Sat, Jan 26, 2008 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Din Tai Fung joins MOFA food tour

AFP , TAIPEI

Staff at Din Tai Fung fill dumplings with minced pork on Dec. 27 in Taipei. The restaurant produces about 15 million steamed dumplings annually.

PHOTO: AFP

When Yang Chi-hua (楊紀華) was helping out at his father's restaurant as a teenager learning to make steamed dumplings, he never imagined that the family business would one day earn worldwide fame.

Yet today throngs of locals and foreign tourists alike queue outside Din Tai Fung's (鼎泰豐) three-story flagship store in Taipei to sample its specialty steamed dumplings or xiao long bao (小籠包) -- small white buns with juicy pork filling that are cooked and served in bamboo steamers.

The restaurant has also attracted foreign dignitaries and celebrities and last month the Ministry of Foreign Affairs enlisted Din Tai Fung in a gourmet food tour for tourists from France and the UK to help promote the nation's image.

Yang, 52, said the success of Din Tai Fung lies in "committing ourselves to doing everything well, from preparing the food to serving the customers and maintaining the hygiene of the restaurant."

In an interview, he said: "It is an enormous pressure to live up to the expectations. We are constantly striving to make the restaurant better and not to let our patrons down."

Yang inherited the business from his father Yang Bing-yi (楊秉彝). Its big break into the international gourmet scene came in 1993 when the New York Times listed it among its "top 10" restaurants in the world -- the first and so far only Taiwanese restaurant to receive such an accolade.

In Taiwan, the restaurant rolls out some 15 million steamed dumplings annually and last year reported revenue of NT$700 million (US$21.63 million).

Din Tai Fung opened its first restaurant abroad in 1996 in Tokyo and in 2001 expanded to Shanghai and later to other Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenzhen and Dongguan.

It has 38 franchised restaurants overseas and is planning to open in Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand this year.

The first thing customers to the Taipei flagship store see when they enter is a framed plaque reading "Din Tai Fung Oil Shop" -- a relic of its humble start when the elder Yang opened his first small eatery three decades ago out of dire financial necessity.

Yang had moved to Taiwan from China's Shanxi Province in 1948, a year before the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the civil war to the Chinese Communists and fled to Taiwan.

He found his first job in Taiwan as a delivery man for a cooking oil shop, and within a decade, in 1958, had opened his own store, called Din Tai Fung, selling peanut oil.

Business turned sour in the early 1970s because of the mass production of soybean cooking oil and so, following the advice of friends, Yang decided to convert half the store into a restaurant.

As the elder Yang did not know how to make steamed dumplings, he hired a cook -- who later passed on the craft to his son, the current Yang -- and the small family business gradually took off. It now employs more than 500 staff.

The younger Yang helped out at the family store for two years, until at age 17 his culinary passion was kindled when he beat out an experienced cook to get his first paid job as a steamed bun maker for another restaurant.

"My father didn't want me to follow in his footsteps because of the hardship involved in running a restaurant," he said. "Today he is still telling me to slow down a little and try not to be a perfectionist."

Yang Chi-hua's cooking skills earned him an appearance in Ang Lee's (李安) 1994 hit movie Eat Drink Man Woman as a double for the male lead character, a retired chef in the bun making scene.

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