BACK in 1992, business at the Crystal Jade restaurant in Cairnhill Hotel was flagging and the eatery was close to being forced to shut down.
Mr Ip Yiu Tung, then a customer, couldn't bear the thought of one of his favourite Chinese eateries closing. So he pumped in $2 million to revive it.
"I never imagined I would own a restaurant, but the chance came and I grabbed it," he said.
Since the Hong Konger became its chairman in 1993, the restaurant has blossomed into an empire of some 60 eateries and 15 bakeries in eight Asian countries, including China, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Mr Ip, 59, who studied electrical engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says running the restaurants is not much different from managing a clock and watch factory he used to own, and a piano manufacturing business he has in Shanghai.
"Just dedicate yourself to the joband encourage and inspire your staff to work for you," says the businessman who shuttles between China andSingapore and has the final say on what's on the menus, prices and the group's expansion plans.
This can-do spirit helped Crystal Jade weather a shake-up in 2004 when former managing director Alfred Leung, who is Mr Ip's brother-in-law, left to open the Imperial Treasure chain of Chinese restaurants here.
To stay competitive, the father of a 15-year-old daughter frequently introduces new dining concepts to the group's eateries, such as opening a Western-style tapas restaurant, A Presto, in Jakarta last month. "I love the business. Crystal Jade is a restaurant that customers have come to respect and appreciate, and it's very rewarding being a part of it." You have restaurants all over Asia.
How do your customers' tastebuds differ from country to country?
Diners in Singapore go for authentic Hong Kong-style Cantonese food, which is what we serve in our restaurants here. Those in Indonesia and Malaysia, however, prefer food that is spicy and sour. They also like deep-fried food. Diners in Thailand go for sweet and spicy food that is heavier in flavour.
What is the first thing you look out for in food?
The taste is important, but I'm usually more particular about its texture. When I bite into it, it must have a certain feel. For example, the skin of fried chicken must be crispy. The same goes for barbecued roast duck.
And while presentation is important, I cannot tolerate food that comes to the table cool because the chef wasted too much time arranging it on the plate.
What food do you never get sick of eating?
I try to eat healthily so I must have vegetables and fish every day. One of my favourite fish is garoupa, which I like for its soft and smooth texture. I usually have it steamed or pan-fried. As for vegetables, I don't mind chye sim or kailan simply stir-fried.
What is your favourite eating haunt in Singapore?
I normally eat in Crystal Jade restaurants because they offer a good variety of food. It also allows me to conduct quality checks on the food. However, I've been to seafood restaurants in the East Coast as well as in Marina Bay that serve good chilli crabs. But I don't patronise any particular eatery.
Have you eaten any bizarre food?
The most bizarre food I've eaten is probably snake meat soup, although I don't find it particularly unusual. It's a common dish in Hong Kong, especially during winter, and is believed to help keep the body warm. I'm not a big fan of it but I've eaten it several times, mostly at dinner banquets.
Your job requires you to travel frequently. What do you think of airplane food?
I fly Economy, not First Class, and the food served is mostly bad. But I still eat airplane food to keep from getting hungry and I try to fill up on the fruits.
Do you have any guilty food indulgences?
I'm disciplined when it comes to eating so I don't indulge in anything I shouldn't. For breakfast, I usually have dry cereal, some fruit and fruit juice. Lunch is typically a simple takeaway meal of vegetables and tofu from one of my restaurants, which I have in my office. Dinner is when I have a full meal because I usually have to entertain friends and clients.
Any fondest food memory?
It would have to be the dessert buffet I had some 30 years ago at The Peninsula Hong Kong. My boss at the computer hardware company I was working for had invited senior staff to a lunch at the famous hotel. I don't have a sweet tooth, but I still remember how good the desserts, such as cheesecake and chocolate mousse, tasted. It was hard to come by such delicious desserts in Hong Kong then.
What dish is your restaurant famous for?
The deep-fried sweet and sour prawn at the Crystal Jade Golden Palace in Paragon. The crunchy batter complements the fresh, juicy prawns inside. A sweet and sour sauce is drizzled over the prawns and the dish is topped with hand-pulled golden threads of sugar that require a great deal of skill to make. This dish marries classic Cantonese flavours with a contemporary presentation.
WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?
I've never thought about it and will probably only think about it in 20 years' time. But it will be something that I feel like eating at that moment.