(Unedited copy) Published in the South China Morning Post, 11 July 2010
At Yam’Tcha, a Michelin-starred fusion bistro near the Louvre Museum in Paris, curious French diners often ask owner Chan Chi-wah what “Yam’Tcha” means. A Hong Kong native, Chan explains that the word translates as “drink tea” in Cantonese, and it reflects an unconventional menu that offers a variety of Chinese tea – instead of wine – to match the French-with-a-hint-of-China dishes prepared by his French wife, chef Adeline Grattard.
The idea apparently goes down well with Parisian diners; the restaurant is often booked a month in advance since its opening in March 2009. But the thriving business has proved challenging for Chan, who brought to end three decades in graphic design at the age of 50 to try his luck in the restaurant trade.
“Running a restaurant is a time-consuming business. I have so little free time, with only one hour each day to see my daughter. I rarely get to sit down to drink a cup of tea!” he says.
Chan’s ties with the French capital stem from a mid-20s curiosity about European culture. “Having been in Hong Kong for so long, I really wanted to see something new. In those days, I found the British people in Hong Kong a bit strange and arrogant, and I was curious to know how life was different in continental Europe,” he says.
In 1985, he quit his design job in Hong Kong and packed his bags for Italy. But eventually he chose to start anew in France, which he considered “an open society highly tolerant of foreign arts and cultures”. He took a French language course in a small town for a year before enrolling in the École des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux to study design. Upon graduation, he landed a graphic design job in Paris.
By then, Chan felt at home in France and became savagely critical of his hometown.
“Whenever I returned to Hong Kong, I would criticize almost everything. I thought people were narrow-minded,” he says. “But then I was young, ignorant and hot-headed. Now I know better the reasons behind things and I actually admire Hong Kong people for their resilience despite the immense stress in the city.”
In 2007, Chan and Grattard, who used to work at a three Michelin-starred restaurant in western Paris, came to Hong Kong, where he undertook a design project with a newspaper and she honed her Chinese cooking skill at a local restaurant. A year later, their daughter was born and the couple decided to return to Paris, which they considered more conducive to raising children. Besides, it was about time to try out something they had been wanting to do: to open a restaurant that offers experimental dishes, such as foie gras marinated with Chinese Shaoqing wine and accompanied with French herbs.
Way before Yam’Tcha’s opening, Grattard, spread the word about it to her industry peers and business contacts. In the first few days of its opening, the small restaurant was packed full every evening, taking Chan and Grattard by surprise.
“One night I noticed a bunch of diners at different tables started talking to each other,” Chan says. “It turned out they were all food writers who came here discreetly to try out the restaurant.” To the couple’s relief, what followed were positive reviews on Yam’Tcha, published on fine dining websites. Since then, the restaurant has been doing a roaring trade, and the Michel Guide awarded it with a star.
Just as his clients and food critics appreciate the fusion food, Chan also admires French people’s attitude towards eating.
“If they like the food, they would thank you and seem grateful. In Hong Kong, it’s always the restaurant staff who thank customers,” he says. “We’ve got clients who wrote us poems and sent us thank you cards. A couple of people have even cried at the end of the meal. One of them said he never knew foie gras could give him such a unique sensation. That was really over-the-top! But I love their approach.”