Red Chamber restaurant: a Joburg legend 30 years in the making

Emma Chen will happily share the story behind her iconic Chinese eatery, but she'll never divulge the secret behind her equally famous cucumber salad

17.10.2019

Emma Chen will happily share the story behind her iconic Chinese eatery, but she'll never divulge the secret behind her equally famous cucumber salad.

Emma Chen will happily share the story behind her iconic Chinese eatery, but she'll never divulge the secret behind her equally famous cucumber salad

Emma Chen, founder of one of Joburg's most iconic Chinese Restaurants, Red Chamber in Hyde Park Corner.

Restaurateur Emma Chen, who celebrated the 30th anniversary of her Red Chamber restaurant recently, shares the story from humble beginnings to the award-winning Hyde Park Corner restaurant it is today:

I took over a dilapidated jazz club spread over two levels. It never occurred to me that it was far too big for a new restaurant and I had not heard that most new restaurants failed within the first year.

Emma Chen, Chef Zhang and staff at the first Red Chamber in 1990.

- the colour suggested the name"Red Chamber" to me.

When I phoned and told my father in Taiwan, he disagreed:"How can a restaurant be a dream? It's unlucky." After consulting a fortune teller, my father decided on"San Yuan Lou" - the harmony of heaven, earth and people. It was definitely an auspicious name, perhaps too grand for a restaurant. I was also told that there should be a fish tank near the till."Running water symbolises money coming!"

(Ba (eight) sounds similar to Fa (prosperity).) Unfortunately the crockery and kitchen wok stove were delayed in shipping. The opening ceremony had only one table of friends, with food that I had cooked at home. I can still recall the jubilant celebration we had, drinking copious amount of fire water and devouring platefuls of dishes.

Predictably, everybody soon became fluent in Chinese and Zulu swear words

I still remember the dialogue between the waiter Peter and a customer. Peter was trying to suggest an eggplant dish to the customer. Peter could not distinguish between"r" and"l"."Egg Prawn?" cried the disgusted customer,"we are vegetarian.""Yes. It's vegetarian. Egg prawn. Very nice egg prawn!!" said a frustrated Peter.

Gone was the set menu of sweet and sour pork, chicken chopsuey and a huge bowl of rice.

Looking back, I wonder what I would have done differently.

I am reminded that I enjoy what I am doing and I am extremely fortunate to carry on doing so.

"I'll give you the recipe but then I'll have to kill you," said Chen with a big smile when I asked for her cucumber salad recipe on behalf of a reader a couple of years ago.

"Every household makes it in a different way," she said politely, deftly picking up a couple of cucumber cubes with her chopsticks. I watched anxiously as she chewed, her expression not giving away a thing.

As generous as ever, Chen shared a few clues to the perfect cucumber salad.

Read more: Sunday Times

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