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Jacky Yu
A graphic designer turned celebrity chef, Jacky Yu is a pioneer of the private kitchen and proprietor of the successful Xi Yan chain of Chinese restaurants across Hong Kong and Singapore. He tells Adele Wong about his unorthodox ways, and how his experience in advertising has helped translate to success in the kitchen.

By Adele Wong | Jan 19, 2012

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  • Jacky Yu

I was born in Foshan, China. I moved to Hong Kong when I was 11.

I started off doing advertising. I had my own advertising company [as a graphic designer] for more than 10 years. In 1997, there was the Asian financial crisis and the economy was really bad. A lot of restaurants went out of business. I also felt tired of advertising so I wanted to try something new. I’ve always had an interest in cooking and eating. I was also surrounded by friends who enjoyed food.

While I was in advertising, I had the opportunity to travel all over China and Southeast Asia. I fell in love with cooking.

I didn’t have the confidence to open a restaurant, and it was such a hassle, so
I opened a private kitchen called Xi Yan instead on Queen’s Road East, where my old office used to be. There were three tables. This was the year 2000.

Coming from advertising, I wanted to come up with a more gimmicky name for my operation. “Xi Yan” means wedding banquet in Chinese. I hope everyone who comes here will feel like they’re going to a wedding banquet, and be very happy.

Xi Yan got booked up very quickly, and the private kitchen concept at that time was really fresh. Lots of journalists wanted to interview us. And you know Hongkongers—the more mysterious something is, the more people want to know about it and check it out. Some F&B magazines went undercover as diners and took photos. At our peak, we had about a half-year waiting list.

Food is more than about the taste. You need to look at the whole combination, like which plate goes with which dish, and how to build the dish so it looks prettier. These are all important.

We really want to expand in China because it is a big market. But we also know it’s not easy to open a restaurant or to establish a brand in China. They have different rules, different ways of operation.

We rotate our menu every week. The menu is seasonal—we use what’s fresh at our local markets.

I love Chinese food the most. I love Sichuan and Guangdong cuisine in particular—these two cuisines are quite extreme. Sichuan food is more intense and spicy, and Guangdong food is gentle, with more emphasis on freshness.

I also like Japanese and Thai food. Our menu incorporates all different cuisines from all over Asia.

I resist the term “fusion.” Because a lot of times many people think that mashing things from different places together is called fusion. The combinations need to be appropriate in order to work. For instance, it’s a stretch to pair beef fried rice noodles with spaghetti. The ingredients and cooking methods must be in harmony for it to work.

I love to work with basil, chicken, seafood. These are ingredients that are loved by many people.

Michelin restaurants don’t necessarily mean great restaurants. Not getting listed doesn’t mean it’s not a good restaurant. [Some of the judges] are westerners, after all, and don’t have a deep understanding of Hong Kong culture. They also emphasize ambience and wine lists, and have different flavor palates. They might like fried stuff, sweetish-sour stuff.

I think the Michelin guide is still important. If a restaurant gets listed—whether it’s good or not—it’s a good thing. But would everyone agree with the guide? Not necessarily. But this is not important—no matter what you do, there will be people who praise you and people who criticize you.

The stuff I cook is very unorthodox. I just cook the way I like, however I want to. But I don’t think there is orthodox or unorthodox cooking, there’s only tasty and not tasty. No matter what method you use to cook, as long as it turns out well, that’s most important.

I’ve never seen any other city in the world that’s like Hong Kong, where so many different types of cuisine are concentrated. Just Chinese cuisine alone, there’s Shanghainese, Beijing[-style]—and the quality is all excellent. There are also a lot of French, Italian, Thai… I think it’ll be difficult to find another city like Hong Kong, where there’s so much choice and so many people interested in good food.

Labor cost is high. Cost of food is high. It’s harder to run a business these days. It used to be that food costs accounted for about 20 percent [of total costs], now it’s more than 30 percent. Then there’s rent, labor, electricity, water… Having a full restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making a lot of money.

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