French chef Pierre Gagnaire used to get invited all the time to open a restaurant in Shanghai.
“I did not think the market was ready then,” he recalls.
But now Gagnaire, the holder of three Michelin stars, believes that, like a fine wine, the Chinese palate has matured and is ready for his high-end Parisian flavours.
With that in mind, he recently opened his first restaurant on the mainland and has extended by two years the contract for his eatery on the top floor of Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
The city of Shanghai has grown more mature and sophisticated
Pierre Gagnaire, chef
“It is fantastic to do business in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The customers in both cities love dining out and they appreciate the spirit of good food and wine,” the 67-year-old told the South China Morning Post in an exclusive interview.
“A few years ago, many companies invited me to open a restaurant in Shanghai but I did not think the market was ready.
“But now, I think the market in Shanghai is ready for fine dining. The city has developed into a more mature market. I can source high quality food ingredients and wine supply, the local staff are very professional and most importantly, the customers love the high quality of French cuisine.”
His Shanghai eatery, named Le Comptoir de Pierre Gagnaire is in the Capella Hotel, part of a historic building in the French Concession area.
Mainland China has seen a shift towards haute cuisine in recent years, as an increasingly well-off middle class abandons fast food in favour of expensive restaurants.
The trend has been particularly visible lately, with the announcement by Hong Kong-based Cafe de Coral that it is closing all its branches in the east of China. Fairwood, another Hong Kong fast-food giant, has drastically reduced its mainland outlets in the last three years.
Why mainlanders have lost their appetite for Hong Kong’s fast food
But Gagnaire believes it’s about more than just affluence. Chinese diners, he says, have become more refined in their tastes, and are making fine dining a part of an increasingly sophisticated lifestyle.
For this reason, he doesn’t think a slowdown in the economy would dent mainlanders’ appetite for eating good food in opulent surroundings.
“The city of Shanghai has grown more mature and sophisticated. The lifestyle has changed so that people like to enjoy fine French dining,” he said, adding that he has no plans to open in other mainland cities yet. “Quality is more important than quantity,” he said.
Gagnaire, who owns 14 restaurants worldwide, opened his Hong Kong establishment, Pierre, 11 years ago, and it has attracted the city’s movers and shakers ever since. On Monday he committed himself until the end of 2019 with a new contract.
He said many of his Hong Kong customers have become his “good friends”, and a lot of them have visited his other outlets around the world. His restaurants, which span cities including Paris, London, Las Vegas, Tokyo and Danang, boast 17 Michelin stars between them.
Michelin chef earns his stars outside kitchen, too
For Gagnaire, part of the appeal of taking his brand global is that it enables him to provide more opportunities for young chefs. Each of his kitchens has three main chefs from France, while the rest are hired locally.
Even at 67 years of age, he has no intention of retiring. “I enjoy creating new dishes for the customers, which is the most exciting thing in the world.”