Fred Ferretti, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo / July 19th, 2013
Hong Kong—Fook Lam Moon, the grand duchy of haute Cantonese cooking, and its proprietor, Chui-Wai Kwan (Mr. Chui, the seventh brother), celebrated its 50th birthday with numerous fêtes all last year. But the grand finale was anything but celebratory. Mr. Chui lost his restaurant in a very public and hostile takeover to his older fifth brother.
First the story.
Fook Lam Moon was created by their father, Chui Fook, a native of Guanzhou and an immigrant to Hong Kong, who in his teens was the personal chef to Sir Robert Hetung, one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest. Subsequently, he started a catering business in 1948 called Fook Ke, which, in 1953, became Fook Lam Moon (“fortune arrives at the door”). The restaurant Fook Lam Moon, destined to become a temple of Cantonese food, opened in 1972.
Over the years, another Fook Lam Moon opened in Kowloon, and branches followed in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing in China and Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya in Japan. Along the way it garnered one, then two, Michelin stars and became Hong Kong’s de facto culinary academy, supplying virtually every major hotel in Hong Kong with their Chinese executive chefs, including Chan Yan Tak of the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong’s Lung King Heen, the first Chinese chef with three Michelin stars. Fook Lam Moon was also regarded as an eating club by Hong Kong’s wealthiest families, who drank copiously from the cellar of Château Margaux, Château Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild, and Latour.
Mr. Chui, essentially a modest man, sat down with us one day during his year of celebration to talk of tradition, suggesting the reasons for his success were “my old customers, and my new ones, too, who see that I deliver the best over a long period of time. You buy the best ingredients. You never disregard a customer. Even if his knowledge of your food is limited, you care for him just as you do for your customers, who keep coming back.” Which is why he continually restocks his storehouse of Jinhua hams, never letting their number fall below 100. It is this ham that is the basis for his restaurant’s stock. At any one time, he has $1 million worth of the best abalone from Japan.
Both of Mr. Chui’s children, Daniel, who has managed the Hong Kong restaurants, and Michelle, who oversees those in Japan and China, are former practicing physicians. The restaurants in Japan and China will remain, temporarily, Fook Lam Moon, but “obviously we will change their names,” says Daniel. They are not part of the settlement.
What will change hands are the two Fook Lam Moons in Hong Kong. They have been taken over by buyout by Mr. Chui’s oldest brother, Chui Pui Kun and his son Duncan, Chui’s nephew. The buyout procedure was “suggested” by the judge in Hong Kong’s Court of First Instance. Mr. Chui and his older brother, who engineered the takeover, were admonished to talk and to determine who would buy out the other. By all accounts, there were scramblings for backers and funds, a melee that ended abruptly when an enormous amount of money came in from Mainland China supporting Brother Number Five. Fortune went out the door for Brother Number Seven.
But Mr. Chui, with the money from his older brother and nephew in hand, has begun anew, trying out new names and scouting locations for a new restaurant he plans to open in Kong Kong.
We were reminded of a tea tasting we attended with the seventh brother, Mr. Chui, earlier during his year of celebrations. Two very rare, and extraordinarily expensive, teas—whites from Fujian—had been provided by Mr. Chui’s supplier. The teas were steeped and poured. We all sipped. “Not smooth,” said Mr. Chui. “Daniel, we must do better.” We reminded Daniel of that tasting. “Yes,” he said. “We must. My father will have nothing but the best quality.”
Fortune will surely come back.