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A recipe for change

Times Staff Writer

Over a plate of rice noodles packed with shrimp and scallops, David Gong stabbed his index finger at an advertisement on the front page of a local Chinese newspaper. A rival down the block from his Alhambra restaurant was promoting $1.88 dim sum.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

At Gong’s new restaurant, the Kitchen, dim sum items go for up to three times that much. But he knows that with seven other restaurants within two blocks, his pricing strategy is risky.

“There’s too much competition,” he said. “The quality of their food can’t be any good.”

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The cutthroat Chinese restaurant world of the San Gabriel Valley may be reaching the saturation point. According to the industry journal, Chinese Restaurant News, there are 645 Chinese eateries in the 626 area code, most of them in Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Alhambra.

And as the businesses battle for customers, they’ve turned to price gimmicks like 99-cent lobsters and live shrimp for a penny a pound. Three-course lunches can be had for less than $5. And a bountiful dim sum brunch for four wouldn’t equal the cost of lunch for one at many Westside restaurants.

With such thin profit margins, competitors seek every edge. Spies are sent to sample dishes at other restaurants, and popular items are quickly copied. Owners attempt to lure good chefs from rival kitchens, to both improve their own restaurants and harm their competitors.

Gong, president of the American Chinese Restaurant Assn., believes the intense competition has triggered a steady decline in the Chinese dining experience, from the quality of the ingredients to the service to the atmosphere.

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For years, he has insisted that it doesn’t have to be that way. Now, with the Kitchen, he’s set out to prove his point. Gong created his restaurant in part as a laboratory for the Chinese restaurant of the future, with the intention of demonstrating that Chinese restaurants can survive while providing quality service, good ingredients and healthful dishes.

He hopes to show that it’s possible for Chinese restaurants to stay in the good graces of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, to attract customers willing to pay more for high-quality food and to avoid high staff turnover by treating employees well.

“I want to elevate the status of Chinese food,” said Gong, speaking in Cantonese. “There are too many restaurants. Chinese cuisine is losing its value.”

When Gong arrived in the U.S. in 1994, he sold Chinese calendars and printed menus for Chinese restaurants. He decided to publish a magazine that would unite the disparate restaurant community.

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“Many of the restaurants were doing poorly because they didn’t have good chefs,” Gong said. “There was no organization to connect them to a chef pool in China and Hong Kong.”

Gong’s connections with chefs and restaurants eventually led him to join the restaurant association. After opening a restaurant in the San Francisco suburb of Millbrae, he decided he was ready to tackle the tougher prospect of opening the Kitchen in the San Gabriel Valley.

Some of Gong’s closest friends thought the venture was doomed to fail.

“David came to my restaurant and asked me if [the Kitchen] was a good idea,” said Sam Wong, who has opened 10 restaurants in the last three decades. “I told him, if he hasn’t signed the lease yet, not to do it.”

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Wong said he thought his friend’s idea would quickly come into conflict with a basic assumption of Chinese immigrants who’ve poured into the region over the last quarter century: that authentic Chinese food should be both abundant and affordable.

“It’s imprinted in the Chinese character that you should never overspend,” Wong said. “They’ll buy a new Mercedes, but they have to feel like they’re getting the best possible price.”

So why, he asked, would people elect to pay more when they can “get a decent sit-down meal with a drink, tax included, for $4?”

Undaunted, Gong last September began preparing his dream in a 5,000-square-foot space in Alhambra that had housed three other Chinese restaurants before his.

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One primary goal, he said, was to build a restaurant that would shed the stereotype that Chinese restaurants have to settle for ratings of B or lower from the health department.

Chinese restaurant owners have long insisted that proper Chinese cooking techniques conflict with health codes. They say they use too many ingredients to keep everything at the correct temperature and that their customers don’t worry about health department grades.

Gong was confident he could buck the trend. He enlisted the help of fellow association member and contractor George Liu, a former restaurateur certified in food safety preparation.

Liu installed 6-inch drainage pipes throughout the kitchen floor to prevent pools of stagnant water and portable shelves to make cleaning underneath easier. He ordered boosters to raise water temperature in the dishwasher by 20 degrees and put in new stoves so chefs could more quickly achieve the searing heat required for “wok hay,” or “breath of the wok.”

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As the kitchen was being prepared, Gong also concentrated on his staff.

He hired chef Kam Wo Au from Sydney, Australia -- a master at cooking abalone -- to be his food director, based in Millbrae but also working with the Alhambra restaurant.

He told all his chefs they would need haircuts on a regular basis. Instead of sloppy aprons over regular clothing -- common chef’s attire at other San Gabriel Valley restaurants -- Gong bought white chef jackets with French flags on the collars. He had the cooks all wear baseball caps.

On the wall of the dining room, Gong hung a red-and-yellow banner articulating his ambitions for the restaurant. It read: “Raise the culinary art and standards of Chinese cuisine; bring awareness in cleanliness and safety food preparation; raise the standards in customer service and satisfaction.”

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On Dec. 8, he opened for business.

The restaurant’s small parking lot quickly filled up. Gong’s fellow association members showed up in force. Some had wanted to take him the customary flowers for a Chinese restaurant opening, but Gong told them not to waste the money. So instead they went to eat.

Friends patted Gong on the back, saying they loved the dried scallop and mushroom soup. But at Gong’s table, the star dish was kung pao chicken, a far more mundane dish he had to order because his 11-year-old son prefers it over delicacies.

By early evening, Gong had run out of roasted meat appetizers and steamed chicken. Patrons were waiting up to half an hour between dishes because the chefs were still figuring out the sequence of cooking times. Despite the kinks, Gong was thrilled.

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“The dream was coming through,” he said.

Christmas was even headier. At the peak of the evening, more than 100 people waited for tables, some for as long as two hours. Gong, unaware until it was too late that many of his Latino dishwashers would not work on Christmas, had to ask his waiters and managers to scrub the dishes after the restaurant closed at 1 a.m.

Two weeks later, food critic Jonathan Gold wrote in an L.A. Weekly review: “At the moment the Kitchen may serve my favorite dim sum in the San Gabriel Valley, the most carefully prepared, the freshest.” Gong affixed the article to a wooden plaque near the front entrance.

To deal with the Chinese New Year rush, Gong leased a parking lot across the street.

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But despite the early success, Gong knew that he hadn’t won the battle. People were curious about the restaurant and wanted to try it, but to keep them coming back, he would have to please them consistently.

He quickly realized that aiming for perfection is easier than achieving it.

One of the hardest parts, Gong said, was getting his employees to follow a new system.

Waiters didn’t use the notebooks Gong purchased for taking orders, and they rarely remembered to add surnames to order tickets so that servers could properly address the customers. Busboys didn’t properly compact trash, resulting in a fine by the city for having overflowing refuse. Employees ignored pleas that they park far from the restaurant, making parking difficult for customers.

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“There’s more pressure on them than they’ve ever experienced at other restaurants,” Gong said. “In the beginning, it was too much for them.”

During a daily staff meeting a month after opening, Gong led 40 employees in applause in the dining room for visiting chef Au, who sat unmoved with his wife and two children, drinking tea and eating Chinese sweets. Gong then got down to business.

“Some customers are complaining that service isn’t fast enough,” he told his employees, who were wolfing down their lunch and looking uninterested in the revelation.

Liu explained why it was important to separate meat and vegetables in the walk-in cooler. The staff again showed no reaction. When Liu was done, they went about preparing for the dinner service.

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Customer service is a curious concept for many of the staff, who say it was not a priority at other restaurants where they’ve worked.

“In China, service is no good,” said Derek Situ, one of the restaurant’s head waiters. “You always have to wait a long time for a table.” Situ said many immigrants have brought those low expectations to the U.S.

Situ said he is trying to change that.

“Here, we want people coming in and feeling like they’re in someone’s home to try the food,” said Situ, who said he makes a point of remembering repeat customers’ names.

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Though it’s up to Situ and other black-suited floor managers to schmooze with the customers, the rest of the waiters are slowly embracing the more congenial approach.

They’ve learned to be on the lookout to replace dirty plates with fresh ones. And servers are beginning to remember to name the dishes when placing them on the table.

By focusing on service and sophisticated fare, Au said, the Kitchen was breaking free from tradition. “The goal is to set an example,” said Au, 48, whose buzz cut, silver Rolex and ego contribute to his aura of control. “I can help because I’m recognized by the industry. I am the standard.”

Au is dedicated to more healthful cooking, Gong said, inventing new dishes and modifying classics to make them lighter.

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One dish has emerged as a signature of Au’s style: ginger onion braised fish head in clay pot. The meaty lingcod is braised in traditional Chinese earthenware, and Gong says the resulting dish has more flavor than the filet.

Instead of a thick cornstarch soup, Gong said, “we use very little oil, and there’s nothing left at the bottom of the pot after you finish it except the fish’s natural juices.”

To demonstrate the difference in his cuisine, he lifted the fried noodles from a plate of chow mein.

“See? No oil,” Gong said. “That’s why it’s not wet in the bottom. It’s all crispy.”

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The dish would be a throwaway item at many restaurants, offered for a few dollars. At the Kitchen, it sells for $10.

“We believe in honesty,” Gong said.

“We won’t advertise one or two items for a penny while other dishes are quite expensive,” he added. “We want to provide the right price for the dish’s value.”

The attention to detail has not been easy. Two dim sum cooks, two regular cooks, two dishwashers and a busboy have left, Liu said.

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Liu said one waiter was fired in January because he was overwhelmed with the number of specials to remember and couldn’t get food to the table fast enough.

Gong said one chef left after he was scolded by Au, who hasn’t fully bought into Gong’s ideas about how the staff should be treated.

“He grew into that style like a sergeant yelling, because that’s what they do in China,” Gong said.

Yet he does not want Au to change his standards. Because patrons are paying more at the Kitchen, Gong says, the food must be flawless.

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Since Christmas, the number of customers has dropped. Busy hours come in short bursts, often leaving prime tables empty.

To adapt, Gong opens later in the mornings and has a server pushing a dim sum cart during lunch, responding to customer complaints that ordering off the menu took too long.

Gong said a drop in customers is usual for the time of year. But his friend Wong called it troubling.

“The challenge is getting repeat customers,” Wong said. “If you’re not packed every day the first three months, it’s already an indication of failure.”

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That isn’t the only disappointment. The restaurant received a B from the health department for leaving foods out of the refrigerator too long. It prompted Gong to order kitchen staff to keep food logs.

“I was very disappointed,” Gong said. “I was angry. We’ll do better with the next inspection in May. But it’s not easy to get an A.”

Gong prefers to focus on signs of hope, like the patronage of regular customers like Andy Chan, who has been going to the Kitchen at least twice a week since it opened. He said he spent $1,000 on a Chinese New Year meal with 10 guests.

“The quality of the food is more important than paying a couple more dollars for each dish,” said Chan, a car salesman from Torrance who drove to Alhambra in his yellow Lotus on a recent Friday night. “Some places charge 99 cents for shrimp and they just throw it on the table. I don’t enjoy it.”

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Gong remains optimistic that his plan will lead to long-term success. He was happy to announce he started breaking even in March.

He said paring down his staff and adjusting prices hasn’t crossed his mind.

“I will not let the price war happen under my watch,” he said.

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david.pierson@latimes.com


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