Dubbed the world’s cheapest Michelin Star restaurant, dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan rose to fame in 2010 after rave reviews about its value-for-money delicacies.
Starting with an outlet in the thriving shopping district of Mong Kok, the restaurant has scaled up its operations, opening more outlets in Hong Kong as well as taking its brand overseas.
Tim Ho Wan was established in 2009 when Mak Kwai-pui, a former dim sum chef at Lung King Heen (a Michelin three-star restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel) wanted to pursue his own business. The motto of Tim Ho Wan is to offer affordable high-quality dim sum to the public.
Now, the restaurant has opened branches in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines through franchising. The group also aims to set foot in Hawaii, New York and London in the near future.
At present, there are five Tim Ho Wan outlets in Hong Kong. In comparison with the overseas forays, the expansion pace at home has been relatively slow.
Manpower shortage is the main obstacle, Mak sighed during an interaction recently with a reporter from the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
A dim sum chef is often required to work all day in a steamy-hot environment, something that most young jobseekers are not ready to put up with.
Tim Ho Wan is not the only restaurant that is experiencing labor shortage.
In a manpower survey report conducted by Vocational Training Council in 2013, catering industry firms reported that 40,826 employees left within a year.
The turnover rate was highest at the craft/operating level (including dim sum chefs), accounting for 37,310 or 91.4 percent of the total number of staff who left during the period.
While difficult working environment is one reason, a mentoring system that is common in the industry is another thing that turns youngsters away.
In a mentor-mentee relationship in the Chinese catering industry, the teaching and communication are usually done in the form of scolding and yelling.
“This is the way of the old masters. He teaches you by scolding you. Actually, I have to thank my master for scolding me, I learned a lot through the process. This is how I too teach my demi chefs,” Mak said.
“If you do something wrong and I don’t voice out the concern, how will you learn,” the renowned chef said.
However, he agreed that many young people don’t find this culture acceptable.
“They quit when I am too strict. Actually I have already lowered my expectation; I just want them to meet the basic standard,” Mak said.
But for those who are really interested in becoming a chef in Chinese cuisine, this is now a “golden chance”, according to Mak.
“Before, it would normally take at least ten years for one to be promoted to supervisor… But now, you can be promoted much faster if you work hard enough.”
In order to attract new blood, the image of the dim sum chef must be improved, said Mak, who is the father of two boys.
“During the summertime, my elder son would rather work in a convenience store than in my restaurant. In their view, being a sushi chef is better than being a dim sum chef.”
Human resources management and quality control are the two toughest problems a restaurant faces, especially when it is expanding fast.
Tim Ho Wan has faced some criticism recently over a perceived decline in its food standards.
To ensure that every outlet provides “affordable high quality dim sum”, Mak has invited senior and experienced dim sum chefs to become bosses of the new outlets.
By giving them a stake in the business, they will be more incentivized to do a good job, he feels.
“I am quite easy-going, but there is one thing I won’t compromise on — and that’s food quality,” Mak said.
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