The constant century

Photo: Arunas Klupsas

Photo: Arunas Klupsas

For nearly 30 years, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown has remained a favourite among that city’s notoriously fickle diners thanks to its resolute constituency, writes John Burfitt.

Over lunch inside his Golden Century Seafood restaurant, Eric Wong is deep in conversation about the importance of consistency and tradition in running his business, when a commotion is suddenly heard outside.

With that, Eric excuses himself and heads downstairs to stand at the front steps of the restaurant in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown to await what is causing all the noise; a Chinese lion dance, complete with loud drums and accompanying dancers, is making its way along Sussex Street.

Eric waits patiently and as the dragon approaches, greets it with a smile and feeds it with a symbolic lettuce that hangs over the entryway.

“According to Chinese tradition, a visit from a lion is a symbol of good luck and signifies stability,” Eric says. “It’s a part of the tradition that we have always loved about being in Chinatown.”

Considering that Golden Century Seafood has been in business under the ownership of Eric and his wife, Linda, since they arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong in 1989, it’s safe to assume that taking the courting of good luck seriously is a regular ritual for the Wongs. It has certainly worked, as has the approach of working seven days a week for many years over those decades.

Such an unrelenting approach to ritual, tradition and consistency that Eric applies to his business has paid off, he explains as we head back up the stairs to continue our lunch.

“If you keep the same tastes and the same standards, and people can be confident that the food is the same and as good as they remember it from the last visit, they will keep coming back to you,” he says.

Consistency is what Eric and Linda have based their business model on for almost three decades. Golden Century has long been one of the great establishments of Sydney’s Chinatown, hosting a busy dining room most lunches and a perennial late night dining spot, staying open until the early hours.

Eric and Linda have remained in charge all that time. It’s also had the same executive chef Lee Ho calling the shots in the various kitchens. Ten of the front-of-house staff have been working with them since that first day, servicing a large number of repeat customers who are regular diners.

“For me, it remains one big learning process. Growing up in a restaurant is very different to working in one to now running one.”—Billy Wong, Golden Century

Golden Century has also offered the same core menu of 250 dishes of Cantonese cuisine, of which Eric estimates 80 per cent has remained the same. And there has been consistency as well with the diners, with Linda claiming they are now feeding the third generation of some families.

“We have always focused on consistency as that is what has kept us in business,” Linda explains. “People like to know if they are coming here, they can rely on us to provide the same tastes, the same experience they had here the last time, and that created a good memory for them. They really don’t like it when we change the menu, so we don’t.

“We have a seasonal menu that changes in summer and winter, but if you came here and loved the crab dish 10 years ago, you can rest assured it will be served the same way with the taste you loved on your next visit too.”

Recent years have also marked a time of new chapters of consistency for the Wongs. Their youngest son, Billy, joined the family business four years ago, after a career in banking and finance, to open the family’s second business, the fine diner, The Century, at The Star complex—a restaurant their eldest son, Hong Kong-based designer Alex, designed. Both Billy and Alex were just little boys when the family arrived in Sydney, and literally grew up in the family restaurant, completing homework at corner tables as their parents set up for the evening sittings around them.

The Century and Golden Century competed against each other for the title of Best Chinese Restaurant (NSW) at 2015’s Restaurant and Catering Awards for Excellence. The Century took the NSW title as well as the national award for Best Chinese restaurant in Australia.

While The Century at The Star took the menu and model of Golden Century at Chinatown and tweaked it so it appeals to a higher-end clientele, Billy explains the same principles are the foundations for both businesses. And appealing to the latest trends, be it Portuguese fusion or Mexican inspiration, is not part of the game here.

“The way we look at it, the latest fads and trends in foods are like going on holidays,” Billy says. “It may be different, novel, fun and enjoyable, but then you come home again—and we like to think Golden Century is like coming home.

“There is a familiarity about home where you know what you are going to get and what you can rely on. And in many ways, you crave it.”

The Wongs estimate their clientele is 60 per cent locals and 40 per cent national and international visitors. The rollcall of star names who have dined inside the restaurant include such music and screen luminaries as Lady Gaga, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman and the Rolling Stones. Prime Ministers Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard all dined here too, as did former US President George H. Bush and royalty from Thailand, Morocco and Tonga.

Even Chinese President Xi Jinping requested Golden Century cook dinner for him during his 2014 Australian visit.

Playing host these days to world leaders and the celebrity elite in not one but two restaurants marks a long road from the beginnings Eric and Linda had when they arrived from Hong Kong in 1989. Linda had a 10-year background in restaurants, while Eric had worked as a branch manager in a city bank. Within two weeks of landing in Sydney, they walked into Golden Century and got to work.

To manage the business in those days, Eric recalls he would open up at 10am, and work through to 2pm, when he would leave to sleep in his car for two hours. At 4pm, he would return to the restaurant and work through until closing at 4am.

Golden Century is beloved by the world's best chefs. From left: Eric Wong, David Chang (Momofuku), Rene Redzepi (Noma) and Linda Wong

Golden Century is beloved by the world’s best chefs. From left: Eric Wong, David Chang (Momofuku), Rene Redzepi (Noma) and Linda Wong

“Before doing that, we talked and talked about this as we knew it was going to be very hard for those first two years,” Eric recalls. “So we came into this knowing it was going to be difficult, and because we were prepared, we were able to cope with it through those early years.

“It had been a decision that had been made by us—no one forced this upon us. If it is your business and you make the decision to make it work, then you must follow up to ensure it is a success.”

As Eric and Linda recount the tales of those challenging early days, starting a new business in a foreign country when their language skills were at a minimum and they had two young sons to also care for, what is telling is that a smile never leaves their faces. These are stories of adventure, not hardship, for this couple. Linda adds they were among the most exciting days they had in business.

“If you are in the food and restaurant game, working 14 hours a day, and if you think that is a problem, then that is a hard way to live,” she says. “The thing about us is we have loved it all the way along. If you love the food, love your team and love working with customers, that will make you very happy—and this makes us happy.

“But you also need to ask of yourself what you ask of your team—you need to do your best every day, no matter what your role is. And always remind everyone if we all do our best, then business will remain good and we continue.”

The decision for Billy to join the business four years ago came about after many discussions within the family. While Billy, now a man in his 30s with a young family of his own, had enjoyed success for years in banking before steering the new venture of The Century, his standing within the restaurant team—who had known him since he was a little boy—proved to be a major consideration for Eric.

“It was all about timing,” Erica says. “Billy went into banking and learned a whole new way of business, so when he came back to the Golden Century, he had his own ideas and saw things in a different way, which was so important.

“At this stage, I feel very comfortable now as the staff know Billy is no longer a boy, and have seen he has done a very good job here. I now know when I retire, they will feel very confident in his managerial style and what he
can achieve.”

His father’s words of confidence obviously strike at Billy as our lunch draws to a close. “This is the first time I have heard this,” Billy smiles. “But for me, it remains one big learning process. Growing up in a restaurant is very different to working in one to now running one.”

And these are the lessons that are now driving him every day.

“What growing up around this did teach me is that you must take care of the smaller details as I have seen how one small thing can impact so much—everything in this mechanism is all interlocked,” he explains.

“You can have the best chef and the best service in town, yet still have a bad business. It is really about taking care of all the smaller details so they add up to what your business is really about. There is always work to be done.”

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