Harlan Goldstein Doesn't Need Gordon Ramsay's Anger to Run a Kitchen
After a few months on the down-low, the chef is back in a big way, with four restaurants set to open in a single building in Central in the next few months. Photos: Kirk Kenny / studiozag.com
I was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, in 1961. I was raised by a single mother and a sister. My uncle got me a job in Le Montreux Palace hotel in Switzerland when I graduated from high school—and I didn’t know how to speak French. The training and working environment was very tough back then: screaming, hitting, all that bullshit. It’s changed now, because people wouldn’t put up with it. But when you’re young, determined and you really want to get ahead, you put up with a lot of shit.
I was a gourmet chef in New Orleans at 22. I chose to go to Chicago and work for a three-star Michelin chef for nothing compared to what I was getting. That was the strategy for me: to work with a lot of good people, and learn my craft as much as I could. In 1990 I got the offer to go to Beijing to open the Shangri-La’s China World Hotel. I thought: “Let’s go to China, it’ll be interesting.” I went thinking I’d be there for one or two years and I’d go back to the US. Well, I never went back.
At the Shangri-La they asked if I’d like to run the restaurant at the Aberdeen Marina Club. I turned it from a sleepy one to a very successful one. I showed myself I could do business. I decided to leave a very stable job and take the risk of opening up a restaurant, because of Walter Kwok [of Sun Hung Kai Properties].I was at a dinner party cooking for him and I asked, “Why don’t you give me a place at IFC?” He said, “Come by tomorrow.” I went—and he gave me a place.
My one restaurant turned into seven within three and a half years. Hong Kong was on a roll. Unfortunately after five and a half years of working together [with a business partner], we didn’t see eye to eye. He trademarked my name, “Harlan.” Of course I went after him to get my name back, but after I saw the lawyer’s bill, I called him: “Keep my name as a gift, because I’ll come back as Harlan Goldstein.” I took a break, then opened several restaurants with a new partner. That lasted about six years and I sold the company to him. It was almost like a six-year marriage. After eight months of travel around the world I’ve joined ZS Hospitality Group as a joint venture partner, and I’ve taken over the whole building at 8 Lyndhurst Terrace.
I’ve been known for all the high-end stuff in the past—Michelin-starred chefs, big price tickets—but now you can get the same quality as in the past, with a very affordable experience. I’m not saying I’m going Cheap Charlie, but I’m sensitive to what the market is. You can’t rest on your laurels and say, “What I did six years ago is going to work.” It doesn’t. You’ve got to stay up with what’s going on in the world. I classify my restaurants as real food and real experiences. If you have trendy and gimmicky things, people try you once and never come back. It takes a lot to build a successful restaurant group.
It’s not just that you’ve got the money. You’ve got to have the hardware, the software, the soul, the knowledge, the passion, and the talent—that’s key. Everyone has money in Hong Kong—there are so many rich people here, opening new restaurants. But they fail, because they don’t understand the business. Do you need to be like Gordon Ramsay, running around, screaming, yelling and using the F-word? No. I used to be like that 20 years ago. I changed. What you need to do is give a direction. You need to have a plan to win the game.
Respect is not a thing you can go to the ATM and get. Respect is something you earn. My management style is a “line.” I respect you, you respect me. You cross the line, I kick you. Most of my business is done on my phone, on WhatsApp. Customers don’t call booking lines. Customers like to reply to the boss. Ninety-six percent of our customers are Chinese and they want face. Why call a booking line when you can send me a message and I can organize it for you? Most people come, they want to be recognized, they want to be pampered by me. I have a passion for what I do, and I love making people happy.
People say I’m arrogant, cocky, larger than life—I am. But I have a heart. I am what I am, and I’m not going to change. I have a passion in my stomach for what I do. I’m not a puppy dog that rolls over and licks its tummy, I’m a fucking tiger that bites. I can deliver. If I don’t hear little birds whispering “Look at that guy, who the hell does he think he is,” I consider that I haven’t been successful.
If they’re not talking about you, you’re not important. I can give away my secrets in an interview and I don’t care, because others won’t be able to deliver it. They’re not Harlan Goldstein. I can put my recipes on the internet, but they can’t cook them like I can. I’m here to stay in Hong Kong. After 24 years, it’s still a great city. I’m confident, I’m an ABC. American Born Chinese? No, Always Be Confident.