Caixin

Beijing Cooks Up a Fine-Dining Revolution

By Malcolm Surer
Ignace Lecleir, owner and founder of Beijing's TRB restaurants, opened his second restaurant east of the Forbidden City. Lecleir began working in some of the world’s finest restaurants when he was 16 before providing his insight and talent to Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Nine years later, he is still making a meal a special experience in the capital. Photo: Malcolm Surer/Caixin
Ignace Lecleir, owner and founder of Beijing's TRB restaurants, opened his second restaurant east of the Forbidden City. Lecleir began working in some of the world’s finest restaurants when he was 16 before providing his insight and talent to Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Nine years later, he is still making a meal a special experience in the capital. Photo: Malcolm Surer/Caixin

Is Beijing’s fine-dining scene on a par in terms of quality with its Chinese counterparts Shanghai and Hong Kong? Shanghai, the country’s biggest city and a bustling financial hub, is home to 36 Michelin-starred restaurants, the gold standard in fine dining. Hong Kong has over 60. But Beijing has arguably not garnered the accreditation it needs.

“Beijing, to me, is a combination of Los Angeles and Washington, very big avenues and very spread out. … This might explain why some things aren’t moving forward (in the restaurant industry) as fast as in other cities,” said Ignace Lecleir, the founder and owner of one of the top Western fine-dining restaurants in Beijing: Temple Restaurant Beijing (TRB), now known as TRB Hutong.

“I think it’s the same as when the Michelin guides came to the United States. They first reviewed restaurants in New York and Chicago, and later went to L.A. The Californian city had less restaurants back then, and was also a city that was much more spread out,” said the veteran restaurateur, who got his first taste of the world of fine dining at the age of 16. That was when he started working in a kitchen of a Michelin-star restaurant in Belgium.

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TRB Hutong, formerly known as Temple Restaurant Beijing, is the first restaurant that Ignace Lecleir opened. “TRB’s philosophy, while creating it, was to try to do as little as possible in altering the history. There was also a point not to overdecorate. Following a minimalistic style, we paid as much homage as possible to where we are.” Photo: Malcolm Surer/Caixin

Lecleir has lived in the Chinese capital for nine years, and through his work has become one of the most insightful commentators on the internationalization of Beijing’s fine-dining experience.

Unlike in Shanghai, Beijing’s long dining traditions lie in its proud Sinocentric imperial past, with restaurants such as Bianyifang (便宜房) having existed since the 15th century. Only through the reform and opening-up process of the last four decades did the city begin to diversify. Though some of the city’s fine-dining restaurants have won positive reviews from both Chinese and international customers, Beijing is yet to earn the distinction of being a Michelin-starred city.

Before his foray into China, Lecleir worked his way up through kitchens and dining rooms of some of world’s most celebrated restaurants. After receiving a degree in hospitality management, he proceeded to work on a luxury cruise liner, traveled around Europe for restaurants in Paris and London, then crossed the Atlantic and offered his talents in hospitality and savoir-faire to Americans in Los Angeles and New York.

In 2008, on the cusp of the Beijing Olympics, as general manager of the three-star Michelin restaurant Daniel in New York, he decided to take up a new culture and challenge — Beijing. “People would tell me that fine dining in this part of the world was very difficult, if not impossible,” he said.

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TRB Hutong is in an old TV production factory next to a 600-year-old temple. Australian architectural firm Hassel redesigned the interior. Photo: Malcolm Surer/Caixin

Nine years later, Lecleir has come to see Beijing’s fine-dining scene not as an insurmountable challenge, but an immense opportunity: something that the world’s palate is only beginning to understand. The evolution has been swift. He notes: “Before when you went to a Western-style restaurant, you could almost predict the menu due to the small number of ingredients and items available.”

Today, the picture is different. “In general, it has become much more refined,” he said.

Caixin: How was it as a foreigner starting a fine-dine restaurant group in Beijing?

Lecleir: When I moved from New York to Beijing, for Michelin star chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud, people would ask me if I was being punished or if I did something wrong. That was kind of the mindset. Why move from New York if it’s the center of the world? Why would anyone come to Beijing? Then people would tell me that fine dining in this part of the world was very difficult, if not impossible. Actually, after working in China for a couple of months, I really started to feel the opposite. The staff was very eager to learn. Hungry for new knowledge. From that perspective, it is very interesting to do fine dining in Beijing. What the city is lacking, though, is experience. Our staff, compared to Europeans, were never exposed while growing up to the culture surrounding fine dining. They’re very eager to learn, so I find that it is almost our duty to expose them as much as possible, give them as much knowledge as possible and take it from there.

What do you mean by fine dining in this part of the world was impossible?

People gave me the impression that issues in fine dining in this part of the world were related to a lack of attention to details. We thus do a lot of training and a lot of psychology of service. To me it really feels like when I go back to the West. I have always believed that someday China will overtake the rest of the world in the hospitality industry. You see a trend going toward such a direction.

What do you mean by “psychology of service” when referring to hospitality?

“Psychology of service” is what I believe any excellent service provider should aim for. The service staff needs to do more than just put the plate on the table, but needs to use their eyes, ears and brains to observe the customers — to observe how the guests are feeling. They need to anticipate the needs. Small gestures derived from our “psychology of service” is what we aim to excel at. I firmly believe this sets us apart from the rest, as a meal is turned into a memorable experience.

Why were the Beijing Olympics of 2008 seen as an opportune time for chef Daniel Boulud and you to come to Beijing and start working in the city’s fine-dining industry?

In fact, I believe the Olympics in 2008 were not the main draw that brought the restaurant Daniel and myself to Beijing. We had already been talking about coming to China for quite some time back in New York. We believed Chinese diners were getting increasingly savvy toward Western dining culture and international fine dining. At the time, this kind of service was scarce but highly in demand in Beijing; thus, it was seen as being our ideal city of choice when entering the Chinese market. The Olympics were certainly the icing on the cake, as it drew the world’s attention to the city and we were able to accommodate visitors from all over the world within the first month of opening.

How has Beijing’s fine-dining industry changed since the Beijing Olympics? Is there more competition? Or have the number of restaurants in the field remained the same?

One thing for sure is that the diners here are year after year becoming more sophisticated, or should I even say month after month, considering how fast everything develops in this country. For example, back when we started in 2008, you would still have a large portion of guests demanding the classic onion soup when dining with us. As the years went by, we saw our customers become more daring in terms of their tastes and be interested in trying chilled zucchini soup, something they might not have ordered a few years prior.

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TRB Forbidden City, Ignace Lecleir's second restaurant, offers a view of the Palace Museum. The TRB restaurants boast a wine collection of over 1,300 different bottles. Photo: Malcolm Surer/Caixin

In terms of the competition, to be very honest, we actually never really see other restaurants as competitors. This does not mean we are arrogant and think highly of ourselves. Simply, I believe the market is large enough for everyone to carve out their own niche. As a matter of fact, I am always very happy to see new restaurants opening up in the city as it signifies the healthy diversification of the hospitality business here. Restaurants will always come and go, and the restaurants must evolve with the customers.

How would you describe fine-dining culture in Beijing today?

It has definitely evolved in the last nine years I have been here. I would, however, like to see it further evolve, and potentially faster. I am a very strong believer that more competition is better for everybody in the business. When you go to Shanghai, you can see quite a difference in terms of the vibrancy in the city. With life always changing there, it gives more of a New York feeling. It’s a fast-paced environment; everyone lives closer to each other and it’s more competitive. Beijing is evolving but not as fast as Shanghai.

How does Beijing compare to Shanghai in terms of fine-dining culture? What are the differences?

I try to go to Shanghai every two to three months for researching purposes. I like to see the different markets. Shanghai gives me more of a New York feeling. They are both the financial centers of their respective countries. It definitely has a stronger expat community than Beijing. Shanghai is more vibrant, has more international chefs, it seems to be an easier city to move around in. In terms of restaurants, what I noticed when I go there is that certain types of fine-dine restaurants are mostly frequented by Western people. Under my observation, less Chinese customers. However, at TRB, I can assuredly say, 90% of my clientele is Chinese, which is very good. I don’t see the same kind of impact in Shanghai.

It seems that the very strong expat community is supporting Western-style restaurants there. Beijing, to me, is a combination of Los Angeles and Washington, very big avenues and very spread out. Having worked in L.A. in the past, I feel confident saying there are quite a lot of similarities between Beijing and L.A. Sometimes you might live in a city for a few years and focus just on a certain area. There’s no need to go to other places due to how much of a hassle it would be. In terms of restaurants, there are similarities here in Beijing. Sometimes you really have to be motivated to go out in Beijing due to traffic and other related issues. This might explain why some things are not moving forward as fast as in other cities.

Expanding on the difference between the two cities, how come Shanghai and Hong Kong are much more recognized through the European scale of the Michelin Guide than Beijing is?

That’s the question we’ve been trying to answer ourselves as well. We’re not quite sure. There are rumors that the Michelin Guide is coming this year. I’m not quite sure because we haven’t really heard anything yet. There were strong rumors that they were going to come last year. I can understand from a Michelin Guide point of view that maybe there’s more offerings in Shanghai of international diversity. I think it’s the same as when the Michelin guides came to the United States. They first reviewed restaurants in New York and Chicago, and later went to L.A. Maybe it will take a little more time for Beijing to be reviewed. L.A. had less restaurants back then, and was also a city that was much more spread out.

Where do you see the future of Beijing’s fine-dining restaurant scene going?

I think it will become more and more in demand. Looking at the number of Chinese customers coming to my restaurant and returning. A few years ago, you would see a Chinese customer come, and it was a discovery for them. It was like when I went to Chinese restaurants in Bruges (in Belgium) with my parents when I was a child. It would be like going to Disneyland. A trip to see what it was all about. But we would only go once. Not that we didn’t like it; it was just not something we needed to do again. What is actually happening today in Beijing, as fine-dine restaurants develop, you’re beginning to see Chinese customers going out to fine-dining restaurants repeatedly. They enjoy it. I can see it here at TRB — we have a very large base of local Chinese customers who are becoming our regulars. I think you can see a very nice movement. I think fine dining has a very nice future in Beijing. People are really enjoying spending time on the table; it’s is really interesting to see people who are working in hospitality. We can slowly see that people are becoming proud of working in a restaurant. Normally, in many cultures if you cannot do anything else, you go work in a restaurant. I think in the States and Europe, it’s really seen as a profession. In China, in the beginning it was seen as the lowest thing you can do, but now slowly you can see that it is becoming more and more respected. People are gaining recognition, and it is very nice.

Caixin Hot Pot is a regular feature that introduces you to the colorful array of players in today’s China — from the leaders of top U.S. companies doing business here, to the migrant woman selling noodles from a pushcart.

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