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China Garden -- a success story that could have been scripted by Bollywood

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(This is the first of two exclusive extracts from "Secret Sauce", an in-depth look at 40 of India's most iconic and successful restaurants, not just as landmarks and must-visit destinations but also as businesses that have stood the test of time and upheld their standards of dining and culinary excellence. From a 100-year-old no-frills eatery in Bengaluru to an award-winning dine-out venue in Delhi, from inventive cafes to nationwide chains that have scaled admirably, this book is a sumptuous treat for aspiring food entrepreneurs, foodies, and anyone interested in the success secrets and inner workings of the restaurant business in India.)
 
In its heyday you could, on any given evening, be dining at China Garden and have Goldie Hawn, Imran Khan or members of Bollywood's Kapoor clan at a table nearby. Playing charming host to his celebrity clientele would be Nelson Wang, relishing every moment. It must have been hugely gratifying for the man who had done various odd jobs as he made his way up in life, including being a shoe-maker and a limbo dancer, who also performed fire-eating tricks.
 
Born in 1950 in Kolkata to Chinese immigrants, Nelson left home and sought his fortune in Hyderabad and Bangalore (now Bengaluru), before landing in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the early 1970s with a suitcase and a little cash. Desperate, he was willing to do anything to make a living and so he joined Frederick's, a Chinese restaurant, as an assistant cook and was paid a modest sum of Rs 20 a month. He learnt on the job and harnessed the skills required in a kitchen devoted exclusively to Chinese cuisine. It was here that his love for food emerged as well, and that, backed by his admirable work ethic, saw him quickly become a key worker at Frederick's.
 
While he was still employed there, Nelson received an offer from the owner of a small, failing restaurant, China Town, to run it on a partnership model. China Town was just a hole in the wall with three tables on the ground floor and one upstairs.
 
Supremely confident about his cooking skills and food, Nelson took up the offer. Soon, customers were queuing up to take away food from China Town and word spread about Nelson Wang's cooking. The restaurant's commercial success and Nelson's frugal lifestyle allowed him to save enough to buy a flat for his family by the early '80s. Having made his way up the hard way, Nelson's top priority was to provide well for his wife and children. "He thought nothing of working twenty-hour days," says his son, Edward Wang, who now manages the Kemp's Corner outlet of the restaurant in Mumbai.
 
We've often noticed that fortuitous events occur at crucial junctures for successful restaurant businesses. For Nelson it was the arrival of the burly, food-loving cricket administrator Raj Singh Dungapur. A regular at China Town, he was also the President of the Cricket Club of India (CCI) at the time. Utterly impressed by Nelson Wang's cooking and attitude, Dungapur invited him to open a Chinese restaurant at the CCI. The China Man was the big break Nelson Wang was hankering for and would catapult him into a different league.
 
Even while working at the elite CCI, Nelson continued running China Town. His day would begin at 5 a.m. with a visit to Crawford market and end at 2 a.m. the next day. His family saw very little of him, but his wife was uncomplaining and a steady support. He drew the energy for this hard routine from his dream to open his own restaurant. He continued to practise thrift and saved every rupee he could. The opportunity to open his own business finally presented itself when Om Navani, also a fan of China Town and China Man, offered Nelson a space to open a bigger, more posh, Chinese restaurant.
 
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Instead of entering into a partnership with Navani, Nelson borrowed money from friends and bought space in Om Chambers at Kemp's Corner for this new, ambitious venture. Edward Wang says that his father believed, adamantly even, in being his own master and owning the spaces in which he would run restaurants. It is part of Mumbai hotel lore that Nelson Wang turned down an offer from Ajit Kerkar, then Chairman and MD of the Taj Hotels, to open restaurants in the chain's properties. He was determined not to give up his independence.
 
Nelson's vision for his restaurant was grand. He was clear that it would take shape in a space that he owned. His business acumen was sharp and he understood the value of real estate assets. Eventually, China Garden opened and Mumbai was bowled over. Spread across more than 7,000 sq ft, and with a vast lobby, it had makrana marble flooring, spectacular all-white interiors, water fountains and monogrammed napkins for privileged regulars. It was the dining place to be seen in, in the Mumbai of the '80s. Nelson Wang had never studied English, having only been to a Chinese school in Kolkata. But he was suave and charming and found himself perfectly at ease amidst his celebrity clientele.
 
Soon, Nelson was a celebrity himself and was invited to Bollywood parties and glitzy Mumbai gatherings.
 
Even with all the hype about the style and extravagance of China Garden, Nelson Wang was clear that the food would always be the hero in his business. Before opening China Garden, Nelson and his wife spent time travelling to Hong Kong, Bangkok and the Philippines to study their local cuisines. Nelson would never simply recreate a dish from elsewhere. According to Edward, one of his father's greatest strengths was his understanding of 'palate'. So, he could take any Oriental dish and tweak it to suit his customers.
 
Edward remembers that his father would experiment and innovate all the time. China Garden was, for instance, the first to put kimchi on the table. His specialities such as teppan soba noodles on a sizzler, pepper chicken, glazed chicken oyster chilli garlic, and corn cream, which the vegetarians love, all became star dishes.
 
As the business grew, Nelson gradually started grooming his two sons to run it. His advice to them was simple: Never give up CCI (that was his expression of gratitude to the place that launched him on his successful journey), be conservative while expanding and start restaurants in spaces you own. Nelson had made some smart real estate investments along the way, taking bank loans wherever possible. With the Indian economy on the upswing post 1992 and the subsequent real estate boom, his insistence on owning the spaces in which his restaurants were located was validated.
 
Nelson also believed that personal attention was a crucial factor in China Garden's success. Even today, all the restaurants are operated by family members with complete loyalty to the brand and the business. Financially, the group is in sound shape and all the bank debts have been paid off. The family business now includes a restaurant in Pune, two in Delhi and, of course, the China Garden in Mumbai, besides the outlet at CCI...
 
...With age catching up, Nelson Wang has bowed out of active involvement in China Garden and spends much of his time in Canada. But he's always there to provide guidance for Edward and his elder brother, Henry, who carry on the legacy. That, Edward says, is both a huge responsibility and a rich reward.
 
How Chicken Manchurian came to be
 
It was Nelson Wang who created the Chicken Manchurian, which has morphed into paneer, gobi and baby corn variants now commonly available at not only every Chinese eatery but also south Indian tiffin joints and street carts. Chicken Manchurian was Nelson Wang's response to requests from CCI members who said 'Kuch alag karo', make us something unique. Essentially, the dish consists of chicken pakoras tossed in soy sauce and condiments. It first bowled over diners at the China Man and went on to become the ubiquitous snack it now is.
 
(Jayanth Narayanan is an entrepreneur and restaurateur. Priya Bala is a food writer and critic with several years of experience in studying restaurants. In 2016, they co-authored Start Up Your Restaurant: The Definitive Guide for Anyone Who Dreams of Running Their Own Restaurant)
 

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