Our menu has around 500 different types of sauces alone
— I am an actor by profession. I ended up in Russia out of a love for Russian literature, theatre, and cinema. Before me was the prospect of a yearlong placement. With us at the Russian University of Theatre Arts was the professor and artistic director Lenoid Heifetz. 1993 came, it was a time of changes, which could not but be reflected in art, too. After my studies at GITIS, I would hurry to the Central Theatre of the Soviet Army. I attended the rehearsals, and then would stay behind for the performances. This was where my basic placement went on. Overa year, I had an overview of the repertoire of all of Moscow’s theatres. And every day I was learning Russian.
Born in Beijing into an academic family. Studied mathematics but due to the policies of the Cultural Revolution had to leave Beijing temporarily. Became, as a result of this, an actor and director. Worked at theBeijing People’s Art Theatre. 1993: came to Moscow on a study placement. 1997: opened the Chinese restaurant “Old Beijing” in the Russian capital. Besides the restaurant, is active in the Centre for Sino-Russian Cultural Ties. In particular, produced two collaborative TV films with Russian actors and Chinese directors.
— How difficult is that for a foreigner?
— Russian grammar is very complicated. The cases and declensions are unfamiliar to the foreigner. It’s something you need to be brought up on. But then again, it is easier to write in Russian. It has letters rather than characters. I taught myself Russian without any lessons. What helped was being surrounded by Russians and having a lot of Russian friends. After my year’s placement, I realised that I wanted to study and work more in Russia. I went with the appropriate request to our embassy, and they offered me a job in the Centre for Sino-Russian Cultural Ties.
— Where did you get the idea of opening a restaurant?
— Culinary traditions are anintegral partof Chinese culture. “Old Beijing” opened its doors in 1997. I wanted to create a traditional Chinese restaurant where the dishes had an authentic national taste andcolour. There are a large number of Chinese restaurants around the world, and everywhere theyservemainly sweet and sour sauce. This isn’t right. Our menu, for example, has around 500 different types of sauces alone. You can serve 25 different sauces withboiled fish, and with grilled fish about 30 completely different ones.
I came up with the name “Old Beijing” myself. First of all, I am from Beijing. And the epithet “old” reflects an appreciation of tradition. We decided we would pay tribute to those Chinese culinary experts who have succeeded in carrying on the experience and traditions of preparing healthy and tasty food throughout the centuries.
— In Moscow, by Mayakovsky metro station, there was a restaurant, “Peking”, for many years. Did that have genuine Chinese cuisine?
— I knew about this restaurant's “twin” when I was still a child. In the 1950s, in honour of the friendship between the Soviet Union and China, in the two capitals they built identical towering hotels with restaurants on the ground floor. High ceilings, stucco, fine wood, granite, and marble... In Moscow, the hotel was called “Peking”, and the one in in Beijing was called “Moscow”. We lived nearby to it. That was where I was first introduced to Russian cuisine. Most striking of all was the “red borsch”.
As for the “Peking” restaurant in Moscow, it was Chinese in name only. Working there were Russian chefs, Russian waiters, who had never even been to China. But there are over five thousand recipes in our cuisine, not including household variations.
Our head chef imports all the seasoningfrom China. There are more than 300 kinds of herbs alone there.
Bear in mind that Chinese food is markedly different depending on the province. In the east, in Sichuan province, for example, the food is the spiciest and is served with chilies. It is a very moist climate there, and to fend off the damp, the local population use a lot of red chilies, garlic, andginger. Sweet dishes are characteristic of the southern regions where, conveniently, there is sugar production. In the northern provinces, where salt is mined, there are salted dishes. In the provinces with access to the sea and situated on low-lying land, where there are many lakes and rivers (like Jiangsu and Zhejiang), the food abounds with fish and seafood. But we stick to the “golden mean”. At our restaurant, it is the universal Beijing cuisine that is represented.
— Was it difficult finding premises for the restaurant?
— Our restaurant is situated on the 23rd floor of the hotel “Salut”. When we were looking for premises, the building was old, and everything inside looked dilapidated. We became the first foreign company to be based in the “Salut”.
I went to the director and said, “Yes, there are two premises right at the very top.”In one, there was located a cafeteria, and in the other, a sports hall. We started to turn them into a restaurant. We had to fill in an awful lot of documents and permits, including applying for an alcohol licence.We were helped by local lawyers: fortunately the Centre for Sino-Russian Cultural Ties has many friends.
— What was the startup capital?
— A hundred thousand dollars.
— How did you attract your customers?
— We put our first advert in the Moscow Evening News. We wrote, “If you want to sample authentic Chinese cuisine, then come on in! You won't have to wait more than five minutes for your order.”In the “Peking” restaurant, people had to stand in large queues, and if you wanted to try the famous Peking Duck, then you had to wait several hours. We were offering a wide range of dishes of an excellent quality at democratic prices. And no queues!
The market situation could be described as extremely tense: crisis, sanctions, projects closing down. Apart from this, of the whole mass of restaurants and cafés, you could count on the fingers of one hand the good ones; all the successful concepts have already been put into practice, you won’t succeed u being 100% unique. A combination of factors is needed for a project to succeed: the atmosphere the guests come into, the quality of the food, and of course the service. It requires considerable expense to enter the market.
The opening of a restaurant is always a tale of image. The concept of a restaurant, even a Chinese one, must provide the maximum opportunities for the national cuisine. The Feng Shui is important. So are well-thought-out furnishing, impeccable service and an understanding of the requirements of Moscow consumers.
Give Chinese spices a try, and your tastes will change
— Who are your customers?
— Half of them are Chinese: those who work in, or are passing through, Moscow. They eat very quickly and leave. The other half are Russians. They sit at the table longer. They order vodka. One of our mostregular customersis the former Russian ambassador to China, Igor Rogachev. We have a large number of regular customers. They call, book a table, and our waiters only have to ascertain, “Do you want everything as usual?”
And we get first-timers. For them, their introduction to Chinese cuisine is akin to a captivating journey into a world of exotic foods, unusual aromas, and amazing transformations. Many of them become interested in what this or that dish symbolizes, and keep on coming again and again.
— Was it hard to recruit staff?
— All of our chefs are Chinese, the managers Russian, and the waiters come from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. They look similar to Chinese but speak good Russian. Often our guests cannot hide their surprise. “How well they speak, they haven’t got an accent at all.”
Their wage is pretty good: it’s higher than the average wage for waiters in Moscow restaurants. Also, all their documents are in order: they are properly registered, with work permits. The inspectors from theimmigration servicehave noissueswith us. We don’t look for staff as such. Those looking for work come to us themselves and are, as a rule, a friend of a friend. We take on waiters through recommendations. When their probationary period is up, we have a look at whether they are suitable or not.
— You have very originally designed dining halls. Who was it that wanted visitors to be immersed in the ambience of China throughout the ages?
— It was all my idea. I wanted the design to be authentically Chinese. Most of theitems on display were brought from China. We have sevenhalls. The first is dedicated to Beijing and to the university there. My parents are professors at that educational establishment: my father, of mathematics, and my mother, of biology. I also entered Peking University, and wanted to devote my life to mathematics. But the Cultural Revolution started.I had leave for the countryside. After a few years, I returned to Beijing, but by then it was already a different city. Destiny wished me to dedicate myself to art. I designed that hall at the restaurant in memory of that time.
There is another dining hall, “YaenTsun”, where set into the walls are copies of the Qin dynasty emperor’s clothing in miniature, and cups and utensils used by the emperors and theirretinue. My friends sometimes laugh, saying, “You have created a real ethnographic museum there.”The diners like it. They like to take a look at the treasures of ancient Chinese civilization.
— Where do your supplies come from?
— The meat comes in from a farm in the Moscow region. The vegetables are grown for us not far from Moscow by a good friend of ours. He is Chinese and he knows exactly what, and how much of it, we need.
— Do you make the dishes for Russians less spicy or do you stick strictly to the recipe?
— We never fail to take an interest in our Russian guests. “Would you like the sauce to be spicy?” We say to the chef, “Just a little chili.” Our aim is for every customer to be satisfied. But our chefs blendeverything so expertly that once you have given Chinese spices a try, it is possible that your tastes will change completely and you will fall in love with spicy food. Also, we don’t insist upon it, but we recommend using bamboo chopsticks because if you eat our food with a knife and fork, it changes the taste of it.
— How do the Russian customers differ from the Chinese ones?
— The Russians who are coming for the first time order separate dishes for themselves. The Chinese, if they come in a group, order for everyone. You were paying attention to our tables which are installed with a round, rotating panel. Once you have put a little food on your plate, you move the panel round and your neighbour’s dish “arrives”, and then the next one, and the next one… In such a way, at one meal you can sample five or six different and original dishes. Chinese cuisine is not just food: it is an entire culture.
— Is it customary to leave a tip?
— It varies. Our waiters like Russian customers more. If the bill comes to 5,500 roubles, for example, they give 6,000 and say, “Keep the change.”Whereas the Chinese, on the contrary, calculate the change meticulously. And, they say, “Can you give me a discount?” It is all a matter of psychology. In those shopping centres in Moscow where there are only Chinese vendors, they have already raised the prices beforehand. With goods which cost 500 roubles, they first ask for 1,000. You have tohaggle. To our regular customers we also extend a discount of between 10 and 20%.
— As regards mentality, do the Russians and Chinese have anything in common?
— With the Russians, just like with the Chinese, feasts are accompanied by dancing and communal singing of popular songs. The table during festivities always features vodka. Except that in Russia, it isn’t as strong as 50-60% proof “maotai”.Also Russians, like ourselves, adore the sayings of Confucius. And this ancient philosopher like neda well prepared dish to a well-managed state.
What does best of all in winter is the Chinese Hot Pot
— Which dish is there the greatest demand for?
— Peking Duck. This dish first appeared back in the time of the Ming dynasty to delight the taste buds of the emperor. It takes several days to prepare. This dish here costs 1,888 roubles.Unfailing success is also enjoyed by the Chinese Hot Pot.This dish does particularly well in winter when it is bitterly cold outside.
The restaurant market in the capital is very complex, because it is so much more crowded than in other cities in Russia. According to RBC.research data, at the end of April 2014, Moscow had 3770 chain restaurants alone, which is 29.1% of all the chain restaurant projects in Russia. In spite of the intense competition, the high paying capacity of Muscovites attracts investors and entrepreneurs, making Moscow the city from which the development of virtually any project begins. I don’t think 2015 will be an exception. However, restaurateurs are encountering a number of problems and difficulties, and their further success depends on how these are solved. First of all, I have in mind the packet of response sanctions introduced on 6th August 2014 by the RF government, which will make the work of restaurateurs considerably more difficult. Changing the list of suppliers, seeking out food products analogous in taste, and in many cases changing the menus of restaurants – these are only some of the questions which restaurateurs had so solve in 2014. The weakening of the rouble has significantly increased the cost of imported food products and alcohol, which has had an effect on prime costs, and in the final analysis on the financial statistics of restaurant projects.
According to what I have seen, the most vulnerable restaurants are the national cuisine ones, which are the most dependent on imported ingredients. Furthermore, a key challenge for such projects in 2015 will be the reduction of the population’s incomes (by six percent, according to official forecasts), which will inevitably affect both the number of visits to restaurants and the average bill in national cuisine restaurants. Note that in 2009, the turnover of public catering in Russia fell by 12.7%. In the whole of 2015, the market could fall by 10-15%. It all depends on oil prices, the possibility of extending or cancelling sanctions, and also on how citizens feel, and how much confidence they have in the future.
— What is the average bill for one person?
— Without alcohol: 900 roubles, with alcohol: 1,600 roubles.This includes cold snacks, soup, a hot dish, and dessert. Russians have a particular love of our doughnuts rolled in sesame with a soya filling.
— Do you keep the menu the same or do you make changes to it?
— Every quarter, we present our diners with new dishes to see what they think of them.Our head chef travels to China and looks to see what new developments there have been. He comes back with all of the most original dishes. Which is why the restaurant has been a success in Moscow for 17 years now.
— How many customers visit your restaurant every month?
— It depends on the season. We have places for 300 people. We get, on average, 150 people a day, so, each month we serve about 3,500 people. On holidays and weekends, you need to book a table in advance.
— What about the competition?
— I was in Rome. There, for 5 million inhabitants there are 500 Chinese restaurants. There are now over 12 million people living in Moscow, yet there are all of 20 – 25 restaurants serving Chinese cuisine. There are not enough Chinese restaurants in Moscow, so competition doesn’t even come into it. We restaurant owners often meet up, share our experiences, and our customers. May to September we cater for tourist groups from China, Japan, Singapore, India, Hong Kong. They insist on being served very quickly. They need half an hour to eat lunch at the most. For the Chinese, we prepare an entirevat of boiling water beforehand. All of these tourists have a thermos packed in their rucksacks. The Chinese cannot live without tea.
— What are your plans for the future?
— We want to open another restaurant. We have already had a look at some premises in the hotel “Orlyonok” in the Sparrow Hills. That area has Korean, Japanese, Indian restaurants… It only lacks a Chinese restaurant, something which, I hope, will soon be put right!