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Media interviews are not among Alfred Leung's favourite things. The head honcho of the Imperial Treasure Restaurant Group is famously reticent when it comes to the culinary press, even though he has a track record that many restaurateurs would give their right arms - and Grandma's secret recipe -for. He prefers to let the food do the talking.
Mr Leung, 63, has been a fixture on Singapore's Chinese fine-dining scene since he opened Crystal Jade in the now-defunct Cairnhill Hotel in 1991. By the beginning of the millennium Crystal Jade had become the leading Chinese restaurant group in town but Mr Leung left following a breakup with business partner and brother-in-law Ip Yiu Tung - they haven't spoken to each other since. In 2004, together with wife Hera and brothers Vincent and Jimmy, he founded Imperial Treasure and continued raising the bar on Hong Kong-style Chinese cuisine - incorporating authentic Teochew, Cantonese and Shanghainese dishes - while also providing a classy modern environment to dine in. No tasselled red lanterns or Imperial guardian lions here - instead, interiors (by Japanese firm Spin Design Studio) are decorated with contemporary art and feature customised wine chillers. The group's original dragon logo has made way for a shiny designer font depicting the characters 'Yu Bao' - signalling a further raising of that bar.
In June last year, Mr Leung sold a majority stake to Malaysia-based private equity firm Navis Capital (for a reported S$60-$80 million), but he still runs the show when it comes to the restaurants (32 and counting by the end of 2016). There's surely a method to his manners: after opening the first overseas branch in Shanghai in 2012, Mr Leung has been steadily expanding the brand in China, with Guangzhou and Hong Kong next in line, then Seoul next year and Paris in 2018. Imperial Treasure Tokyo is also in the cards. If all goes according to Mr Leung's master plan, premium quality Chinese cuisine is coming to a city near you - and that's just fine with him.
Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine just opened at Ion Orchard a few days ago, the group's 25th Singapore restaurant. Why does it have special significance? Our first restaurant was Imperial Treasure Teochew Cuisine at Ngee Ann City, in 2004, so this new opening represents the second generation of that first restaurant. Of course everything is different now, the new restaurant is almost double in size and it's an upgrade over the original in terms of choice, service and ambience - we always want to offer something more. It's the first restaurant with our new logo; I designed the original logo but a branding consultant has repackaged it to make the brand more refined, premium and accessible in international markets.
The Imperial Treasure brand has been synonymous with quality, consistency and a high level dining experience. With a fast-growing portfolio and your reputation for being a hands-on CEO with a penchant for details, will you have too much on your hands - and is it inevitable that standards will drop? As far as the restaurant operation goes, everything is still the same with no major changes; all the (830 full-time) staff in the group have stayed on and are constantly working together. I am still very hands-on, I still discuss everything with the chefs, decide on the menus, work on the décor. As for food quality we're not sure where some of the complaints in the market come from. Of course, there are always food and service complaints from customers; we go down to the outlet, talk to chefs, see what went wrong -we have never stopped doing this, working to maintain quality. My daily routine remains the same: mornings in the office, food tastings at lunchtime; I visit outlets in the afternoon and talk to staff. I'm always thinking about overseas projects and it's more exciting than before - also harder than before. The main thing is I'm very passionate about Chinese fine dining, and motivated all the time by feedback from regulars and other customers.
You were born in Hong Kong and have been in the F&B in industry since you were 16. Describe your journey so far and how the Chinese restaurant industry has changed in Singapore. My first job was as a bartender at a Swiss restaurant called Islander in Wanchai; after a year I got a better salary as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant at the Hotel Fortuna in Kowloon. I worked in various places including a restaurant called Crystal Jade (no relation) - the last was a Chinese restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui - before coming to Singapore in 1981, where I worked at Happy Valley restaurant in Singapore Shopping Centre.
Since 1981, diners have become more sophisticated. In the past, guests were just looking for good food but restaurants didn't offer more in terms of ambience and service - now, we try to provide the best dining experience. The quality of food has also improved, people travel around and are more exposed to different things and now there are many ingredients from all over the world. I enjoy coming up with new dishes and I've introduced things like caviar with egg white, deep fried diced Iberico pork collar, and steamed Alaskan king crab meat wrapped in egg white skin.
Do you intend to slow down and take some time to smell the roses, perhaps tick a few things off the bucket list? My son Kenny grew up around Chinese restaurants, he joined the group about four years ago and helps me to develop the business, work on new projects. I'm always thinking about new ideas, expansion plans and overseas projects. Now, it's more exciting than before - but also harder than before. The main thing is I'm very passionate about Chinese fine dining, and motivated all the time by feedback from regulars and other customers. Bucket list? I haven't thought about it - I'm just thinking about the business non-stop. I don't cook so all the time for me it's just eat - and talk.