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    My Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World, on the brink of bankruptcy?

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | March 8, 2008

    So the restaurant that I picked as the “Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World” is struggling and may be on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the Vancouver Sun, which is really sad.

    Sam Lau’s business (like many Vancouver Chinese restaurants) is being hammered by cheap flights to Hong Kong and the weakness of the American dollar. (The change happened in July. I handed in my manuscript in early June). He is barely turning a profit. According to the article:

    He said business declined sharply last July, when Oasis offered cheap flights to Hong Kong for $300 to $500. “If Chinese person has money, they will go to Hong Kong. And U.S. is cheap now with currency,” he says. “Affects all Chinese restaurants in Vancouver.”

    You can debate my methodology about how and why I decided this was the greatest Chinese restaurant (different from “best”), but no matter what, it would be a shame to lose this precious and unique dining experience.

    Here is the full article, by Mia Stainsby (whose review, by the way, intrigued me enough to visit the restaurant in the first place)

    Could a great review save a dining room on the brink?

    Mia Stainsby
    Vancouver Sun

    Sam Lau, owner and chef at Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine in Richmond, serves a dish of abalone and winter melon. Lau wonders if his business will survive, even after slashing his prices by more than half some time ago.

    Lately, Sam Lau has been crying the blues over how the Chinese restaurant business, and his in particular, is deep in the doldrums. He had only one booking for Thursday night.

    He’d slashed prices by more than half some time ago and wondered how much longer he could survive. His restaurant, Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine in Richmond, hasn’t turned a profit since last year.

    “I’m dying,” is how he described his business.

    But things might be looking up. A New York Times reporter has written a book about Chinese food and in it, she calls Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine “the world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside China.”

    The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food was written by Jennifer 8 Lee, an American-born Chinese whose name includes the number 8. The book, released on Monday, is a cultural, historical and personalized account of Chinese food.

    When informed by The Sun Thursday of the plaudit in the book, Lau, 48, remained surprisingly calm. “Wow. What a compliment,” he said.

    And yes, thoughts of publicity and the customers it could bring did cross his mind.

    He remembered the lead-up to this surprising turn of events. A journalist phoned him from New York two years ago. It was Lee. She touched down at YVR, went straight to his restaurant, watched him cook, talked to him about food and dined on his incredibly good-value Chinese tasting menu.

    “She [Lee] said she was writing a book about Chinese food in North America but I have no idea what she was doing,” Lau said. “She mentioned the book will be out in one or two years.”

    Zen Fine Cuisine (on a street the Chinese community in Richmond calls “Eat Street” thanks to the large number of restaurants there) is hidden away on a second floor in a strip mall.

    The clincher, Lee wrote of Lau’s food, was the half-price special, making it an incredible bargain. “Never forget that ‘bang for your buck’ is a hallmark of Chinese food around the world,” she said in the book.

    But there’s bang for the buck and there’s bang for the buck. His restaurant, which I reviewed in 2004, is not the typical communal feed. He offers individual multi-course tasting menus, in the style of high-end restaurants like Lumiere and West.

    When I visited, he was accepting only 10 tables a night because the food was so labour-intensive.

    On Thursday, he told The Sun the local customers haven’t appreciated the creativity and the work that goes into each dish; they complain about the portions and try to negotiate lower prices, even when it’s half price, he says.

    An eight-course tasting menu, which includes conch, steamed crab and top-quality abalone (braised for 20 hours rather than being tenderized by chemicals as other kitchens do), and organic vegetables is $36, an incredibly fine deal.

    “It should cost more than double that,” he says. “I don’t think I can survive much more if the economy still like this. But I have no regret. I’ve been doing my very best. I’m quite proud.” He has several tasting menus and all prices have been reduced.

    As an example of the dire straits the “world’s greatest Chinese restaurant outside China” has been in, Lau is the only one cooking now. And in the front of the house, there’s just his wife.

    “Last month was good. It was Chinese New Year and Valentine’s,” he says.

    “This week, I’m dying. I have less than 10 people a day. The $36 tasting menu costs me $30 to make. That’s not including my wage. Customers only know how to bargain with you,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Okay, we have 10 people. Make it $30 each.’ I really hate that.”

    Lau is a self-taught chef. He worked his way up from dishwashing as a 19-year-old. He’d like to have gone to university but that wasn’t going to happen, so he paid his dues.

    At his first job, the restaurant closed at 3 a.m. and when everyone had gone, he’d “practise” cooking until 5 a.m., then go to learn English at Vancouver Community College.

    “At that time, chef won’t let you learn anything,” he says. “Won’t let you even peek. When they saw I could cook, they paid me only $60 a month to let me cook.”

    He became head chef at another restaurant in Chinatown, cooking Hong Kong-style western food for a modest salary.

    “Even when I get off work, I go to bartender and ask him to let me learn. I help him wash glasses to watch and learn for no pay.”

    He then opened his first restaurant, also called Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine on Cambie and 19th Ave. Four years ago, he sold that to open at his current location at 2015 — 8580 Alexandra St. in Richmond.

    He said business declined sharply last July, when Oasis offered cheap flights to Hong Kong for $300 to $500. “If Chinese person has money, they will go to Hong Kong. And U.S. is cheap now with currency,” he says. “Affects all Chinese restaurants in Vancouver.”

    Lee chose Zen as the top Chinese restaurant outside China after visiting 15 countries on six continents.

    By the end of the interview, Lau was feeling quite thrilled by the news of her comments.

    “I’m so happy. It gives me the strength to work harder and do better.

    “It won’t affect the Chinese community much but I really appreciate the fame for myself. At least I can prove that what I’ve been doing, someone appreciates it.”

    Sun Restaurant Critic
    © The Vancouver Sun 2008

    Topics: Best Chinese Restaurants Around the World, Chinese Restaurants | No Comments »

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