Olympics Sees Haute Cuisine in Home of Peking Duck

by Rajashri on Jul 23 2008 2:56 PM

While the Olympic Games may have helped bring high class western cuisine to Beijing, its survival in the home of Peking Duck is another matter altogether.

Opening at intervals over the past two years, haute cuisine western restaurants are often struggling to fill their dining rooms.

"We are far from getting a full house and it is the same for the others," said Guillaume Galliot, the 27-year-old chef at the French restaurant Jaan.

"This is not Shanghai or Singapore. In Beijing, the people are not ready yet," said Galliot, who imports all his produce down to the rare pink garlic from Lautrec in the southwest of France.

He says that the Olympics supplied the impetus for many top-end western restaurants to come to Beijing.

But once the Games are over that will evaporate, and it will take a couple more years before western haute cuisine begins to take off again.

"The money is here. But many Beijingers prefer a Chinese restaurant, even an expensive one, rather than to pay a thousand yuan (145 dollars) for a French meal," he said.

At Le Pre Lenotre, another French newcomer to Beijing, chef Frederic Meynard is more optimistic. In midweek recently his dining room was two-thirds full, mostly with Chinese.

"We have got a clientele of regulars. There is a lot of potential in Beijing, so there is room," for plenty of high-class stablishments, said Meynard, from Perigord, as he prepared a 'foie gras' with preserved lemon, rhubarb, shitake mushrooms and froth of lemongrass.

But he acknowledged that the ceremonial trappings associated with a French meal were offputting for Chinese customers.

In China, dishes are delivered quickly, often all at once, and are placed in the middle of the table to be shared by the dining group without much formality.

By contrast the succession of individual dishes, the complicated place settings, the dish covers, the bread and imported foods and the act of removing all the plates at once, everything clashes with how Chinese like to eat their meals.

In another new restaurant, Daniel Boulud, the French star of the New York culinary scene, says he is ready to adapt to local conditions.

"We offer French cuisine but if a client wants to be served in a Chinese way we can arrange that. We have got all the plates and dishes we need so that we can do that," said Ignace Lecleir, manager of "Maison Boulud" just near central Tianamen Square.

And as in the United States, just because the food is refined, the service does not need to be pretentious.

"If the customer asks for ketchup or tabasco sauce, we bring it straight away," said Lecleir.

Even so, Jim Boyce, who writes a couple of blogs on wine and Beijing's night life, says several of the new haute cuisine arrivals will not survive the Olympics, especially those that "bring in Shanghai, New York or London concepts, but they don't understand Beijing."

"These guys come in, bring in concept locals don't take to and then, when they don't do so well, they say 'Beijing isn't ready yet'," said the Canadian.

He says they should understand that Beijing has a sophisticated cuisine and the people have sophisticated palates and he criticizes westerners for their "arrogance" in seeking to educate Chinese diners.

Others, however, are more welcoming to the newcomers, including Beijing Time Out, a guide to entertainment which said dining choices were now looking up in a capital where "just five years ago, options for high-end dining rarely extended beyond over-priced dim sum."