A quote from a Chinese-American friend in Hong Kong: ‘It infuriates me that people always think that Chinese food should be cheap – it’s racist, it’s ignorant. They don’t understand that Chinese cooking techniques are just as complex as those used in French cuisine. I have sent friends in San Francisco to really good Chinese restaurants – and these are people who know about food – and they have complained that “it’s so expensive”. Even in Hong Kong, you find some Hong Kong Chinese people who are willing to spend a lot on French food, but not on Chinese food.’
The roots of this prejudice must surely lie in the fact that one of the main selling points of Chinese food in the West, in the early days of Chinese immigration, was its low price. In his new book, Chop Suey, Andrew Coe writes about the ‘all you can eat for a dollar’ meals offered by Chinese restaurant in North America in the 19th Century. And Chinese cooking was always best known in the UK for the cheap takeaway.
In London, a turning point in the fortunes of Chinese food was the opening of Alan Yau’s Hakkasan in 2001. Finally, here was a Chinese restaurant so deeply glamorous, so utterly cool, that people were willing to pay European-food prices. He made things a lot easier for other entrepreneurs, including the owner of the restaurant for which I act as consultant, Barshu.
But do westerners in general see Chinese food, even at the highest levels, as something that should be cheaper than, say, French or Italian?
N.B. I’m reminded, here, of the astonishment of three Sichuanese chefs at the price of a simple lunch in the Chez Panisse cafe in Berkeley a few years ago. They couldn’t believe anyone would pay so much for ‘simple, homestyle food’! I’ve no doubt, however, that they would have been willing to shell out a fortune on a shark’s fin or some aged pu’er tea.