Cooking up the perfect recipe for success in China

Localisation helps Korean chef leave an indelible gastronomic footprint in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 7:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 7:32pm

Like most entrepreneurs Andrew Ahn Hyun Min’s business went through various ups and downs before settling down.

The multiple award winning South Korean chef, however, admits that the road to success was not easy as initial attempts to introduce authentic Korean cuisine in Beijing left him with a mountain of debt at the end of three years.

Undaunted, Ahn decided to stick it out and weather the storm. But it also meant that he had to make some compromises like altering the cuisine to suit local tastes.

Ahn, the chief executive of Beijing ShiShangJia Catering and owner of the One Pot restaurant in Beijing believes that there is still room for growth of Korean bistros in China and adds that he is expanding his business to Shanghai soon.

“Korean cuisine still has a place in China and with Chinese customers. China is still a market full of opportunities,” he said. Entrepreneurs should, however, be prepared to contend with the differences in culture and taste on the mainland, Ahn told the South China Morning Post during a recent interview in Seoul.

Ahn, who had a chequered career, worked with several leading hotel brands like Hilton and Sheraton in Tianjin, Seoul and Namsan. In 2010, he opened the first One Pot Korean restaurant in Sanlitun, Beijing. The restaurant is well-known for Ahn’s gastronomic delights like the Ssam Caesar salad and bibimbap. The award winning chef, who is known to whip up mouth-watering delicacies in a jiffy soon found that making profit from the restaurant business was not an easy task.

For starters, he had to contend with operational details like renegotiating the rental agreement and opening hours with the landlord. That was easier said than done, as Ahn had to cough up more money if he wanted to keep the air-conditioning on beyond the stipulated 10.30 pm closing time. The additional expenditure was something that Ahn could not afford in the early days. Looking back, he said that the decision to close early saw him lose out on the somewhat considerable late-night clientele who stay long for dinner and drinks.

Customer loyalty, another key factor for the success of restaurants, was another thing that was difficult to establish in Beijing.

“Since my initial target audience was expatriates and the embassy crowd, I did not have a regular set of customers. Though I focused on the embassy crowd, most of them were there only for short periods. After three years, I was left with a mountain of debt. As the chief executive and chef of my own company, I realised that I had to take things in hand if I was to survive,” he said.

According to Ahn, the first priority was to cater to more customers, which in this case happened to be Chinese customers.

“I had always wanted more Chinese customers, but could not attract any. I visited other Korean restaurants to find out what was wrong with my food. Though my Korean cuisine was authentic, I realised that it was not to the taste and liking of many Chinese customers,” he said.

Citing an example, he said that in Korean cuisine it was customary to serve small portions of food to a group, while in the mainland they prefer large portions. Bibimbap, a traditional Korean rice and beef with vegetable, is normally served in ornate pots in Korea, whereas on the mainland they prefer it in black pots. Making these subtle changes did make a difference finally, he said.

“Price was another factor. Many Chinese customers thought that my dishes are expensive since I use top-notch ingredients, organic vegetable and quality meat,” he said. “But I have also created several dishes at cheaper price points without compromising on the quality of ingredients. I do not use monosodium glutamate in my dishes, as I believe that quality and healthy food will ultimately bring in more customers.”

Ahn also raised his own profile by appearing in various TV programmes in the mainland and encouraged media sampling of his various dishes to gain wider reach.

“My business is good. My next step is to open a shop in Jeju in South Korea and then a shop in Shanghai,” he said. “Korean food has the potential to go places in China.”