An exhausted Gilbert Lau slept most of the flight to Hong Kong last Christmas Day. His famous restaurant Flower Drum in Market Lane had enjoyed an extra busy November and December and Gilbert was looking forward to some rest before the onslaught this month of Chinese New Year.
Head Chef, Anthony Lui Poi, and his family were also flying to Hong Kong, courtesy of Gilbert. Anthony has worked at The Flower Drum since 1981 as part of the loyal team Gilbert has developed around him. Kevin Wong, Tom Lew and Phillip Chan have all been with Gilbert for 23 years and Shannon Chan, a mere 20 years.
They are The Flower Drum, says Gilbert . . . and a bit of me. But I'm too lazy now I only work 60-65 hours, usually it was about 90.
When The Flower Drum started in 1975, there was no counting of the hours. Gilbert simply worked all the time. For at least 2 years, I worked without a day off.
Gilbert still wants to put in all the hours but finds the strain too much now. His drive for perfection and his enthusiasm for refining his dishes and getting better ingredients never stops. Even during his holiday in Hong Kong he was at work.
I brought a lot back with me. My friends gave me inspiration, they passed on lots of really useful ideas which I'm working on now. Gilbert also did the shopping for his Chinese New Year special dishes, all the dry goods, the fish maw, the dry scallops. His menu will be very traditional because, that's what the New Year is about. But I am working on different arrangements of the dishes with more quality ingredients and more professionally done. It is hard to imagine how the dishes at The Flower Drum could be improved. With a highly skilled and well experienced team of around 60 (at least 25 in the kitchen and 30 on the floor) the food and service in unmatched in Australia.
Gilbert, being too modest, doesn't count himself as a great chef. Those who've enjoyed his superb Cantonese dishes would disagree. He first started working in the kitchen when he was 16 at the Wing Sun (then at the top of Bourke Street) and has not stopped. He worked in restaurants in Canada and North America in the 60's and also spent three years in Hong Kong working for Lane Crawford and for Cathay Pacific in the reservations department.
I learnt booking systems there, that's why we book the restaurant so well, he laughed. But for Gilbert his love has always been hospitality, working with people. I could never really do anything else, I couldn't work behind a counter.
Working well with people seems to come very naturally to Gilbert. He is always ready to welcome his guests, recognising people who may not have visited The Flower Drum for a dozen years, or even before that, at The Empress of China, which he started with Ken Louey in 1971. They know him, so he must recognise them.
And he remembers them even when he is supposed to be on holiday as I saw him greeting Flower Drum customers on the Christmas Day Cathay flight we shared to Hong Kong. And once there Gilbert insisted on arranging meals for us, notably a special banquet featuring all sorts of amazing dishes at Tan Hei Hing in Causeway Bay with Mr Kam of the famous Yung Kee restaurant and with Willie Mark, Hong Kong's most illustrious gourmet, writer and judge for the Hong Kong Food Festival (an onerous task which I will be assisting him do in March).
But for Gilbert a holiday without thinking about food and about restaurants would be so boring that it would be more a torture than a rest. For him, sitting under the idealised palm tree relaxing is totally boring. Food, action, flames rising from the wok and satisfying hungry customers is his form of fun.
Alice, his wife, told us how when they went one year to Dunk Island for a holiday. Gilbert got so bored lying on the beach that he arranged an elaborate supper for about 60 of the staff on the island. He went and air freighted goods from Sydney and Melbourne, organised all the work and there he was sweating in a strange kitchen on his holiday. But, he was really enjoying it. He loves to work, he is never really happy when he's not working. He just can't relax.
A real love of food and a concern about the quality of everything that goes on his customers' plates has been part of Gilbert's professional life for the past, nearly 30 years.
The Flower Drum is more than a business. It is Gilbert Lau's passion and that makes it Australia's finest restaurant.
A 1999 interview (and recipes) with chef/owner Gilbert Lau.