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The future of Chinese cuisine?

Q & A with Andrew Tijoe, Singapore-based legendary restaurateur, who owns brands like My Humble House and Club Chenoi

Foie Gras with crispy duck. If there was one image to explain what Andrew Tijoe, executive president of the Tung Lok group, one of the most successful Singapore-based restaurateurs, awarded at the World Gourmet Summit, has done for Chinese cuisine, it would be that. You may have made your acquaintance with his distinctive cuisine, marrying Western many influences with traditional flavours and methods, at My Humble House, now in many different countries, including China and India.

Q. The reaction to My Humble House has been mixed in India. Many people though it wasn’t what they expected at all, not authentic enough…

What is authentic cuisine? In the last 10-15 years, the distinctions have blurred, there is no longer anything that is authentic Sichuan or authentic Cantonese. Our cuisine is contemporary Chinese cuisine—one that is anchored in Chinese cuisine but uses global ingredients with the taste remaining quintessentially Chinese, and serving it in a more upmarket surrounding, at least as far as this brand goes because we also have other brands too devoted to more casual dining… There is always a resistance to change but change is the only constant. When we opened in China, people said we would bbe selling ice to the Eskimos. Yet, in 2004, our restaurant was amongst the top 10 in Beijing. We export and reimport tradition.

When I started contemporarising Chinese cuisine, we took into account many trends: we made sure that the restaurant was cool and trendy and looked into issues such as MSG sensitivity as well as not thickening our sauces but using the reduction method. Also, we decided to improve existing recipes, say, use fresh scallops in a Laksa. We raised the gourmet level.

Q. So how is the operation doing? And what are your plans now?

We hope that more and more people will begin to understand the cuisine. We are planning to take the brand to other cities and I am also considering bringing our vegetarian Chinese food brand, LingZhi, to India.

Q. Even now, when recession has hit all retail plans?

Recession does not worry me because I have been through these situations so many times. In fact, when the group started in 1984, it was in the middle of one. Then, in 1997, when I opened Club Chinoii, one of our landmark brands that served experimental Chinese cuisine, say chicken rice, in more glamorous surroundings and with better quality ingredients, it was in the middle of the Asian economic crisis. In fact, bang in the middle of the last crisis, we started a very expensive concept by way of our imperial banquets, where we got chefs from the Mainland, those who could trace back roots to the kitchen of the Empress Dowager, and served $ 1000-a-head meals as they would have in royal times. And these were very successful. People came all the way from Brunei, a group of school teachers for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Today, those meals would cost $ 5,000-$ 6,000, so you can  imagine…

Q. So do you think luxury dining will not be hit by the current recession?

Well, people may want to spend less, not splurge on $ 80-100 a head meals. Our business comprises of a major chunk of casual dining restaurants as well. But the key will be to stretch the dollar, get superior value for money. I think, here, brand will be very vital. People will like to eat out at established places where they can be assured of stretching each dollar.

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