HONG KONG — An unpublicized aspect of China's current modernization program is food, specifically Chinese food, which has fallen into disrepute on its home ground.
The best Chinese food is no longer found in the Middle Kingdom but in the British colony of Hong Kong, say those in the know--Chinese chefs.
And it is the overseas-trained Chinese chefs, mainly from Hong Kong, who are being lured back to their homeland to once again put China on the world's food map.
"It's survival of the fittest in Hong Kong. It's not survival of the fittest in China," said Hong Kong-trained Paul Hsu, who has worked in Canton and soon will head for Shanghai to become food and beverage manager at a new Hilton hotel.
"You are forced to improve here in Hong Kong," he said. "You have to get better day after day to earn a living here. That isn't the case in China."
David Ho, food and beverage manager for New World Hotels in Hong Kong, echoed that view, but feels the situation can be reversed, in time, with an influx of talent from overseas.
"The training background, the competition, the exposure in Hong Kong to so many different types of international food and the demands of the eaters make the Hong Kong chef need to be more aggressive than the chef from China," Ho said. "He has to work harder to create something and he must invent new dishes so he will stand out in Hong Kong.
"If the food industry in China is willing to learn, improve and implement new ideas, then in 10 or 15 years the quality of food in China will come up to a very reasonable and acceptable level," he added.
China's current modernization program depends heavily on foreign exchange brought in by the thousands of tourists who visit every year, and facilities for them are high on the list of priorities.
Many food experts believe that the presence of a growing number of new international hotels in China will indirectly improve the quality of China's chefs because it will expose them to many cuisines, Chinese and Western.
Hundreds of Hong Kong chefs are being recruited to staff the new hotels and they will teach the local Chinese how to prepare and cook dishes, many of which originated in China thousands of years ago. A handful of Chinese chefs are being brought to Hong Kong for training.
Current demand in China calls for qualified Cantonese chefs, of which Hong Kong has a large supply.
About 90% of the Chinese food restaurants in Hong Kong serve Cantonese cuisine, which also is the most popular and well-known type of Chinese food served in the United States and Europe.
"With Cantonese cuisine there is more variety and the taste is more acceptable in general to more people. It is less oily and saucy, and more acceptable to both Westerners and Chinese," Ho said.
Proper food presentation, management, use of ingredients and sanitation are among the many points in which young local Chinese cooks will be schooled by the imported chefs while working as apprentices or junior chefs in hotel restaurants in China.
Best Food in Hotels
"The best Chinese food in Canton, China, today is being served in the Western hotels, where Hong Kong Chinese are making it," said Armin Sonderegger, food operations manager for the Peninsula Group hotels. Sonderegger said the same is now true for Peking and will be true for several other cities in China when Western hotels open there.
Most of the chefs date the decline of food in China and its subsequent rise in Hong Kong to the Communist takeover in 1949, when the nation's leaders concentrated on solidifying their regime and on industrial development.
"When communism took over China, everything really came to a stop, including food and beverage. Yet Hong Kong continued to improve its cuisine," Ho said.
At that time, thousands of Chinese emigrated from China to Hong Kong, bringing with them the culinary skills and knowledge stored within their families for hundreds of years.