Using disappointment as a spring to open his own restaurant
You worked your way to France and stayed there for more than four years, for it to end up like that… So what did you do after that?
I was really angry. We made up somehow and I decided that I wanted to open my own restaurant even if it were a small one. I would lose face if I didn’t.
From that moment, I focused all my energy on opening my place. I borrowed money from the bank and opened Stella Maris in Paris in April 1997. It was located about 30m from Champs Elysée and one and a half minute by foot from the Arc de Triomphe. It was the best location to see if I had what it took to succeed as a restaurateur.
How did you feel after achieving your long-cherished dream of opening a restaurant in Paris?
Because I went through so much, I was really motivated and fired up… but the beginning was actually really difficult. The media described me as a “baffling restaurant with no point”. I lost my confidence and thought that I lost my touch in the four and a half years of waiting around. I couldn’t pay back the money I borrowed from the bank. It was the first time in my life where I really felt like giving up. We opened in April but struggled until August.
In September when autumn started, the hunting season arrived. I had the inspiration to cook using game meat. I defiantly declared that if that didn’t work out, I’d pack up and go home.
As a result, my game meat dishes were well received and through word of mouth alone, my restaurant became 95% full. My restaurant started to gain momentum.
Was it smooth sailing for your restaurant from there?
In the following year, my recreation of the classic tête de veau en tortue became quite popular. It was even featured in the French magazine, Le Monde. This is an old classic dish made using a calf’s head and people were surprised that me, an Asian man, would make this dish. From then, the restaurant just took off (lol).
In 2000, I received the highest award from a group of food experts for a classic dish called lièvre à la royale, a dish made using wild hare. I obtained a score of 19 out of 20. The only other person who had this score was Joel Robuchon. I was over the moon when it happened. I thought that I had succeeded and it was time for me to go home.