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Harlan Goldstein.

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Josper grilled lamb chops.

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Harlan's crab cake.

Going for Gold

Perseverance - and healthy self-esteem - are key to the staying power of Hong Kong's original celebrity chef, Tay Suan Chiang discovers.
Dec 31, 2016 5:50 AM

Harlan Goldstein is your typical, larger-than-life New Yorker who has made his presence felt - for good or bad - in Hong Kong for the 20-plus years that he's been in the restaurant scene.

"My customers and staff love me, but not my competitors," he deadpans.

Chef Goldstein's practice of remembering each diner's quirks and preferences has endeared him to Hong Kong's elite, who have supported the string of restaurants he has opened over the years. "If a guy comes in three times a week, you have to recognise him, remember what he likes, and make him feel special," he says with his trademark candour.

The 56-year-old - who started out as a young boy in his uncle's New York restaurant and worked his way up to the kitchen of the three Michelin-starred La Francaise in Chicago - first came to Asia as the executive chef at Shangri-La's China World Hotel in Beijing.

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He hit career paydirt in 1992 when he was offered carte blanche to create a fine dining concept at Hong Kong's Aberdeen Marina Club.

As one of the first foreign chefs in Hong Kong, he calls himself the "number one celebrity chef of Hong Kong" - mostly for his ego, he freely admits.

But he certainly knew how to woo the bigwigs of the former British colony. In 2004, he opened Harlan's in IFC, which also became a hit and paved the way for three more off-venue concepts at IFC: H One, The Box and G Bar.

In 2008, he was reportedly forced out of the company by his partners, so he turned his attention to his next venture: Tuscany by H in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong.

It would be the start of a common pattern: the serial restaurateur opening flashy new restaurants and subsequently splitting with his partners. In May 2012, Strip House by Harlan Goldstein opened, followed by his flagship Gold by Harlan Goldstein, which became the ultimate place 'to see and be seen'.

Two years later, he opened Penthouse by Harlan Goldstein and Sushi To by Harlan Goldstein, both popular with celebrities from Jackie Chan and Leon Lai to tycoons Walter Kuok, Henry Tang, Stephen Ip and 'Mr Lan Kwai Fong' Allan Zeman. By 2015, his six-year partnership with Hong Kong entrepreneur Simon To was over.

Earlier this year, he was supposed to open four more restaurants with ZS Hospitality, but that has since fallen through. According to reports, the restaurant group said the chef resigned for health reasons.

Chef Goldstein however says that he was bought out for an undisclosed sum. This is the third time he has left establishments that he has founded.

The opening of his four restaurants was hailed as his comeback by the Hong Kong media. "Of course, I was disappointed that the deal fell through, but there was a smile on my face when I saw the cheque," he says.

Today, he is no longer affiliated with any of his restaurants. In the past month, he's been running his consultancy firm, Harlan Goldstein Concepts. He was in Singapore recently to helm a five-night cooking stint at UsQuBa - Grill and Whisky Bar. He is currently helping Sun International Properties open a resort in the Maldives.

He plans to open his own restaurant in mid-2017, a small 28-seater place, "where I'll be cooking with a couple of chefs, with about 20 dishes, not too big a menu, and a fun, neighbourhood place," he says. He will be running this restaurant on his own.

He doesn't rule out working with a partner to open future restaurants in Hong Kong, but says he would be more cautious with who he works with.

He will remain in Hong Kong, as he likes that it is "fast, dirty and stressful." Singapore is too organized, he finds.

Asked what has been a highlight in his career, and he says it has been his ability to bounce back from bad partnerships. Has he hit his low point then?

"I never hit my lowest point. I've still got a while to go," he declares.

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