TASTES OF HOME

Founder of Miche­lin-starred res­tau­rant in Sin­ga­pore is still guided by dream of tak­ing Pu­tian cui­sine to the world The dishes we show­case from the city of Pu­tian mir­ror what the farm­ers there eat on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, such as on the first day of the lunar

China Daily (USA) - - PEOPLE - By LOW SHI PING For China Daily

In the in­au­gu­ral, 2016 edi­tion of the Miche­lin Guide Sin­ga­pore, Pu­tien on Sin­ga­pore’s Kitch­ener Road was awarded a cov­eted Miche­lin star.

The pres­ti­gious guide de­scribed the ser­vice as “friend­lier than in many sim­i­larly sim­ple restau­rants”, with food “fresh and tasty”.

For Fong Chi Chung, CEO and founder of Pu­tien Hold­ings Sin­ga­pore, the par­ent com­pany be­hind the Pu­tien res­tau­rant brand, the ac­co­lade is a ma­jor pat on the back.

“I was of course very happy to hear the news. This is ev­ery chef and restau­ra­teur’s high­est am­bi­tion,” he said, speak­ing from his of­fice and head­quar­ters above the flag­ship res­tau­rant.

What makes the win even more re­mark­able is that prior to start­ing Pu­tien, Fong had no ex­pe­ri­ence in the res­tau­rant busi­ness.

Fong’s Pu­tien res­tau­rant brand emerged after he moved to Sin­ga­pore from Pu­tian, a coastal city in East China’s Fu­jian prov­ince, in 2000 with his broth­ers to launch a fac­tory mak­ing elec­tronic parts. Miss­ing the food from his home­town, he opened the Kitch­ener Road res­tau­rant, guided by a dream of in­tro­duc­ing Pu­tian cui­sine to the world.

That first outlet is now one of 25 Pu­tien restau­rants he owns across Asia, in cities in­clud­ing Shang­hai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Jakarta and Petaling Jaya in Malaysia.

Ear­lier this year, the Miche­lin Guide in­spec­tors were so im­pressed by Fong’s Cause­way Bay branch in Hong Kong that they awarded it a Bib Gour­mand award — re­served for places serv­ing qual­ity food at af­ford­able prices.

Al­though Pu­tian cui­sine is not one of the renowned eight great re­gional cuisines of China, Fong and the Miche­lin awards are help­ing to in­tro­duce the unique fla­vors to the masses.

“The dishes we show­case from the city of Pu­tian mir­ror what the farm­ers there eat on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, such as on the first day of the lunar new year, or when they need to make of­fer­ings to the gods,” ex­plained Fong, 47.

“It might not be made from the fan­ci­est in­gre­di­ents, but they are the fresh­est from the sea and land. There­fore, the use of sea­son­ing is min­i­mal.”

Nat­u­rally, most of the items used on Pu­tien’s menu are im­ported from the city it­self.

One of the sig­na­ture dishes is lor mee, noo­dles braised in a thick, fla­vor­ful pork broth and served with prawns, clams and slices of pork.

Then there is the bian rou (won­ton) soup with vine­gar. Bian rou is a spe­cialty dish from Fu­jian dat­ing back more than 500 years. The del­i­cate won­ton wrap­pers are made by pound­ing and rolling pork meat for hours un­til it be­comes pa­per thin.

An­other must-or­der dish is the baked golden shell clams, served on a hot plate, neatly ar­ranged in a row atop a mound of sea salt.

“We im­port th­ese from Duo Tou vil­lage in Pu­tian. The clams are spe­cial be­cause they are bred in black mud so you will never find sand in­side their shells,” said Fong.

And it is not just the clams that have Chi­nese ori­gins. The res­tau­rant’s ver­mi­celli, made from nong­lu­tious rice flour, also has an in­ter­est­ing back­story.

The orig­i­nal sup­pli­ers were a hus­band and wife who would rise at 3 am ev­ery

CEO and founder of Pu­tien Hold­ings Sin­ga­pore

morn­ing to check the weather. If a clear day was ex­pected, they would lay out the noo­dles to dry in the sun.

As the day pro­gressed, they would move the noo­dles de­pend­ing on where the sun­light fell di­rectly.

“The cou­ple has since re­tired, but not be­fore they passed on their skills to their work­ers so they can con­tinue sup­ply­ing to us,” re­vealed Fong.

The re­sult is ver­mi­celli that is fluffy and fine, but not brit­tle. Be­ing sun­dried helps it re­tain its mois­ture longer to give it a springy tex­ture.

Fong said that be­ing un­fa­mil­iar with the res­tau­rant busi­ness and with no lo­cal con­tacts, the learn­ing curve was steep.

His method to search for sup­pli­ers was sim­ple but ef­fec­tive. While su­per­viz­ing the ren­o­va­tions of the unit he was rent­ing, he would stand by the road­side and wait for de­liv­ery vans to drive by.

Copy­ing down their phone num­bers, he would then call them to in­quire if they could sup­ply to him.

“I fig­ured if they are driv­ing by Kitch­ener Road, they will not mind mak­ing a stop at my res­tau­rant to de­liver pro­duce.”

He was also very spe­cific about the menu. “I only wanted 30 dishes, all of which are ones I like, and unique to my home­town.”

Fong de­vel­oped the menu by re­ly­ing on tastes and fla­vors from mem­ory, and worked with chefs to ad­just the steps and in­gre­di­ents to his sat­is­fac­tion.

Th­ese recipes, as well as ser­vice stan­dards, would later be doc­u­mented as stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures, to be repli­cated as the group ex­pands.

Fong’s first res­tau­rant out­side of Sin­ga­pore opened in Jakarta in 2006, and he shows no signs of re­treat­ing from fur­ther ex­pan­sion.

“Many peo­ple dis­cour­aged me from ex­pand­ing. They said that Pu­tian is a small area in China and thought a res­tau­rant serv­ing food from there will not be able to com­pete against other well-es­tab­lished cuisines.

“But I de­cided to go ahead any­way. I wanted my staff, who have fol­lowed me for all those years, to have a de­vel­op­ment path. I also de­vel­oped con­fi­dence from the sup­port I had from In­ter­na­tional En­ter­prise Sin­ga­pore and Spring Sin­ga­pore.”

Both are govern­ment agen­cies that help lo­cal busi­nesses grow and in­ter­na­tion­al­ize.

Fong also en­cour­ages in­for­mal in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tions. “Train­ing alone is not enough. Hav­ing com­pe­ti­tions will bring our stan­dards to the next level.”

For in­stance, ev­ery three months, Pu­tien cooks gather and pre­pare a set dish to com­pete on taste. The win­ner will share his tech­nique so that the oth­ers can learn — a creative way of shar­ing best prac­tices.

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Fong is up­beat on fur­ther ex­pan­sion. “The re­sponse from din­ers in Hong Kong and Shang­hai has been very pos­i­tive,” he re­vealed, which en­cour­ages him to eye fur­ther growth in China.

An outlet in Bei­jing will be es­tab­lished this year, and an­other in the south­ern city of Shen­zhen in 2017. Come 2018, he in­tends to launch in sec­ondtier cities, which will in­clude bring­ing the chain to his home prov­ince of Fu­jian.

Out­side of China, Fong is ea­ger to set up in coun­tries with strong Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties, such as Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and the United States.

cities.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Fong Chi Chung, CEO of Pu­tien Hold­ings Sin­ga­pore, is up­beat on fur­ther ex­pan­sion of his res­tau­rant chain .

ZHANG WEI / CHINA DAILY

Dereck Ji says a chan­nel econ­omy can be a so­lu­tion for many

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