October 2013

Essays

Linda Jaivin

Dining out with Michelle Garnaut

Michelle Garnaut in her Beijing restaurant, Capital M

© Michelle Garnaut

 

Her kitchen rules

Michelle Garnaut and I were finishing lunch at Capital M, her Beijing restaurant. The waiter set down our coffees: a macchiato for me and a plunger for her. I was mid chocolate truffle and she was mid anecdote when she went to pour. Abruptly, she summoned the waiter back over. The spout of the coffee press had not been aligned with the grate. Demonstrating to the waiter how she had needed to twist the lid before pouring, she sternly advised: “The guest should never have to do this.” That incident occurred in 2010. Interviewing Garnaut three years later, I remind her of it. I say I’d wager no guest at Capital M or at her Shanghai restaurant, M on the Bund, has ever had to turn the lid of a French press since. She laughs: “That only happened again yesterday.” The problem is partly the lack of a local coffee culture and partly new staff. “I’m sure anyone I told would never do it again.”

The first philosopher of Taoism, Laozi, said that to lead people, one should walk beside them. Garnaut may be an exacting boss, but she’s not above rolling up her sleeves. Short-staffed last March during the literary festival she runs from her restaurants, she was spotted bussing tables and checking coats. Laozi also said the best leaders were the sort you never noticed. Forget that. Tall, pale and with a confident dress sense that involves vivid reds, tartans, designer jewellery and bold lipstick, Garnaut cuts an imposing figure even before you see her in action or listen to her stories (she’s as much raconteur as restaurateur).

Then there are those balconies, with their peerless views. From M on the Bund, you take in the full sweep of Shanghai’s waterfront, the colourful boat traffic on the Huangpu River, and the fantastical towers of Pudong on the other shore. From the balcony at Capital M, meanwhile, Beijing’s history reveals itself in a mille-feuille of eaves, from the double towers of the city’s 15th-century gateway, Qianmen, through to Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, and across Tiananmen Square to the old Imperial Precinct gate of Tiananmen itself. “And on a clear day,” Garnaut points out, “from the toilets, you can see the Temple of Heaven.”

M on the Bund and Capital M are not the most expensive Western restaurants in China. Nor are they the trendiest. They are foam-free zones, for example: Garnaut doesn’t do, as she puts it, “weird” food just because it’s in vogue. Yet they attract a devoted clientele that includes both local Chinese and expats, as well as celebrity blow-ins. On the M Restaurant Group website, you’ll find a list of those, divided into categories. There are “The Royals” (Prince Andrew, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Sirikit of Thailand); “The Politicians” (Henry Kissinger, former leaders of countries including Australia, France and Germany); “The Captains of Industry” (Rupert Murdoch, Richard Branson); “The Fashionistas” (Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada, Anna Sui, Pierre Cardin); “The Stars of Stage and Screen” (an epic list including Zhang Ziyi and Hugh Jackman); and “The Literati” (Gore Vidal, Orhan Pamuk, Alan Hollinghurst). Unlisted are the diplomats, the journalists, the academics, the artists, the musicians, the Peking opera luminaries and the filmmakers – and, of course, all those others drawn by the hearty, seasonal fare; the chic décor; the service that is friendly but not too-too; and the programs of chamber music, readings and talks.

Time magazine has described Garnaut as “an industry celebrity” as well as “the pioneer of China’s fashionable-dining scene”. The magazine noted that, though she no longer kicked out guests from her restaurants “for daring to complain”, she remained “formidable”. I ask Garnaut if she really used to expel the malcontents, and she confirms it is true: “Like all young restaurateurs, in your first year or two you carry on like a three-year-old. I got over it.”

She has never, however, been known to drop her standards. When Garnaut visited Lily Brett, the Australian author, at home in New York, Brett defrosted a dish to serve. It “hadn’t frozen well”, Brett confesses. “Michelle, not one to mince words, said, ‘It’s no good.’ She got up and made poached eggs for everyone. They were the most sublime poached eggs I have ever eaten.” Brett calls Garnaut “one of the most loved people I know. She is seductively honest and lacks even a speck of pretension.” Brett also notes that Garnaut “swears like a trooper” in a manner so contagious that she has to “reset” her own vocabulary after they’ve spent time together. Brett’s favourite dish is what the Australian once called Garnaut’s “superb, evil pavlova”: it “sends me,” she says, “into a coma of almost teenager-ish happiness”.

John Garnaut, until recently the China correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, told me that he was once dining at Capital M when he got a call from a senior executive of Minmetals. Minmetals is one of China’s largest and oldest state enterprises, a multi-billion dollar, multinational corporation that reports to the central government and owns, among other assets, mines in Asia, Africa and Australia. The executive asked where Garnaut was. On hearing the answer, this powerful Chinese businessman immediately asked if the journalist was related to the restaurateur. John explained that they are distant cousins: their Huguenot ancestors arrived in Australia on the same boat about 150 years ago. The executive, impressed, immediately asked: “I wonder if you could help get me a discount?”

The two Garnauts only met when John began his China posting in 2007, but he has no hesitation in calling her “the most accomplished Garnaut by far”. I asked if he’d say that in front of his father, Ross, the economist, former ambassador to China and Kevin Rudd’s erstwhile adviser on climate change. He laughed, insisting that in any case “she’s definitely the coolest”. Asked for his favourite dish, John describes himself as “a suckling pork and crackling tragic”.

Growing up in 1960s and ’70s Melbourne, where she went to Elwood High, Garnaut started working in restaurants while still at school. She was the eldest of nine children, but dismisses published reports that she’d had to work to help feed and clothe her siblings. As someone concerned with social justice and who now runs a charity that aids underprivileged villagers in China, she would never describe her family as poor. It was rather that, as she phrases it, “I had tastes that needed catering for.”

While studying for an arts degree at Monash University, Garnaut grew overwhelmed by the feeling that “real life happens elsewhere”, as she once told journalist Mary-Anne Toy. She left uni and spent a year in Greece, visited England and hitchhiked around the US. Back again in Melbourne, she studied catering at the William Angliss Institute of TAFE. That she didn’t finish that certificate either didn’t prevent her, on returning to London, from landing a job as head chef on the “English side” of the Orient Express, “mixing”, as she told Toy, “litres of chocolate mousse and salmon mousse – ’80s food”.

Garnaut stopped next in Hong Kong. It was 1984. One evening, stepping out of a lift into an Italian restaurant buried in some high-rise, she was serenaded, as she later told Time, “by 20 Chinese guys saying ‘Ciao’ and singing ‘O Sole Mio’. I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ A restaurant has to have some soul.” The still British-run territory didn’t lack for Western restaurants. Yet the better ones tended to be in upscale hotels and were grandma-with-pearls posh: the service fussy and the cuisine old-fashioned. Garnaut and her then partner, Greg Malouf, figured they could do better. (Malouf returned to Melbourne in 1988 for health reasons, later opening MoMo, a Melbourne fixture until its closing last year.)

In November 1989, Garnaut opened her first signature restaurant, M at the Fringe (original name: Michelle’s), in the heritage Ice House building, next to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong’s Central District. Its first chef was Sandra de Pury (now winemaker at Yeringberg, in the Yarra Valley). Garnaut and de Pury designed a seasonal European–Australian menu enlivened by dishes that had impressed Garnaut on her travels, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. Garnaut applied her natural aesthetic flair to redecorating what had been the old Dairy Farm depot and cold storage. With the Australian restaurateurs Mietta O’Donnell and Gay Bilson as “both inspiration and moral compass”, she designed M at the Fringe as a place that offered sophisticated but not pretentious food. M at the Fringe quickly began stacking up awards. It closed 20 years later, when the lease expired.

Garnaut, whom John Garnaut describes as “that really rare thing – a tough businesswoman but also a total bleeding heart”, was also actively involved in a number of Hong Kong charities, including the Heep Hong Society, which supports children with special needs and their families. Soon after Chris Patten arrived in 1992 to become the final British governor of Hong Kong, he and his wife came to eat at M at the Fringe. “I went straight up to them,” Garnaut recalls, “and said, ‘Could I do a dinner at your house? A fundraising dinner for the Heep Hong Society’ ... And I said, ‘Mrs Patten, you’re the patron,’ and she said, ‘Oh, am I?’ And I said, ‘Yes, you are.’”

It was a cheeky move. But the Pattens agreed. Garnaut organised an Elizabethan banquet for 100 people at HK$1000 a head (the equivalent of A$140 at 1992 rates), commanding armies of helpers, including fashion designers, who made costumes, and ceramicists, who produced 100 individually designed plates. The media grew intrigued, and Christian Dior offered to underwrite the whole thing. Garnaut remembers that she had no time for the press, shunning the publicity, thinking, “This is ridiculous, and what’s Christian Dior got to do with it or the children? They just want access to Government House.” Looking back, she laughs at herself: “I was always pretty snobby and pompous about things, pretty stupid, really. I’m not very good at fundraising.”

Social activism indirectly led Garnaut to her first venture in mainland China. In response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific in 1995, Garnaut and a like-minded cohort set up a group in Hong Kong called Anti-Nuclear Action. They collected 50,000 signatures on a petition, organised a march and co-ordinated actions with other environmental organisations, local and international. They pushed for a one-week boycott of French products, and Garnaut was instrumental in convincing many hotels and restaurants in the territory to take part. By the end of it, both Garnaut and the manager of M at the Fringe, Bruno van der Burg, were, she recalls, “really exhausted. We’d had six weeks of this intensity, and lots of French people coming into the restaurant really angry with us.” Seeing a billboard showing off Shanghai’s Bund inspired her and van der Burg, whom she calls her “right-hand person”, to take a spur-of-the-moment holiday. There, Garnaut tells me, “Bruno said, ‘Why don’t we open a restaurant in Shanghai?’ And I said, ‘What? Are you nuts?’”

Garnaut’s first Shanghai venture involved two weeks in 1996 as guest chef at the Bund’s historic Peace Hotel – formerly the Cathay, one of pre-revolutionary Shanghai’s most glamorous hotels: Charlie Chaplin stayed here, and it’s where Noël Coward wrote Private Lives. The Communist government re-opened it under its new name in 1956. Her fortnight at what was then still a state-run enterprise, Garnaut says, nearly gave her a “nervous breakdown”. The waiters weren’t used to working as hard or as professionally as she demanded. In one instance, when told to carry something, a waiter “threw the food at me and said, ‘You carry it, you stupid bitch.’” But when she tried to sack him, she was told she had to apologise. “And I said, ‘Over my dead body am I apologising to that slimebag arsehole. This might be the way you run your business, not the way I run mine.’” It turned out the young man was connected – “he was somebody’s somebody”, as Garnaut puts it – and he wasn’t getting fired by anyone, and certainly not a mouthy Australian. Still, he was sent “on holiday”.

Around this time, Greenpeace project manager Anne Dingwall arrived in Hong Kong. Dingwall recently told Garnaut that she influenced the decision to set up an office there. Garnaut, who turned 40 in 1997, recalls thinking at the time: “Ah, fuck it, maybe I should just chuck in [the idea of opening a restaurant in Shanghai] and help run Greenpeace in Hong Kong.” In the end, she stuck with her Shanghai venture and acted as an adviser to Greenpeace, which she considered ought to be run, as it now is, by Hong Kong locals.

Garnaut says she drew two lessons from her experience with the Peace Hotel: “First, I couldn’t work with a state-run enterprise and they couldn’t work with me. Second lesson: don’t talk about it.” She was already becoming aware of the enormous obstacles to getting a restaurant up and running in Shanghai. At the time, nothing of its kind existed in China. Among the many hurdles was a strict, officially enforced pricing regime for wheat; just to thrash out the meal prices involved spending hours “sitting with a whole pile of farmers in an office somewhere”.

The restaurant finally opened in 1999 with Andrew McConnell (who later opened Cutler & Co. and Cumulus Inc. in Melbourne) as chef. Today, ex-Sydneysider Hamish Pollitt is at the helm. Garnaut dislikes reading interviews with herself where she comes off as having made some “big claim”. Yet it is true that M on the Bund was China’s first international-standard, independently run restaurant and helped restore the Bund as a site of fine dining and entertainment. Within three years, M on the Bund recouped its initial investment, to the envy of many other foreign businesses operating in China. Garnaut opened the Glamour Bar in 2006, on the floor below M on the Bund, and went on the hunt for a new venue in Beijing.

Garnaut insists that van der Burg, now general manager of M on the Bund, deserves much of the credit for the success of her enterprises. The Dutchman, who calls Garnaut “my mentor, my boss, my friend”, arrived in Hong Kong a recent graduate in art history not long after Garnaut opened her restaurant there. He came in to help out for a week and never left.

Garnaut describes herself as “the world’s most impatient person” in a country where doing business requires patience as much as capital and connections. “I think part of my personality is to railroad,” she says. “You can’t ignore problems, but maybe you have to ignore obstacles.” She admits that doing business in China requires “courage”, too: right from the start, she says, she has refused to do anything that “compromises my moral and ethical standards”, and that includes paying bribes. “If we go broke and it doesn’t work, we go broke and it doesn’t work, and that will be the end of it.”

Garnaut’s grasp of both Mandarin and Cantonese is limited to “very small day-to-day stuff. So I can’t have a complicated conversation with anybody about anything.” Emma Johnston, a student at Sydney University who speaks Mandarin and is studying in China for a year, was initially amazed at how much Garnaut has been able to achieve in China without speaking the language fluently. What she came to realise, she tells me in an email, is that Garnaut “understands more than she lets on, hires people who know their stuff (and can do the Chinese part) and, most importantly, knows people”.

Earlier this year, Garnaut invited Johnston to accompany her on a trip to four villages in northern Shaanxi province, where a charity that Garnaut started with friends, the Village People Project, has built much-needed and environmentally sustainable public bathhouses in joint ventures with village entrepreneurs. Garnaut, who chairs the project, had conceived of it as a way of getting to know and contribute to China “beyond the bright lights of the big cities”. Together, they stopped in on an elderly couple whom Garnaut visits during every trip. “We sat on the kang,” Johnston says, referring to the brick sleeping platform that is traditional throughout rural north China, “and they smiled at each other and she held their hands. Michelle asked me to ask the woman if she had kids – she’d been wanting to know for ages. Turns out all the neighbours are her kids, grandkids and great grandkids.”

Johnston describes Garnaut in the middle of a dusty northern Chinese village, wearing lipstick and a “cowboy hat”, telling a man who runs the local bathhouse that, OK, he can hold his mahjong parties in its communal area, but he has to let people come in and have their showers. Even at the end of an argument, says Johnston, “there is always a pat on the back and a smile”. Later, Garnaut and Johnston headed to the local markets where, Johnston writes, “arms waving, Michelle and I buy bags of freshly ground chilli – the woman is overjoyed: she has sold enough to go on holiday. Michelle buys about two kilos for Shanghai, a kilo for Beijing.” (Garnaut’s favourite Chinese cuisine is spicy Sichuanese.) Garnaut also wanted to try every local snack on offer and was thrilled that Johnston could translate, in detail, their ingredients. She’s “a chef before all else”, concludes Johnston. (A vegan, Johnston is a sucker for Garnaut’s beetroot tart.)

The two women met in March when Johnston volunteered at Garnaut’s Beijing restaurant’s Capital Literary Festival. That Garnaut has taken the bright and energetic Sydney student under her wing is not surprising. Mentoring and supporting other women has always been high on Garnaut’s agenda, and she has a long, close association with the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards.

A visit by Frank Moorhouse to Shanghai in 2002 paved the way for the first of the M literary festivals. He was working on his book about the martini at the time, and Garnaut invited him to speak at the Glamour Bar on the martini in literature. One drink led to another. The bar became the site of the M-sponsored Shanghai International Literary Festival, and once Capital M got up in 2009, the action – and the participants – began to shift between the two cities. Guests speak at ticketed sessions that include panels, conversations, readings, literary lunches and other forums, conducted mainly in English but occasionally in Mandarin, French or Italian. After the day’s public events are done, the writers get to know one another over dinner. Garnaut also runs the M Literary Residency Program, giving two writers each year the chance to work for three months in either China or India.

 When I emailed American author Amy Tan to ask her what distinguished the M literary festival from others she’s attended, she answered, “Michelle. The festival is out of the same quirky, classy, fun and ingenious mind that made the Glamour Bar and all her other restaurants. It is eclectic, sophisticated and surprising.”

Last year, Tan invited Garnaut to join her for a birthday celebration in Raja Ampat in Indonesia. She’d be travelling with Tan’s close friends, including Kathi Kamen Goldmark, an American author and publishing consultant, and the brains, guitar and voice behind the Rock Bottom Remainders, an occasional band in which writers like Tan and Stephen King can pretend to be rock stars, and all for charity. Goldmark was by then suffering from advanced breast cancer.

Tan told me in an email that Garnaut invited Goldmark and her husband, Sam Barry, who’d always wanted to visit China, to conduct a writing workshop at the festival and also to jam at the Glamour Bar in a benefit gig for the Village People Project. Fellow lit-fest guest Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, took part. “During one song,” Tan says, Groening “spontaneously drew about ten cartoons on an easel. Matt would have simply given them away, but Michelle jumped in and became an auctioneer. She rallied the crowd – goaded, wheedled, enthused, brought people to a frenzy, making them think the meaning of their life would be lost if they did not outbid the last bidder. Soon piles of money were being raised. Matt threw in a latex head of Homer he had been wearing.” When Goldmark and Barry arrived in Shanghai, “Michelle and Tina [Kanagaratnam, co-founder of the literary festival] made arrangements for a car and driver, accommodation, phone, assistance – everything to make them comfortable. They were stunned by her generosity ... Kathi passed away a month later.”

I ask Garnaut what motivates her. “Lunacy?” she muses. “Masochism?” Another pause. “Control freak-dom. I’m a show-off.” Towards the end of our interview in the bar of Capital M, as the light begins to slant and fade over Tiananmen Square, Garnaut remarks: ‘You know, I sometimes remember that 21-year-old girl who left Australia and didn’t know anybody. I knew two people in Sydney and maybe one person in Adelaide ... And I now can go to Karachi and I know people ... People say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky,’ and it’s like, ‘Yes, I’m lucky,’ but there’s no such thing as luck, really. I mean all luck is a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. No matter what you do.” 

Later, I email Garnaut to ask her favourite dish. “Ha! I don’t have favourites,” she answers. “When they’re all perfect, ahhhh, then everything is great.”

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

October 2013

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