance to let their food be modernised. Lee was researching her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, after reading a rave review in The Vancouver Sun. She was impressed with the chef's passion, which she credits in part to his humble beginnings and lack of formal training. Being taught by masters can sometimes backfire and make the chief more rigid. But Mr Lau's cooking has been praised for its creative style, using familiar ingredients in new ways. The buzz created by Lee's accolade has been enough to bring Zen back from the brink. The restaurant has been booked solid since the book was released. Success has become a double-edged sword for Mr Lau, who came to Canada from Hong Kong 30 years ago and started out as a dishwasher. The cooks in the first restaurant where he worked jealously guarded their secrets and refused to train him. So he would wait until 3am and practise by himself. Business is brisk now, but Mr Lau is wary about expanding. The restaurant can seat 70 but he restricts numbers to 40 so he can devote attention to each dish. He has been looking for an assistant chef, but with unemployment so low, the search has been unsuccessful and he cooks everything himself. 'I'm not working at my best,' admits Mr Lau. 'I wish I was, because every customer deserves to have the best meal I can cook but I just physically can't do it.' Zen may be full every night, but Mr Lau fears it will not last. Many competitors have shut down in recent years because of the high costs of labour and ingredients. There's another problem. Mr Lau says he noticed a drop in trade after a low-cost airline began offering flights from Vancouver to Hong Kong. He suspects that many in the Chinese community are opting to splash out on a trip to Hong Kong rather than eating out. It all works out at a rather meagre profit of C$8 (HK$68) per meal. Even success is sometimes a hard to swallow.