Meet the couple behind Andly Private Kitchen, a Perth restaurant inspired by the intimate eateries of Hong Kong serving a different set menu every night of creative Chinese cuisine to a handful of lucky diners. By Kerry Faulkner
A simple pork bun was the turning point for teenager Li Yuekuan as he was growing up in a poor farming family in rural China.
The warm spicy bun at the shopfront was so enticing he stole it while on a rare visit to the city and as Andly (his English nickname) recalls, it was incredibly delicious compared to his usual, simple farm food.
He decided then that food would be his living and his ticket out of laborious farm life and poverty. So as a teenager, rather than wasting his time hanging out with his friends after school, he worked extra hours for his chef master and studied the recipes from famous chefs at the bookstore.
And his focus and determination paid off. Twenty-eight years later, he and his wife Olivia run their own restaurant—Andly Private Kitchen in Perth’s inner-city suburb of West Leederville, which has just clinched the 2017 Savour Australia (WA) Hostplus award in the Asian Restaurant category.
Foodies will know that the private kitchen concept is not new. Keshia Hannam, writing for CNN Travel, says the boom started about 15 years ago in Hong Kong, a city which has one of the highest per capita concentrations of restaurants in the world. They emerged when restaurant owners were forced to move upstairs and even into industrial areas to avoid the city’s notoriously high ground-floor rents.
Diners in return were thrilled with intimate, out-of-the-way eateries with unique dishes prepared by creative chefs who, in turn, delighted in interacting more closely with their guests. The private kitchen has morphed into different things in today’s hospitality culture; in some instances, it’s a pop-up restaurant; in others, chefs open their homes to diners or hosts open up their homes and invite chefs and diners.
Perth has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Australia right across the gamut of cuisines and styles. However, Olivia says Andly’s is surprisingly the city’s first private kitchen and its business model is really true to that authentic Hong Kong private kitchen concept that originated some 15 years ago.
Like those out-of-the-way eateries, Andly Private Kitchen doesn’t depend on passing trade and so is nestled on a corner in an office precinct that bustles with white-collar workers during the day but at night is deserted. The choice was intentional; private kitchen diners, explains Olivia, tend to want a quiet location with easy access and easy parking, not the hustle and bustle of an entertainment precinct like Northbridge.
The kitchen stands out in its little cul-de-sac because of its many hanging birdcages. Inside, the décor is traditionally Chinese with heavy curtains blocking the outside world, so diners really immerse themselves in the speakeasy feel of the private kitchen. It seats just 30 and is popular for special occasions like birthdays.
Unlike regular restaurants, Andly Private Kitchen doesn’t have a menu; rather the chef designs individual courses especially for his guests based on their likes and dislikes. And no customer will be given the same menu twice because Olivia painstakingly records by photograph—and notes the date of—every meal served.
On many levels, it’s a very labour-intensive way of running a business. Olivia and Andly do everything together, from sourcing and buying food to cooking and serving. Their only help is a chef’s assistant. Their daily routine begins with shopping in the morning (always buying live seafood if it is available), after which they go through the clientele list for the night and finalise the dishes and their design. Their day ends very late at night when the last customer has left and the kitchen is cleaned. The couple will squeeze in a day off around the bookings but even then, Olivia says, the time off is spent researching produce.
“If people want a traditional Chinese restaurant, they won’t come to us; this restaurant is for those people who enjoy something new and a different environment—they are the ones that will come to see us.”—Andly
Diners must make a booking at least 24 hours ahead and they are encouraged to arrive on time because all tables’ meals are served at the same time. It’s problematic if guests are late, explains Olivia, and they can expect a delay in receiving their meals because the chef needs to continue serving the courses to the tables that were on time.
When guests book, Olivia will enquire about their budget and that can be anything from $100 to $500 a meal. She’ll also ask about allergies and food preferences and from these her husband will develop a menu. She says it’s easier if the booking is from a returning customer because they understand how the kitchen operates, and that going to Andly Private Kitchen is like going to a friend’s home for dinner. The difference is that they can request what they want to eat: a night of spicy dishes, perhaps, or fresh seafood. Alternatively, they can leave it entirely up to Andly.
“A lot of people love cooking now and that’s why they want to come and see what Andly is doing and ask how do you do this or why you do that,” Olivia explains.
“That’s why we have an open kitchen; so, people can see and ask questions and have a chat.
“Sometimes the customer will even get up and get their plate themselves and so it’s very much like a father serving the family.
“After they finish a bowl of soup and they say they’d like some more, we can make them another one. Or they’ll say ‘do you have a vegetable you can stir-fry for us’ and we’ll do this. This is one of the things people enjoy in here also.”
The dishes are Chinese fusion with strong influences from other Asian and Western cuisines. There’s a cutlet they do, for example, that Western restaurants will normally pan-fry with herbs, salt and pepper but Andly marinates and cooks with Chinese spices common to a part of China where people like to eat a lot of lamb.
“It is a very different flavour—100 per cent of our customers like this cutlet, especially Western people,” Olivia says. “When they eat our lamb cutlet, they find it very different—it has a lot of flavour.”
Andly explains that with more traditional Chinese restaurants, customers often want big portions and everyone wants to leave very full.
“If people want a traditional Chinese restaurant they won’t come to us; this restaurant is for people who enjoy something new and a different environment,” he says.
“Through the media, we want to show people that Chinese cuisine is not something very cheap. People think of it as a big, cheap plate and not food with high quality or taste.
“We want to tell people it can be as tasty as French or Japanese cuisine, not something cheap and it can be up to a very high standard.”
Olivia explains they were compelled to start Andly Private kitchen because Andly would never have been content to work as a chef in a regular Chinese restaurant. He thrives on creativity and for him to do anything less would be a self betrayal.
“We decided to start this restaurant because we don’t want to work for other people. Also, we are getting old and want to settle down with a business of or own,” she says.
“We explored the options—like a normal restaurant and other different things but I want him to do what he did before because if you ask him to do normal stir-fry every night, that’s not his life and he doesn’t get to present the best of himself.
“But it’s a risk, because there is no other restaurant of this type in Perth offering Chinese fusion cuisine.”
Olivia laughs when she says that Andly’s so focused on food he’ll often spring awake in the middle of the night with ideas for meals or designs which he jots down using a pen and paper beside his bed. The dishes are works of art when finished and his innovative approach to presentation has resulted in an invitation to participate in an Edith Cowman University international research project investigating the concept of haute cuisine and the chef as artist.
Andly and Olivia have both been married previously and Olivia’s two teenage children live with them. The couple knew each other from China having met at the restaurant where Andly worked. Olivia was an Australian-based wine importer at the time. Later, a Sydney restaurant owner who was eager to harness his creativity with food sponsored him to move to Australia. When that job ended, he moved to Perth.
Living and working together so closely would break many marriages but the couple says it has more advantages than disadvantages; they often arrive at the same decisions about important things because both clearly have in mind what’s best for the customer. Olivia explains that on the few occasions they differ, Andly makes the final decision.
“He’s been in hospitality a long time already and seen what’s been successful and what’s been unsuccessful so he has a lot of experience of this,” she says. “So while he values my opinion, in the end he will follow what he thinks.”
Its Asian clientele has been the restaurant’s biggest to date, but the balance is changing with more Westerners appearing on the bookings.
Clearly, Olivia says, the tastes of Chinese and Westerners varies; the former have a fondness for delicacies like shark fin and abalone which are not so popular with Western palates. She will ask customers when they book if the group is Asian or Western to ensure all tastes are catered for.
Andly’s has been operating two and a half years and reviews from diners rave about both the taste of the food and its artistic presentation, the service, attention to detail, the Chinese décor, the list goes on.
But Andly says after 28 years in the business he’s only explored 50 per cent of his potential.
The best is yet to come.