[Sca-cooks] Western-style restaurant in Beijing

Diane & Micheal Reid dmreid at hfx.eastlink.ca
Mon Aug 18 17:47:11 PDT 2008

"Local" news with an International twist, in honour of the Olympics and foreign food.

Cealain o Moray

Cape Bretoner slinging Steak & Eggs in China 
Canucks craving a taste of home beating a path to restaurant's door
By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter 
Sat. Aug 16 - 5:26 AM

A Nova Scotia chef is making his fortune in Beijing on Westerners sick of eating corn soup with pickles for breakfast.
Paul Astephen, originally from North Sydney, is working 18-hour days during the Olympics as his restaurants, dubbed Steak & Eggs, attract massive crowds.

"Everybody's amazed at China and seeing how fantastic China is," Mr. Astephen, 60, said Friday in a telephone interview from his restaurant near the American Embassy.

"It's blowing some people away totally. A lot of people don't have any idea of what China is like. If you go to New York City, you will not find it any better or any different than this city here. It's bigger than New York City. Right now, it probably has about 19 million people in it."

So far, he hasn't seen many Canadian athletes because they're supposed to stay in the athletes' village, though many of their families and fans have shown up to fill their grumbling bellies.

"It's blossoming more and more every day - more and more Canadians coming in the door."

He hasn't had the time to take in any of the athletic competitions either.

"I'm just too busy. Actually, I had tickets, but I send my staff," Mr. Astephen said. 

On Friday, he sent one of his servers to see the gymnastics.

"The other ticket I had is for basketball on Sunday night and my head chef, I'm sending him."

Mr. Astephen has been living in Beijing for five years. He now owns two restaurants there - one downtown and one in the suburbs near large enclaves of foreigners - and one in Shanghai.

Over the past four decades, the gregarious chef, who still has a trace of a Cape Breton accent, worked in kitchens from Montreal to Banff before setting up his own place in Daytona Beach, Fla. 

He met his Chinese fiancee, Yang Yang, about a decade ago during a visit to Toronto.

Her name is particularly appropriate for a guy from the Maritimes. "It means happy ocean," Mr. Astephen said. 

In 2003, after he sold his stake in the Florida restaurant, they went to China's capital city to visit her family and travel around Asia for six months. 

"But we landed here right in the midst of SARS," he said. "When we got here, we could not travel anymore. We had to stay in Beijing and because I was stuck here, and of course being in the restaurant business all my life, I saw the huge niche that needed to be filled here. I said to (Yang Yang), 'If we open a restaurant here, we're going to be something special.' "

The local fare can get a little tedious for foreign palates, Mr. Astephen said.

"Once you've had Chinese food every day as a Westerner, about four or five (days) later, you want something Western, especially breakfast," he said. "That's the biggest thing. Western people do not like the Chinese breakfast."

Typical local breakfasts include dumplings and yellow corn soup with pickles, said Mr. Astephen, who offers North American-style breakfasts in his establishments all day.

"On the weekends, you can hardly move in my restaurant," he said. "I have 180 seats, and it's packed."

Chinese who have travelled or studied abroad are avid customers, as are the many foreigners who work in Beijing's embassy district.

"There's half a million expats alone in Beijing," Mr. Astephen said. "I'd bet you out of that half-million, at least 80 to 90 per cent of those people have been, one time or another, in my restaurant."

He employs about 50 people at his restaurants in China and he's planning to open another Steak & Eggs in Beijing's financial district in about three weeks.

Doing business in the communist country has not proved difficult, Mr. Astephen said.

"It's the same as any other government; there's always a little bit here, a little bit there."

Besides steak and eggs, which goes for $11.60, his menu includes all kinds of cuts of Angus beef from Alberta, plus typical stick-to-your-ribs Canadian fare like meatloaf, fish and chips, corned beef hash, omelettes and buttermilk pancakes. He also serves pasta, pizza and burgers. All the bread, pies, cakes and pastries are baked in-house.

"All the Canadians come here for Thanksgiving dinner."

The food is so appealing to Westerners that an American company doing business in China hired Mr. Astephen to cater for its gas rig workers in India. 

"They phoned me and they said, 'Look, we're sending you a plane ticket. Get your butt down here. We're going to sign a new contract with you. And we don't care what it costs. We just want your food here and your workers here.' "

So every three months, he sends supplies to a camp where workers drill methane gas at coal beds west of Calcutta. He also rotates in a new chef - who gets paid almost three times what he makes in China.

Wages in China are much lower than Canada, he said. A waiter earns about $285 a month; cooks take home much more.

"When I first opened my restaurant, I went into the kitchen for 16 months and trained my cooks myself," he said. 

The Bluenose chef still gets into the kitchen when things get busy.

"I jump in there on the line with them and cook and help them out - whatever it takes."

Mr. Astephen hasn't been back to Nova Scotia for 20 years. His parents and sister now live in Saint John, N.B.

He's hoping to scale back on the work in the future.

"In a couple of more years, I hope to semi-retire at least," Mr. Astephen said, "not to work every day from opening to close."

When he's not at his restaurants, his favourite activity is taking in Chinese culture.

"Places like Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven - they've preserved a lot of this - and that is amazing to me."

( clambie at herald.ca)

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