- 26 Nov 2013 -

The Seventh Son

Renowned as one of the best Cantonese restaurants in the world, Fook Lam Moon is a familiar name amongst the foodies of Guangdong cuisine, and the go to joint of choice of the rich and famous. Wai Kwan Chui, one of the original founders of the restaurant has taken the road less traveled to open up a new food haven in his 70’s – Seventh Son. An old family friend, Uncle Chui has always been a well-dressed man and today he looked that extra bit professional in his tailored royal blue sports coat and crisply pressed blue shirt for our chat. With the latest Samsung Galaxy phone hanging from his neck and designer glasses, he looks every bit the part of the proud owner of his brand new eatery.

We did not have a conventional dialogue of the latest dish on his menu or the rich and famous who’s frequented the place since its inception. Nor was it a “hak hei” (courteous, formal in Cantonese) conversation. All guards were down, I wasn’t the customer, and I saw him in a different light that night. Behind the exterior of this incredibly successful restaurateur, chef, businessman is a boy who spent his lifetime to accomplish the hopes and dreams of his mentor who started what would become Fook Lam Moon today. This is the story of the boy who rescued that business during the most turbulent political changes in the history of Hong Kong. He is the youngest of seven kids who proved to his mentor (also his father), and all industry competitors that at the tender age of 20 he was ready to take on the world.

Chui started cooking with his father some 60 years ago at the age of 14. In those days, the “in” thing was to entertain friends and business associates in your own home.  Catering was popular; serving up a storm assembled by a talented chef/caterer was demonstrative of your wealth and social status. Little Chui started trailing behind his father in wet markets and unknown alleyways to source the best ingredients, shadowing him behind hot stoves in private kitchens, standing next to his father as he socialized with his clients and sitting next to him as he drummed up celebrated menu for the most testing clients for their grandest banquets.

Most important of all, he learnt from his father how to be a good person. When asked how does this attribute have a bearing on his tradecraft.  He smiled; I know his response is evocative of fond memories of his loving father…His father taught him to pour his heart and soul in his creations. Serve with unyielding integrity – use ingredients of the highest quality, cook with passion and execute with perfection every step of the way. Treat others no differently than how you want to be treated - staff, peers, clients alike, make them an extension of your own family.    

Chui had the biggest challenge of his life when his father retired at the age of 60  swearing he would never cook again in his lifetime. He named his top chefs the successors of the business and took comfort that the apprentices he took under his wing throughout the years would nurture and support his boy.  It wasn’t long when 8 out of 11 chefs seized this as an opportunity, literally started knocking on the doors to solicit business from all prior customers. It dawned on his father that all along he nurtured a group of hostile competitors under his roof… they had been plotting the exodus and he didn’t see it coming. They took 70% of the business with them within 3 months of his retirement, it was a plan long in the making.

Chui recalled taking a tram ride with his father one morning to their favorite dim sum joint (a long standing local tradition). For some reason his father chose to sit in front of him, there were no dialogue unlike most days. He distinctly remembered his old man took out a handkerchief from his trouser pocket, his shoulders were trembling. Chui thought to himself “Taking away my father’s business is like taking away his life. His world crumbled in front of his eyes and he does not deserve to witness this cruel death.” He hated himself for not coming up with an idea to turn things around; he didn’t know who to ask for help, he was at an absolute loss. (As Chui continued, he glanced to the ceiling to contain his tears. As he took out his handkerchief, I saw the helplessness in his eyes…I heard the cries of a 20-year-old boy yearning for directions. The same boy standing in darkness with the weight of the world on his shoulders, desperately searching for a sign from a kind soul out there. “Anyone, please give me a clue….”. The cut was raw and deep. He would do anything to mend his father’s broken heart. As he continued, his frail, fragile voice echoed in the room. There was no taps on the keyboard.”

My heart was weeping.

That same year Chui was confronted with a request that changed his life forever. He was approached by an old client of his father, Mr. Wat Shu Heung (brother-in-law of Wong Tsim) a serious gourmand with an educated palate that is more than impossible to please. “He asked me to put together a banquet for 48 people at his home. It was the weirdest thing, he gave no instructions, preferences, dietary requirements, he simply said, “Just do it”. I guess he was a man of not many words!!” Chui was thankful, bewildered, anxious and nervous at the same time. “I had only been cooking for 6 years and these guys had sampled the best cuisines before I was born! How could I accomplish more than my seniors?”

Desperate times calls for desperate measures.  It took Chui a while to compose himself, to collect the learnings in the last 6 years. He plunged himself knee deep in the preparations…soon enough the fear subsided, it was all about delivering nothing but the best, just as he assimilated from his mentor. At the end of the meal, the client came in the kitchen, laid his hand on Chiu’s bony shoulders. His shirt completely drenched in sweat from the activities in the kitchen. “You are your father’s son, you did it. Son, you have nothing to fear.” It was this comment that gave the boy the strength to go on, the conviction to deliver perfection everyday and the same fearlessness to break new grounds, test new limits and continue his father’s legacy.  All prior customers returned within a few months, the rest was history.

Aside from the Hong Kong flagship and branch in Kowloon, he led Fook Lam Moon’s expansion to 7 cities within China and Japan, and he continues to surprise and delight his most loyal clients and friends – Mr. Robert Kuok of the Kerry Group and Shangri La Hotel Group; Mr. Stanley Ho, the founding father of Macau’s gaming industry; Dr. Ho Tim, co-founder of Hang Seng Bank, Mr. Jackie Chan, you name it, the list goes on. 

One day, Chui heard on the grapevine that a very special client in his 90’s, was unwell. He booked a ticket to San Francisco to visit the old man.  They met, grasping onto each other’s hands, there was too much emotion for words. The old man was frail but he had a strong, piercing gaze that reached right into the soul of Chui. At that moment Chui was thankful as he knew in his heart the old man still remembered that first meal prepared by the boy, which was when the story began.

               “I want to thank you for giving me the light.” said the boy.

; Down South... Food for the Soul