Part 1: Have a Cup of Tea with the Founder of Xin Rong Ji
Xin Rong Ji’s Global Vision
Jocelyn：Almost all information about Xin Rong Ji in English on foreign channels is about the Hong Kong restaurant？
Mr. Zhang：We haven’t done any publicity campaigns or promotions in western media platforms. China has always been our major focus. So, I guess food lovers and peers from other countries may havevery limited knowledge about us. Hong Kong restaurant acts as a bridge that connects China and the rest of the world. Many foreign visitors and peers go there and post pictures on foreign social channels, which in some way has introduced us to the whole world. We also have renowned celebrity chefs from France and Japan who are frequent visitors of our Hong Kong venue.
We were in Alba, Italy a couple of times attending white truffle auctions, and we did some culinary performances as a Chinese Michelin restaurant in the hope to letting more people know about Chinese cuisine, because previously we hadn’t done any marketing abroad.
Jocelyn：Egg fried rice with white truffles, right?
Mr. Zhang：Yes. We made the most expensive egg fried rice in the world.
Jocelyn：I hope I could have the chance to taste the egg fried rice with white truffles made by you in the next white truffle season.
Mr. Zhang：Sure! As we were cooking in front of many media reporters, we knew if we had chosen steak or pasta, there would be no advantage for us at all. Therefore, we ventured for egg fried rice, the most common and most Chinese egg fried rice. We used Italian eggs, vinegar, olive oil, and the best of all, white truffles from Alba, Italy. White truffle needs to be heated up a bit to bring out the aroma, so we decided to freshly shave some directly on top of the egg fried rice.
Jocelyn：The best way of doing it.
Mr. Zhang：Not a single grain of rice was wasted.
Jocelyn：Did you bring the rice over?
Mr. Zhang：The rice was bought locally; we selected Thai jasmine rice, which we believed was good enough. Japanese or Thai rice, both are fine. Thai rice is good for stir-frying but for pot-steaming it’s a bit dry.
Jocelyn：What was it like to see foreign friends having more understanding of your food? Would you like to have more exchanges like this?
Mr. Zhang：Of course, doing exchanges like this is a learning process, but it’s also a way to showcase the charm of Chinese food to the global culinary scene.
The PRC was founded over 70 years ago, but western restaurant industry has a history that expands over several hundreds of years. During the first decades after establishing the PRC, we were still trying to produce enough food for everybody, let alone developing the restaurant industry. Now that China is the second largest economy, our lives are getting better and we want to eat better. So, it’s only in the recent years that food and chefs are receiving more attention in China.
Jocelyn：International F&B awards are entering China as well.
Mr. Zhang：It may be that people are giving more attention to good food rather than just the award.
Jocelyn：I have been making some videos on fine dining which I personally know more about. Some people only think of Xiao Long Bao or Peking Duck when they think of Chinese food. So, I’m adding Chinese and English subtitles to all of my videos so that they can be watched both at home and abroad, helping more people understand Chinese fine dining scene.
Mr. Zhang：You are a promoter of Chinese cuisine, a flag bearer.
Jocelyn：You are too kind.
Mr. Zhang：We will be opening a small restaurant in Tokyo this year, and the reason we go is not because we want to prove how good we are, but because we want to learn from them, to learn the irrich culinary culture and techniques. These elements can be translated into our own operations in China, which is the most important thing. But of course, we are still going to present our characteristics.
What we need to think about right now is, what kind of Chinese cuisine is good for the world?
Jocelyn：Most Chinese restaurants in western countries are probably opened by early Chinese immigrants. Chinese fine dining has been something known very little by most people outside China. When will the Tokyo restaurant open?
Mr. Zhang：We planned for August. But giving the situation of the pandemic, I guess we’d be lucky if we can open it before the end of this year.
Jocelyn：Where in Tokyo?
Mr. Zhang and his living philosophy
Jocelyn：Very much looking forward to it. What else is in the plan?
Mr. Zhang：No more. I am planning to finish this year’s to-open list of restaurants and will be ready for retirement.
Mr. Zhang：Yes. You may not believe it, but I really do think it’s about time. When I returned to Taizhou this Spring Festival, I suddenly thought, “Hey, should I retire?” The more I thought about it, the more I made up my mind. So, the first thing I did at the beginning of the year was to bring the team back, and I said I was ready to retire, so let’s finish what we should do in this year.
By retirement I didn’t mean I would completely let go of everything. What I mean is that we may do more research on the dishes, rather than keep opening new locations. Because for one, I have limited capability; for another, keep expanding is not necessarily making the restaurant better. You know Chinese martial arts, very famous internationally, especially the Tai Chi, or shadow boxing. One of the most important movements in Tai Chi is the closing posture, not the starting posture. I know we are talking about opening restaurants, not pushing hands, but what I mean is that I should now reflect upon what I already had rather than constantly expanding.
Jocelyn：I’ve noticed some changes about Xin Rong Ji these two years. The expansion has slowed down.
Mr. Zhang：Slowing down is good. People change their mind at different stages of their lives. I suddenly figured it out.
“Martial arts have been around for thousands of years; victory and defeat are all passing clouds. We always see the wood, not the trees.
– The Grandmaster
Jocelyn：It feels as if your retirement is a long way off.
Mr. Zhang：You must think I was joking. But I wasn’t.
Jocelyn：I had thought you must have done thorough thinking but I didn’t realise it’s gonna be this quick.
Mr. Zhang：Well I won’t be quitting all at once. For example, I may open at most one new venue every year if I want to keep myself busy, or simply nothing at all. The rule is not exceeding one new restaurant per year.
Jocelyn：I’ve tried to think through this as well. Maybe I should try harder. If there was a dream that could come true, I just want to make documentaries, food documentaries.
Mr. Zhang：For me, even after Iretire, I am still going to keep filming Uncle Rong’s Pick.
Jocelyn：I want to make food documentaries, and I hope my audience is the world.
Mr. Zhang：This is also a contribution to Chinese cuisine and a merit. So why not?
Jocelyn：The content is more about Western cuisine at the moment because I’m still learning Chinese cuisine.
Mr. Zhang：I don’t think it’s a problem. Food has no boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with you filming Western food now. It’s where you live more, and you feel the urge to share the great food with more people. That’s great enough. You don’t have to set boundaries.
Jocelyn：When we can travel abroad again, we will probably do less foreign culinary trips. A lot of things I want to try. For example, we used to have very tight schedules every day during the trip, but now I would never do that again. I will try to make the trip more laid-back and comfortable by packing fewer destinations in one day.
Mr. Zhang：We used to do Rong’s Get-Together. For this particular operation, we only organise four times per year, each in one season. I will do some creative dishes based on the seasonal ingredients, not just existing dishes from Xin Rong Ji because that would be meaningless. We’d invite VVIPs of Xin Rong Ji to come over and treat them with the newly crafted dishes free of charge. We’d also get their feedback on the dishes and decide if to include some to Xin Rong Ji’s official menu.
This year we’ve made something new. Well, I guess it’s not true to say that I don’t work in retirement. We developed Uncle Rong’s Banquet. Every month at The House of Rong, I’ll do one table which caters a group of 8-10 people. It used to be a rectangular table but now it’s a round one. Diners are welcomed to make reservations and order themselve sat Uncle Rong’s Banquet.
Jocelyn：Do they know each other?
Mr. Zhang：Yes, they do. In Rong’s Get-Together, they don’t; in Uncle Rong’s Banquet, they do. We arranged a table for tenat The House of Rong at the Xitan Hotel near Tanzhe Temple in Beijing. In the morning of that day, they asked me if I could do 20 people and the rate can be adjusted to 10,000 RMB for one or something. I do this not for making money; I just want to encourage myself and my team to create new dishes. For this kind of menu, we can’t just bring Xin Rong Ji’s dishes over because they are already known by most of our diners, and we can’t take a bunch of expensive ingredients and pile them up together, because that would be boring. I think this kind of events are interesting.
Having this kind of challenge from time to time is very interesting, whether it’s for my team or for me.
After such hard fought “battles”, the team would realise what they are truly capable of. For example, it’s hard for us to judge the war happening right now, but in the end time will tell. History will be able to judge it in the most objective way. I believe such challenging occasions can help us forge the team spirit and enhance our competency.
Jocelyn：Yes, it will generate motivation. When we ran the seminar last year, we felt really good afterwards and it was actually a lot of fun. I hope you can come and give us a talk in the future.
Mr. Zhang：Well I’d love to, but I’m not a person who likes to go to these events. I think I should be devoting more time in the kitchen, honing the dishes and service, rather than being out and about every day to give talks or speeches. Some rating organisations came to me and complained that I never go to their events despite I received so many awards from them. I said I have never been to Michelin either, because I think the honour belongs to everyone in my team. So, I usually let my team to go to receive the awards. It’s not that I need to be there every time.
Jocelyn：With several times dining with you, I can sense your passion for food, and it was out of that passion that you started the business almost 30 years ago. Were there any major setbacks that you’ve experienced? How did you overcome these setbacks?
Mr. Zhang：If you really love what you do, the comeback is always greater than the setback. We all experience setbacks, big or small. It depends on how you look at it.
I don’t think we have experienced any “major setbacks” in these 27 years. It really is about how you take it.
Jocelyn：Has the pandemic changed your perspective?
Mr. Zhang：I am still the same, and I will keep calm and carry on. The pandemic is inevitable, but I believe it will tide over. We are not the only one who’s hit by it; everyone else is experiencing difficulties.
Jocelyn：I feel very much relieved hearing what you just said. We know Xin Rong Ji has received more than ten stars from Michelin. Although Michelin is not the only reason for a restaurant to exist, receiving this high-level recognition after working so hard must be very fulfilling, right?
Mr. Zhang：It is an honour. Sometimes honouris more motivating than money. You know many top players in international football clubs come back to play for their country when it’s World Cup, but actually playing at World Cup isn’t a lot of money. They still play as hard as they can to win because they are representing their country. This is the power of honour. That’s why honour is sometimes more important than financial incentives. If the team is fighting for honour, they are more likely to unlock the potential.
“When you reach a certain age,
you have to make a choice……”
Jocelyn：My mind is blown today. I was so preoccupied to ensure the survival of the company that I almost forgot why I started everything in the first place.
Mr. Zhang：You started out doing this also because of your love for food. But then there was probably a trade-off in there for the survival of your company. I’m the same. I had to think what the restaurant is going to do down the road. Do we have the capacity to run another one? We can’t really become a conglomerate, so we might as well focus on building good reputations. Some people live for fame and some for profit, but you can’t have it all. Of course, we are all human, and humans have a lot of desires. But when you reach a certain age, you have to make a choice and think clearly about what you want.
Xin Rong Ji has received many accolades. Apart from rating agencies, we also need to live up to our fame and offer the best dishes and services for our customers. The last thing we want is people coming here and complaining that we don’t deserve the name. The feedback from customers is still the most important.
Jocelyn：Last question. We talked a bit about football just now, and I know you like playing football a lot. Is it your biggest interest outside of food? Because you mostly talk about food during such occasions, people may not be familiar with your other hobbies.
Mr. Zhang：I have a lot of hobbies, bad hobbies actually (laughs), because sometimes things that are addictive are probably not what you truly need. Alcohol, cigarettes… I sincerely don’t recommend. But I still exercise regularly so that I can have better appetite for food.
As for football, it’s a hobby I’ve had for over 30 years. But I know as my age increases, I may not be able to play it any longer. At that time, I will have to opt for something else that’s within my capacity. You go to the gym a lot, so I guess you’d understand what I mean.
Jocelyn：I love food very much. I just think that I should be responsible for taking care of my body and health. I try to become stronger, fitter, having more strength. I’ve put on a lot of muscles this year. I should be able to eat more.
Mr. Zhang：Just don’t push yourself to become a Barbie Doll.
Jocelyn：I am “King Kong Barbie”.
Mr. Zhang：Right! Ha-ha! Don’t become a King Kong Barbie.