From working as a kitchen hand in Kowloon to running the award-winning Flower Drum in Melbourne, co-owner and chef Anthony Lui is all about passion, commitment and loyalty. By Frank Leggett
“When I was growing up, my father was my inspiration. He was head chef at a restaurant in Hong Kong so it was quite natural for me to follow in his footsteps. When I was 14, I had to decide about what my vocation was going to be. It was a choice between a chef or a mechanic. Times were pretty tough back then so my rationale was that if I became a chef, I would be constantly around food and able to feed my family. I began my first job as a kitchen hand in 1963 at Foo Kwai Lau restaurant in Kowloon.
“Gilbert Lau opened Flower Drum in Melbourne in 1975. In 1981, he contacted me in Hong Kong and convinced me to move to Australia and work for him. I believed this would provide my family with a fresh beginning and opportunities that may not have been possible in Hong Kong. Gilbert also had a vision of bringing Western style service to a Chinese restaurant—unheard of back in the late ’70s and early ’80s!
“Working with Gilbert was an inspiration and I learnt a lot from him. One of the things he was passionate about was loyalty and looking after people around you. That included customers, staff and even the suppliers. By doing so, loyalty is given back in return.
“In late 2002, I took over Flower Drum with my business partners William Shek and Patricia Fung. It was a great relationship that brought different skill sets to the business. I looked after the kitchen, William looked after the wine list and the bar, and Patricia (who unfortunately is no longer with us) was our bookkeeper and office manager.
“At Flower Drum, we try to look after our staff as best we can—after all, we probably spend more time with each other than with family. The work environment needs to be a place they want to come and invest their time, just like we invest in them. We’re always grateful for the dedication and time they have given our restaurant. Barney, one of our front-of-house managers, has been with us since the early ’80s.
“Skills can be taught but passion and the innate ability to care for someone is something you either have or do not.”—Anthony Lui
“Flower Drum is renowned for its impeccable service so there is quite a bit of staff training. It is imperative that whoever is working on our floor not only understands the systems and processes we have in place, but also the culture and the importance of putting the customer experience first. Jason, my son, interviews all prospective staff and often hires on personality and passion rather than a lengthy resumé. Skills can be taught but passion and the innate ability to care for someone is something you either have or do not.
“I’ve been working with Jason since 2003 and given the amount of time we spend at work, our conversations inevitably come around to talk of the restaurant.
“Naturally, coming from two different generations, we tend to see things differently and sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not. However, at the end of the day we are both passionate about the business and continuing our success.
“When I started at the original Flower Drum in Little Bourke Street, the restaurant and kitchen were smaller, the ingredients were harder to source, and staff were fewer than we have today. Today, at our new location in Market Lane, the team is bigger and we’re catering for more customers than ever with a constantly expanding menu. The nice thing is that we are still serving some customers from the original Flower Drum some of the dishes we did for them back then!
“My greatest achievement is that I have honed my skills to provide the food that so many people love. It gives me the greatest pleasure to see my guests coming here time and again to enjoy my food. It’s validation for all the hard work and effort I put into everything associated with the restaurant.
“At present, I’m working on some new dishes and continuing to find ways to look after our customers and staff. I truly believe that to be successful, one should not only work on the business but in the business.”