Gilbert Lau is the great host of the Flower Drum, Melbourne, probably the finest restaurant in Australia. The Flower Drum serves classic Cantonese cuisine in a situation which is grand but not oppressive, with a large and highly professional staff.
Gilbert protested about being part of this book, saying that he is not a chef. Certainly he is to be seen out front of his restaurant rather than in the kitchen, but he is the driving force, he sets the pace, determines how and what will be served. Anthony Lui Poy is his head chef but Gilbert is the chief. And his leadership and the style and standards which he has achieved at Flower Drum provide the industry and the chefs and restaurateurs in this book with something to aspire to, and to enjoy when they are not working. It's important to have such an establishment as a point of reference and an inspiration.
The notion of greatness sits a bit uneasily in Australia. There often seems to be the suspicion that places and people can't be as good as they are cracked up to be. Well some of them just are, so let's celebrate them while we can. What we have in Gilbert Lau is someone who never stops striving to find the best tasting, best textured product for his cooking; who maintains a loyal family of staff to give the most professional service in the country; but above all who is the consummate host. Not only does he remember your last visit to his restaurant, but also who you were with and what you ate. If you and your guests have special preferences, he will source the ingredients. His timing when he approaches the table is impeccable, he remembers names, acknowledges sponsors and is always there at the right moment.
Gilbert is a regular traveller too and loves to check out the markets and restaurants wherever he goes. He makes several trips each year to Hong Kong where he gets inspiration and useful ideas and where he always does the shopping for his Chinese New Year special dishes; all the dry goods, the fish maw, the dry scallops. His menu on that occasion is always 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 (about 20 in the kitchen and a rotating team of 30 on the floor) the food and service is unmatched in Australia.
Gilbert explained that for a balanced Chinese menu, regardless of the size of the restaurant you need 1-2 cooks on the deep fryer, 1 to look after BBQ and roast, 1-2 doing preparation (the choppers), and two people to cook. That's for a small restaurant. "I have four for cooking, two at the deep fryer, two looking after the steaming and the fish, one for cutting and one to watch the timing." If you can observe a good Chinese kitchen at work you will see that the main chef, at the fiercest of the wok burners, hardly moves. The ingredients are passed to him by the 'chopper' whose job it is to portion everything out for the chef. Then the chef's job is to apply the precise amount of heat and seasoning to those ingredients and to then quickly and cleanly turn them out onto the plate, they don't call them to a table. In the Chinese kitchen, its dish by dish not table by table, as in Western restaurants. Of course, in a restaurant, such as Flower Drum, a whole series of dishes of different flavours won't all be served at once.
There is not the same structure of service as a Western restaurant, but timing requires a lot of experience and skill. For Gilbert, "the waiter has to be like the barometer, he has to feel the pace, he can't be too fast nor too slow and its got to be quite precise". Flower Drum waiters have to both know the customers requirements and how busy the kitchen is. Difficulties arise when the cue of orders builds up. Most dishes in Gilbert's kitchen are quick by Western standards. He says it shouldn't take longer than 15 minutes because the longest cooking required of, say, a mud crab, takes roughly 15 minutes. At Flower Drum, it's the pre-preparation of all the ingredients which takes so many staff so long throughout the day. And dishes such as Peking duck are pre-roasted, in their ovens it takes 35 minutes to roast six ducks and there will be some 40-50 ducks roasted every day.
At Flower Drum, Gilbert is out front during service but his day may well have been taken up in checking ingredients, going to the market or chasing up some special products. Despite his modesty in denying the title of great chef, he has great knowledge and skill in the kitchen. He first started working in a 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 '60s, and also spent three years in Hong Kong working for Lane Crawford and for Cathay Pacific in the reservations department.
Working well with people seems to come 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. It is all part of being a restaurateur, a job which Gilbert believes takes at least 10 years to master. then its another 20 of constant work before you can reach the point of maybe taking a break. And these days, he has slowed down, saying that he has cut back to about 60 hours when it used to be 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." 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. Food, action, flames rising from the wok and satisfying hungry customers is his form of fun. On Sundays at home he will often cook for friends and enjoys doing non-restaurant style dishes, these are the recipes he has given us for this book.
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".
Perhaps this is why his children are not interested in the business. They can see how hard it is. For Gilbert there was never a choice, "All my pocket money came from restaurants when I was about 15 or 16, after that I don't even know why. It just seemed that very time I needed extra income I thought I should just go to the restaurant. I am a little disappointed that my sons don't want to come into the restaurant, but as they don't want to do it they wouldn't enjoy it anyway. I will just keep going a little longer. I have been 24 years here, 38 years in restaurants for me. I would like to make 30 years at Flower Drum, it all depends on my spending habits. Rather, the spending habits of the family".
Meantime he maintains a real concern about each and every element in the food served at the Flower Drum, from the texture of the noodles to the freshness of the fish to the crispness of the duck to the fragrance of the vegetables. It's been his life for so long that it seems inconceivable to imagine him stopping, because the Flower Drum is more than a business, it is Gilbert Lau's passion.
These are services for regulars, for the people that he knows, so a first visit won't yield that treatment. Loyalty gets rewarded at the Flower Drum, loyalty of customers and loyalty of staff. Gilbert looks after his family of staff well, while the restaurant was closed during Melbourne's gas crisis, the staff were paid; his chef is regularly given holidays to Hong Kong (mind you Anthony is expected to do a lot of food research whilst there).
A 1997 interview with Gilbert Lau and a review of the Flower Drum. Gilbert retired from the Flower Drum in 2006. Currently he assists his sons in Lau's Family Kitchen, 4 Acland St, St Kilda 8598 9880; www.lausfamilykitchen.com.au
Braised fuzzy melon with spare ribs
Steamed beef with tasty rice
Stir-fried noodles with BBQ pork