Going for gold
Harlan Goldstein is expanding his culinary empire with the same zeal that reduced his girth
After having stunned Hong Kong’s culinary community by losing nearly 35kg in a highly publicised “battle of the bulge” – not to mention his family and friends who had seen him make (and break) too many health promises – what’s next on the menu for celebrity chef Harlan Goldstein?
Top of the list is expansion – businesswise that is – with Goldstein eyeing 2014 as the year to showcase the dining concepts he has been busy hatching.
With the Michelin-starred Gold as the flagship of his renewed portfolio, he recently launched Harlan Goldstein’s Comfort in Lan Kwai Fong, designed for casual get-togethers in a loft-like ambiance against the backdrop of catchy R&B music. Soon to follow are Penthouse by Harlan Goldstein and Sushi To by Harlan Goldstein, both in Causeway Bay’s latest landmark, Soundwill Plaza II – Midtown. And once the California Tower in Lan Kwai Fong re-emerges from its construction cocoon in the second quarter, Ee Da Lee (“Italy” in Chinese) by Harlan Goldstein will be taking up 6,000 sq ft of the sixth floor.
The New York native has never been coy about his ambition to power gastronomic trends in Hong Kong. That entrepreneurial resolve was tested to the hilt when he opened Harlan’s at IFC during the Sars outbreak in 2004, which gave rise to the offshoot three-venue concept – H One, The Box and G Bar – also at IFC.
His association with these venues came to an end in 2008, due to “a difference in the vision between me and my partners … so we went our own ways,” he says.
Reflecting on that episode, he says that choosing the right partner determines the long-term success of any commercial venture. “Going through the shareholder documents with a fine-toothed comb and having a strong and intelligent lawyer representing you” are also essential, he adds. “I was a naive, Jewish kid who believed in the old-time values of a handshake and trust, but that’s really not enough in today’s scene. My biggest lesson was that I didn’t study the details [of the documents], but since then I’ve gotten a lot sharper.”
Goldstein’s current business partner is friend and regular customer Simon To, who shares his “passion for food and building great restaurants in Hong Kong”.
Of the new outlets on offer, the chef believes Harlan Goldstein’s Comfort has the most potential for growth and he hopes to launch over 10 more around the region. The opening of the new restaurant in Hong Kong, however, has not been entirely beneficial towards his new fitness regime. “There have been challenges with the opening of Comfort. I’ve had to do a lot of food tasting,” he says.
A back injury has also prevented him from exercising too rigorously, but he has promised to restart his gym routine, albeit at a slower pace.
Committing to a healthier lifestyle wasn’t easy, especially for someone working in the food industry. It even reached a point when, Goldstein says, “I was very happy being fat – I accepted it.”
His experienced an epiphany during a visit home to the US in 2012. His sister confronted him with the fact that while he may have been a successful entrepreneur out in Asia, he was also a certain candidate for a heart attack. “What she said really hit me very hard. I almost broke down, but that’s what I needed to hear,” he says.
Through a friend, Goldstein learned about the Medifast programme, which he signed up for to help kick-start his diet. This consisted of packaged balanced meals that kept his body regulated and functioning. Visits to the gym were incorporated into his schedule.
It was at the gym that Goldstein found a unique motivation to shed pounds faster. He and a banker buddy staged a “Biggest Loser” programme. He lost the first round but got a rematch, which he won.
Then fellow Michelin-starred chef and pal Alvin Leung – who also erred on the large side – challenged him in the charity-focused Summer Slim Slam. Not only did Goldstein top that showdown – with a 17.5 per cent body-weight loss over Leung’s 15.3 per cent – he and Leung each pledged HK$20,000 to their chosen charities, with the winner’s intended organisation getting the majority in an 80:20 split.
Goldstein chose to help Heifer International, a group aiming to end world hunger and poverty by providing livestock to struggling communities. Leung went for the Hong Kong Juvenile Diabetes Association and Rainbow of Hong Kong, an LGBT non-profit group.
Reflecting on his own commitment to a healthier lifestyle, Goldstein says that at his current and future restaurants, diners will always have healthy choices. “I don’t want to force people to eat exactly what I’m eating,” he says. “For example, I have given them options on my lunch menu at Gold which are calorie-counted, tasty and delicious.”
He says he is willing to assist people achieve successful weight loss, provided “they take me seriously”. His “Healthy Plan” package includes a diet programme, constant and daily mentoring via WhatsApp, and even training a client’s helper in meal preparation. “I like helping people,” he says. “I like being their life coach.”
Not too long ago, Goldstein would have guffawed at the image of him as a motivational activist. “Then, I couldn’t even motivate my goddamn self to lose weight,” he says. “I guess it was the timing of my sister telling me [I was a certain candidate for a heart attack] and me realising it was time to do something about it. It’s hearing that bell ringing, that wake-up call before you get a heart attack or get sick. It was that combination.”
HANDLING THE HEAT OF THE KITCHEN
As Harlan Goldstein busily looks to expand his restaurant empire in Hong Kong and the rest of the region, he shares his recipe for success both in a nd out of the kitchen
My kitchen rules “I do a lot of teambuilding, which always helps employees get together as a unit. There’s no screaming or yelling in my kitchen, justcommunicating. I don’t like politics and games. I always promote from within if I have the right people.”
No hard feelings “If you need to improve, I would counsel you and give you a chance. If I didn’t see you improving, I would tell you, sorry, it’s not happening and let you go. I hate doing it, but to not to would screw up the team. But I try to explain nicely so there are no hard feelings.”
Earn respect “I’m a hands-on leader. If you just talk a lot of bullsh*t but you can’t do it, people will have no respect for you. I can wash the dishes – I started as a dishwasher at 14. I can clean the toilet. I’m not afraid to do things.”
Be the boss “I’m just simple ‘boss’ to my people, not Mr Goldstein. I never asked them to call me ‘boss’, but they all do. Even those who used to work for me years ago still call me ‘boss’.”