Meet the Beijing restaurateur serving Peking duck fit for an empress
From humble beginnings, the family-owned Liqun Roast Duck restaurant has been delighting diners for more than 26 years with its ancient recipes
When Zhang Xin enrolled to study law at a university in Beijing in 1998 she had no idea she would one day end up running a Peking duck restaurant.
But for the 12 years since she graduated, that is exactly what she has done, as the general manager and legal representative of the family-owned Liqun Roast Duck, whose food is renowned across the Chinese capital and beyond.
Zhang’s father Zhang Liqun started the business from his home in the Qianmen area of Beijing in 1991, after working for many years as a chef at the acclaimed Quan Ju De Roast Duck restaurant in the city. In the early days, he offered only a delivery service, as the tiny courtyard property he shared with his family was barely big enough for him to prepare and cook the food, let alone accommodate paying customers.
About a year later, he did manage to create a small area for people to eat-in, and that was when things really started to take off.
“I remember clearly the first foreign visitor,” the 69-year-old said. “A young Chinese man had just returned from studying in Germany and he brought his homestay family with him to the restaurant during their visit to Beijing. I don’t know whether the family wrote reviews about my restaurant, but [since then] we’ve always had lots of German customers.”
While Zhang Snr continues to run the kitchen, the day-to-day operation of the business is down to his daughter.
Zhang Xin, now 37, took over the reins of the restaurant at a time when it was facing an uncertain future. Many properties in Qianmen – one of Beijing’s oldest areas – were being pulled down to make way for a renovation project, she said, but thanks to her knowledge of the law and a government drive to preserve at least some of the local heritage she managed to save the restaurant from the wrecking ball.
Ever since, she has strived to make the business better and stronger, she said.
“I listened to the advice of my professor, who told me to use my [academic] knowledge to make the restaurant better and more prosperous,” she said.
It is that ongoing challenge that keeps Zhang motivated, she said.
“I was a student who knew only how to take exams and nothing else, not even how to deal with people,” she said.
“The job is really diverse, and there’s no shortage of challenges.”
Developing the business without sacrificing its personality has perhaps been the greatest test, Zhang Xin said.
While the restaurant is still relatively small – Zhang Snr eventually moved his family out to make room for five tables indoors and seven in the courtyard – it is run in a modern and professional way, she said. Even its name has been trademarked.
“I grew up with the restaurant, watching it grow from selling 40 roast ducks a month to 40 a day,” she said.
“[But] It’s getting more difficult to run a restaurant, and it’s even harder when you have an emotional attachment.”
Not that the Zhang family should be too concerned about remaining popular. Over the years, they have welcomed all sorts of special guests, from politicians and diplomats to pop singers and film stars, including the likes of Joey Yung, Eason Chan Yick-shun, Anthony Wong Chau Sang and Chang Chen-yue, to name but a few.
Zhang said it was important to her that the business continued to move forward without losing touch with its roots.
“I recently bought some new plates and dishes with a blue pattern, like the ones we used in the 1990s,” she said. “I want people to feel as if they are going back to their childhood home or visiting their grandparents.”
Zhang said that she and her father made serious plans to relocate the business in 2013, going so far as to buy a bigger courtyard property. However, they were refused a licence to run a restaurant from the new location and their plans were shelved.
So now the emphasis is on making the existing venue as good as it can possibly be, Zhang Snr said.
“We are aware of the changes in [customers’] tastes, so we are working on ways to accommodate those,” he said.
But while he understands the need to be pragmatic, he also knows the reason for his 26 years of success – serving great food at a fair price.
“[Our] roast duck is handled in exactly the same way as it was served for Cixi, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) empress,” he said, referring to the ancient process of roasting the birds over burning fruit woods to create a unique fragrance and taste.
“And for that quality of roast duck, our prices are the lowest,” he said.
When asked about the future, Zhang Xin was philosophical but upbeat.
“Our business is affected a lot by policies,” she said, in reference to the local government’s rules on the catering industry.
“But we were very lucky to be granted a new five-year extension, so at least I don’t have to worry about that for a while.”
The one thing she would like is more room, for herself, her father and the restaurant’s 14 staff.
“We need a bigger kitchen,” she said. “But we can’t do much about that, so we’ll have to make do with what we have, and see what happens later.”