Has the traditional three-course meal finally come to the end? According to one of Australia’s most respected restaurateurs, the bell is certainly tolling—and these days, deconstructed menus continue to gain in popularity. But this concept is no revelation for Sydney-based Henry Tang. For the past nine years, he’s been doing exactly this on a grand scale.
“People are searching for something different,” says the owner of Chinese restaurants Zilver and The Eight in Sydney. “It’s become apparent that we need to rethink the menu so patrons can taste and share a selection of dishes.”
According to Tang, this is the reason why yum cha and tapas establishments have boomed over the past decade. “I think we consider yum cha as the most original tapas,” he says, laughing. “Each steamer is very similar, price-wise, to what we have in the Spanish tapas.”
His yum cha restaurant Zilver in Haymarket seats about 600 people while his Chinese seafood restaurant nearby, The Eight, seats about 800 people. Yet another nearby Tang establishment, Mizuya, is a Japanese karaoke restaurant with touch-screen ordering that can seat about 300 people. This is a man who thinks big.
One of the big ingredients in Tang’s success is his willingness to break with tradition. He likes to add something unique that make customers take notice and talk about it.
When he started managing the family-owned restaurant, Silver Spring, in early 2000, it was a very mainstream yum cha restaurant in the middle of Sydney’s bustling Haymarket. “It had the dragons, the red finish, and the food was very traditional,” says Tang. “When I decided to rebrand it, I brought in a lot of modern themes.”
His “new vision” included a contemporary redesign by Danny Chan which took nine months, and hiring the Hong Kong-born executive chef, Cheung Ling, who has over 30 years’ experience. Working together, the revitalised restaurant soon specialised in modern fusion and traditional Chinese cuisine.
“The presentation of the dishes was reworked and we added a lot of western ingredients to the cooking,” says Tang who was also born in Hong Kong but moved to Australia at the age of 13. “I also embraced a wider variety of food styles. It wasn’t only Cantonese—I used recipes from different regions of China.”
The rebrand was so successful, a new name was required so Zilver was born. “We were quite successful very quickly and I started to build up the brand name,” recalls Tang.
As the business grew exponentially, the industry soon recognised Tang’s innovations and business nous. He won the coveted Australian Small Business Champion Award in 2012, and was a finalist in City of Sydney’s Business Award-Restaurant. He was also the national winner of Foxtel LifeStyle Food’s I Love FOOD Awards in 2012.
Henry Tang might dominate Sydney’s Chinese restaurant scene but he came to the business relatively late. Born in Hong Kong, he first arrived in Sydney as a Year 7 student in 1985. After finishing his schooling, and obtaining a degree in town planning, he returned to Hong Kong where he met his future wife Chillie Poon, a successful actress.
When they decided to get married and eventually have children, they chose to make the big move to Sydney in 2000. “It’s a multicultural country,” says Tang, explaining one of his favourite things about the Emerald City. “Sydney welcomes people with different backgrounds. I appreciate that.”
Running so many restaurants can be time consuming. Tang visits each one every day to ensure everything is under control and running smoothly. Then he usually rotates back through each of the restaurants to be seen as a constant presence by staff and customers. Regular meetings with managers are scheduled throughout the week.
“I have several meetings a week with different departments, particularly in The Eight. Being a live seafood restaurant, a lot of preparation goes into our meals and workflows must run efficiently. There is nothing pre-made. When the customer looks at the mud crab, king crab or lobster, you have to turn that live seafood into a meal—and you have no choice but to make it on the spot.”
Likewise, yum cha at Zilver is also labour intensive and time consuming. All the dumplings are handmade on the premises. One of the most interesting changes Tang has seen over the past decade is that yum cha—once seen as a weekend treat—is now eaten all days of the week. And one of its biggest attractions is that it is relatively cheap, costing about $4-$6 a steamer. Despite its popularity, it’s been that price for years.
“Pricing is one of the difficulties for our industry,” says Tang. “We serve a lot of older Chinese folk and they’re very sensitive to price. They may go to the same place for yum cha for 20 years. They like everything to stay the same and don’t want to see any differences. Naturally, we don’t want to scare them away as we treasure them as our loyal customers.”
Competitiveness between other yum cha restaurants is also a sensitive issue for Tang. Chinatown was once the epicentre for this cuisine—as occurred in Chinatowns around the world—but yum cha restaurants now pop up in suburban streets and shopping centres.
Despite this competition, restaurants in Chinatown have their own niche—friends, family and businesspeople flock there for special occasions. “And the periods just before Christmas and during Chinese New Year are crazy times,” says Tang.
While there is a regular supply of new customers and fresh faces at all of Tang’s restaurants, it is the regular older patrons who eat yum cha three or four times a week that are “the foundation of our business”, explains the restaurateur.
Even when he was a town planner back in Hong Kong, the restaurateur has always had a passion for food. “I love trying different food in different places and exploring the latest trends. When running a restaurant, you have to love what you do. You don’t have to necessarily like the operational side of things, but you have to like food. After all, you’re facing food all day, every day. You can’t survive if you don’t like it.”
Another thing that has a huge impact on lifestyle when running a Chinese restaurant is the extremely long hours. Tang has operated Zilver for the past nine years and they have never closed for a day. Both Zilver and The Eight open at 10am then close at 3pm. After a two-hour break they open again at 5pm and close at 11pm.
“I have managed to have a few holidays,” says Tang with a sense of relief. He travels with his wife Chillie and their two children, aged four-and-a-half and three. “But I admit that we generally travel to other countries to visit Chinese restaurants. This helps to inspire me and to modify my menu. I can never get away from the business.”
Another change Tang has seen over the past decade is in the proportion of nationalities of his customers. While originally a predominantly Chinese clientele, it’s now a 50/50 split between Chinese and westerners.
“We are a multicultural country and I never wanted to open a restaurant that only catered to Chinese customers,” says Tang. “We get people coming to eat from all around the world—and they’re becoming more willing to experiment. Not too long ago, they didn’t want to eat chicken feet even though it’s a popular dish among Chinese. Now most of the westerners and the locals don’t mind giving it a go.”
But the most popular dish by a huge margin remains that old classic—prawn dumplings. As Tang points out, “It’s the most popular dish in every single yum cha restaurant in Australia—that dish is a must.”
With so many dishes available at his restaurants, he offers an array of banquets which he promotes on his website with booking through the Dimmi booking system. His corporate team also takes part in daily deals, coupons and discounts, which certainly appeal to customers.
As one of Sydney’s most successful restaurateurs, Tang has one simple piece of advice—be very alert and very careful every day.
“People have high expectations these days,” he says. “On the streets of Chinatown, there is a new restaurant every five steps. If people’s demands and expectations are higher than the quality of service and food, then that restaurant needs to improve quickly or go out of business. This is true for restaurants everywhere.
“You have to be open-minded and you have to listen to what people say. The restaurant business is different to other businesses. A factory can sign a contract with a supplier and have one year of trade. But customers coming into your restaurant today don’t have to come back tomorrow. Each and every single day, you have to give your best in order to keep customers happy. A single interaction can affect whether that customer comes back or not. You have to be alert all the time. And you never stop.”