I am what is lesser known as a Lemon – yellow on the outside, yellow on the inside. Unlike my ‘banana’ counterparts (my fellow Australian-Chinese who have taken on the western culture internally), I’m still deeply wedded to my heritage. It was instilled in me from a young age that the secret to success is hard work and unconditional dedication, fuelled by underlying desire for achieving your best. To this date, it is still the best advice I have been given.
Born and bred in Mainland China, I arrived in Melbourne, in early 2000 to study a degree in Accounting. In my spare, I decided to do part-time work as a way to immerse myself into the local environment. Out of all the jobs I could do, I chose to work for a well-established Chinese restaurant in Chinatown as a waitress. It was a no-brainer decision, driven by my love of food (and yes it is obvious when you see my larger-than-average Chinese frame). It was a great opportunity for me to build upon my English language skills, with the bonus of earning extra cash on the side.
Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I loved working at that restaurant, not only the learning of the fundamentals of the Cantonese cuisine and food service, but also the opportunity to interact with patrons from over all over the world. Being at the epicentre of Chinese cuisine in Melbourne where diners flocked to Chinatown to meet and chat in their new and native tongues over a shared meal or drinks as they sat and watched the world go by. I felt a sense of achievement of my contribution to their experience with the Chinatown food scene and it fed my urge to share with them what I know of the food of my heritage. As a new comer to the country, it was an enormous learning curve (my English was barely up to scratch) but it paved the way for me to enter the food industry years later.
Upon completing my study I was able to stay in Australia. Along the way I met my ‘better half’ – John, also working in the restaurant industry. Before I knew it, I was a stay-at-home mum of two. My family means the world to me but I yearned for a career and more specifically, a career that would bring me back to the passion of my life – food.
When the opportunity of taking over the well-known ‘Red Emperor’ beckoned, I succumbed.It cost us an arm and a leg but Ifelt like the luckiest woman in the world to run a restaurant like ‘Red Emperor’. With great power comes great responsibility. We started full of confidence but soon realised there are a thousand moving parts associated with running a restaurant; managing staff, dealing with customers, suppliers, partners, media, and you need to be knowledgeable of all of them.
It took us a while and some lessons to learn the ropes but we managed to streamline the operational model and it was time to revitalize the restaurant.
The old menu of Red Emperor has served it well for decades, particularly in the glorydays, however with the growing foodie culture,we knew we had to embrace change. We based the design of the new menu on the authenticity of Cantonese food but with new dimensions. Chinese food is a huge umbrella that encompasses many different regional cuisines; so many Chinese restaurants try to reflect this diversity in their menu. I’m all for inclusion of a variety of Chinese food but in my opinion, a wide menu often takes away the regional specialization. Instead of breaking away from the tradition, we decided to dive into traditional Cantonese dishes, combining them with the astonishingly good produce available in Australia. We hired Hong Kongborn executive chef, Chen Nian, who has over 40 years’ experience.
Increasingly, diners are placing a priority on health when they go out to eat. To them, the definition of “healthy” has also shifted as they are looking for food that is labeled “local”, “fresh”, “gluten-free”. To cater to their needs, we decided to eliminate MSG from all of our cooking and have made gluten-free options available for many of our dishes. The new chefs are willing to take risks rather play it safe – they are chefs who cook from the heart and who set trends rather than follow them.
While our previous experience in the industry does give us a better chance at succeeding in the high risk restaurant business, what we didn’t realize is that having good food and service is only one third of the battle. The other two thirds include marketing the restaurant and managing it. Markets change, and food-service businesses that don’t change their marketing strategies with population shifts are missing out on a lot of opportunities. As we are exploring the effects of various marketing vehicles, we are making the foundation of our marketing program an absolutely dazzling dining experience that customers will want to talk about and repeat.
Red Emperor has built a great reputation in Melbourne for our food, wine and service. We also have a great reputation with the local farmers. Our fresh ingredients are sourced locally, directly from the farms, selecting ingredients while they are at their best and working with them to build a menu that changes according to the season. For the past two years we have been visiting local and regional farms tireless to source the freshest and flavorful ingredients.
Relationships are built and friendships are formed with a large network of local farmers and producers.
Being a live seafood restaurant, there is nothing pre-made. When the customer orders fish, crab or lobster from the tank, we need efficient
workflows to turn that into a meal. When you are running a Chinese restaurant, you are destined for extremely long hours. Red Emperor only closes for one day a year. Naturally this has an impact on our two children, aged eight and six. Like most working parents, I find life a constant juggling act. But it’s a life that I feel is worth pursuing, even when I’m almost drowning under work and family commitments.
If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that every step leaves its print, thus work steadily and make solid progress. I’m grateful for all the opportunities and friendships that Red Emperor has brought into my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity Australia has presented to me. I’m grateful that I have a job that I love. When you have a busy restaurant, and you are watching everything happen as it should, it’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction. With a new face, a new taste and a new attitude, I cannot wait to present you the renewed Red Emperor.
By Linda Gao
Photo Na Na