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The Biggest Restaurant in the World

December 4, 2008

Two nights ago SBS in Australia broadcast a programme about the West Lake Restaurant in China’s Hunan Province. The largest Chinese restaurant in the world.

Normally I avoid any television programme on China like the plague. They are usually dull, formulaic and made by someone who has spent the sum total of 2 days in China before making an opinion based on their own preconceptions of what it should be like.

However, this one was a little different. The narrator kept well out and pretty much just left the restaurant to tell its own story. One could take many different angles for a piece about this place but I wanted to dwell on a couple of issues; the Chinese obsession with food and that of pointless western bias.

Now, I know that the Chinese tend to get rather excited over ‘the biggest/ tallest/ longest/ widest’ whatever. There is a definite desire to catch up with the rest of the world and show them ‘strong China’ but the remarkable thing about the largest restaurant in the world is precisely that it is quite unremarkable if you have spent any time in China.

It is certainly larger than any other that I have been to but not greatly so. I can think of ten mega restaurants off hand that would be at least half as big. The Chinese take their food very seriously indeed and this is one area in which poor quality is never tolerated.

To see 300 chefs getting through 3 tons of vegetables, 2 tons of pork and nearly 1 ton of chilli peppers (this is Hunan after all) per week was quite an impressive sight, and this is replicated on a smaller scale in thousands of restaurants across every city in China.

The sheer logistics of growing that much food is mind boggling, that there are as few health scares as there are is frankly a miracle. I will not go into the issues surrounding the Chinese food chain in this post and save that for another day.

What I will say is that if you are doing business in China and you do not like, do not understand and do not get involved in food then you are going to have a very tough time indeed. The basic rules of human rapport suggest that if you do not value the same things you will find it hard to get along. If you want to get along with the Chinese then food is always going to be the simplest meeting point.

Get to know your way around a Chinese menu- learn some names, suggest some great dishes when asked if there is anything that you would like.

Try everything. Yes, even the weird stuff, it is unlikely to kill you.

It always amazes me how many experienced China travellers still cannot order a meal for 20 that is balanced in taste, correct in cost and impresses their guests. Get some lessons, ask questions and show interest- I can guarantee you that even when sitting next to the most important Chinese officials they will never tire of talking about food and they will like you for it.

To come to my second point, when doing a little research for this article I found this review on the British Independent newspaper which just shows some of the ridiculous bias of the western media towards China at times.

The article picks up on animal cruelty- deep fried live fish in particular. Personally i am a little squeamish about animal cruelty and am an ardent pet lover but i completely fail to see how dunking a live fish in boiling oil is in any way more cruel than dropping a live lobster in a pot of boiling water.

The article then turned to the Communist Party’s grip on money and power:

“Mrs Qin, naturally, was a member of good standing in the local Communist Party, along with most of Hunan’s other self-made millionaires. Eat your hearts out, Halliburton and Blackwater: when it comes to the profitable manipulation of government power, the Communist Party of China is the biggest cartel in the world, and Storyville’s fascinating film gave you a glimpse of just what it can be capable of when it gets going.”

I agree, the CCP is probably the biggest cartel in the world, they have a tremendous grip on China’s economy but the granting of licenses to open a restaurant on what was a piece of wasteland is hardly the same as drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. In China connections matter, connections make things possible and clearly Mrs Qin has a lot of connections.

However, you could look at it another way, the Mayor would have known Mrs Qin’s character and believed in her vision thus entrusting the development of that area to someone who can get the job done. Mrs Qin then put in the hard work, implemented the vision and had the skill to manage that many people. That is in no way corrupt or detrimental to the people of China.

There is so much scope to bash China if you really want to do so. I’ll never understand why people pick such silly things to have a go at.

When it comes to advice on China The Independent is probably best left where it belongs. In the recycle bin.

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