Recipes For Success
We sit down with award-winning restaurateur Ricky Ng at Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House, as he serves up insights on the F&B industry, culinary innovation, and the secrets behind his company's success.
There is an old idea – attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Archilocus – that separates individuals into two distinct groups: hedgehogs and foxes.
According to this worldview, people who are like foxes know many little ideas, while people who are like hedgehogs have a deep understanding of one important concept.
I believe that the Ancient Greeks would have had a damnably hard time making sense of an individual with the depth and breadth of knowledge that Ricky Ng possesses.
The 45-year-old, award-winning restaurateur may have a profound understanding of the culinary world, but he is also a savvy businessman, a veteran manager and a consummate storyteller, one who employs flavours instead of words to connect with his audience.
“We try to create a story with every dish,” Ricky shares with me. We're seated at Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House at Tanjong Pagar Centre, the newest restaurant from Blue Lotus Concepts International. Light, airy and spacious, the restaurant's Pop Art-inspired decor sits comfortably alongside more traditional Chinese touches like white denodrobium orchids and plumped silken pillows.
“Today in our society, our hand phones eat first” Ricky continues. “We take pictures, post stories on Instagram. Most food do not strike enough conversation with the diner. That's not what we want. We want dining that's colourful, cheerful, that tells a story.”
It certainly seems like a successful model for innovating Chinese cuisine; since Ricky founded Blue Lotus Concepts International in 2012, the brand has won high praise from food critics and consumers alike, alongside a trove of awards from such establishments as Wine & Dine, Singapore Tatler and the World Gourmet Summit.
The brand now includes Blue Lotus Noodle House at Science Park, Blue Lotus Chinese Eating House at Sentosa, and Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House at Tanjong Pagar Centre, with plans to open two more outlets in 2017, and to expand abroad in 2018.
Serving Up Stories
You could say that Ricky Ng was born into the world of food, in the same way that a fish is born into water.
“My whole family is in F&B,” the restaurateur tells me, with quiet pride. “My grandfather was the first executive chef at Hong Kong Airport in the 60s, and five of my six uncles are in the hotel line. You could say I was born into this.”
Ricky left Hong Kong for Perth at the age of 14, where he studied a course in hospitality management. After working in restaurants and hotels in Australia and Hong Kong, he came to Singapore, where he joined the Tung Lok Group, rising from assistant manager to Chief Operating Officer over the course of 15 years.
While researching this story, I had learned that the name 'Blue Lotus' was inspired by the name of an opium den from the iconic Tin Tin comics, by Belgian cartoonist Hergé. Ricky chuckles when I quiz him on this. “So far we've been lucky: 60 percent of our clients become return guests,” he says. “After the first time, they get addicted to us.”
While the Blue Lotus brand centres on creating fun dining experiences for customers, it is apparent that, to Ricky, the goal of modernizing Chinese cuisine is serious business.
“I might offend a lot of people by saying this, but the value of Chinese food is not being recognised,” he shares. “Let's say you go to an Italian restaurant and have Aglio Olio pasta – garlic, chilli, olive oil, salt. Let's say that white truffle is in season. Here, I'll shave it for you: 'Sir, 10 grams, 20 grams'. You're prepared to pay $80 for that dish.”
“But today, if I do the exact same thing, except the noodles are wan ton noodles, and the sauce is oyster sauce – made in the kitchen, not from a bottle – and I charge you the same amount, you'll think I'm crazy.”
The passion Ricky has for his craft becomes evident when I ask him how restaurateurs can change this situation: “For Chinese cuisine, I don't think we should short change our customers by giving them lower quality food. We should put our heart and soul into our cooking, and educate our customers.”
Not Your Grandpa's Chinese Food
While the Ancient Greeks would have been flummoxed by the range of Ricky's skills, the Ancient Chinese would likely have been confused by the culinary offerings at each of the Blue Lotus restaurants, which Ricky defines as “New Age Chinese Food”.
A quick glance the menu at Blue Lotus Chinese Grill reveals a host of innovative-sounding dishes such as 'Grilled Barramundi, Assam Curry' and 'Crab Balls, Chilli Pomelo Sauce'. Certainly not what you'd call staples of traditional Chinese cuisine.
I ask Ricky if he has benchmarks for what to preserve from Chinese cuisine's thousand year old heritage, and what to innovate, and he succinctly characterises his approach as “Western techniques with Asian flavours”.
“What we're doing isn't fusion. These days, fusion has become 'confusion',” he laughs. “Everyone's trying to do it. But if you want to call yourself Chinese cuisine, the taste should never change.”
These days, 'fusion' has become 'confusion'... but if you want to call yourself Chinese cuisine, the taste should never change.
Ricky's decision to employ Western culinary techniques to create Asian flavours is one that stems from both practicality as well as passion. “It's difficult to get the new generation to join F&B,” Ricky tells me, when I ask him if manpower poses a problem for him, as it does for most restaurateurs. “Especially for Chinese cuisine. Chinese kitchens are structured differently from Western kitchens: There are five different departments – [such as] dim sum, barbeque and banquet – and you have to master the skills from each department. It takes 20-30 years to become a master chef in Chinese cuisine.”
Unlike traditional Chinese restaurants, Blue Lotus Chinese Grill House's kitchen is split into hot and cold sections, and it employs only one Chinese-trained chef.
“95 percent of our food is from the grill, and the rest is from the steamer or the combination oven,” Ricky tells me. “Only 3 dishes come from my wok. We work closely with [culinary] schools, and this allows students on attachment to join our sections straight away if we employ them.”
Marrying Western techniques to Asian flavours isn't the sole reason for the success of Blue Lotus's restaurants. To Ricky, it boils down to a customer-driven approach towards evolving his food offerings.
“The traditional approach towards creating dishes is to look at raw produce, check the pricing, fix the dish [in the style the chef is trained in], and then serve it to the customer,” Ricky says. “But I take a reverse approach. Let's say you're my customer. I'd ask you: 'Raphael, what do you like to eat? Which restaurants do you patronise besides Blue Lotus?” If 50% of the people I ask say they like Italian food, I'll try to understand if it's the pizza, or the pasta, or the seafood dishes. And once I understand my market, I'll slowly modify my menu from there.”
Secret Sauce: Insights Into F&B
While a deep understanding of food is essential for restaurateurs, it doesn't fully encapsulate the skillset required to thrive in the F&B industry.
I ask Ricky for business insights into what makes the Blue Lotus brand successful, and the veteran restaurateur is quick to share his belief on the importance of keeping one's nose to the ground, and being alert to his customer's needs. “The most satisfaction I get from running my own business is from being hands on,” he shares. “In the corporate world, by the time a complaint reaches you, the damage could already have been done.”
Ultimately, it seems like a large portion of Blue Lotus's success stems not just from Ricky's business acumen, but his philosophy towards connecting with his handpicked team, and treating them as collaborators in his endeavour.
“We want to make people part of the team, and for each of our outlets, I have a working partner,” Ricky shares. “Knowledge is not the most important thing, but rather the person's character. I like people who don't take no for an answer, and who presents customers with solutions, not problems.”
I ask him what final words of advice he has for younger chefs and restaurateurs, and he laughs, evidently reluctant to offend others with his self-perceived bluntness.
“You can't come into F&B because you have no other choice and expect to succeed.” He finally relents. “Take pride in being in F&B. Once you reach a certain level, the cooking should come naturally to you. At that level, it's about people: Making your team feel comfortable with each other, and what your brand hopes to accomplish.”
Attractive $18 3-course set lunch is available at Blue Lotus.