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

06 October 2019 - 00:00 By Hilary Biller
Emma Chen, founder of one of Joburg's most iconic Chinese Restaurants, Red Chamber in Hyde Park Corner.
Emma Chen, founder of one of Joburg's most iconic Chinese Restaurants, Red Chamber in Hyde Park Corner.
Image: Alaister Russell

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:

Early in 1989, I turned 30 and felt the need to do something about my career. I had been in South Africa since the early 1980's and had been a student at various universities, waitressing and working as a kitchen hand here and there.

Starting a restaurant seemed an obvious choice. Most of the Chinese restaurants were Cantonese and serving set menus was the rule of the day.

With loans from family and friends, I started Red Chamber in Rosebank Mews. 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.

I roped in some friends to help with the renovation - our high spirits were likely enhanced by the daily inhalation of contact glue we used to stick down rolls of vinyl flooring.

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

To save money, I decided to keep the existing red brick walls - the colour suggested the name "Red Chamber" to me. The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the four great novels in Chinese literature.

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!"

We reached a compromise: the name would be Red Chamber in English.

Next, an auspicious date, the 8th of August, was chosen for our opening day. (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.

A Chinese restaurant in Johannesburg meant clashes of different languages, cultures and value systems. In the kitchen, the Chinese chefs and Zulu kitchen hands communicated in broken English and exaggerated body language. Predictably, everybody soon became fluent in Chinese and Zulu swear words.

Predictably, everybody soon became fluent in Chinese and Zulu swear words
Emma Chen on the clash of cultures in the Red Chamber kitchens

In the dining room, there was also no shortage of drama. 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.

In the early days, the biggest joke for some customers was to order "flied lice". I had to control the spasm of my face, not to roll my eyes. Equally trying was when I asked the customers, "Is there anything you do not eat?" "No dogs or cats!" they'd say. Fortunately, the stereotyping of Chinese has noticeably changed over the years.

In 1997, Red Chamber moved to Hyde Park Corner. The fish tank, of course, moved with us, including "Da Ge" a Sailfin plecostomus. "Da Ge" is now a record-breaking 25 years old! In 2015, when we moved from upstairs down to our present location in the centre, we especially built a much larger tank for him. He is family. It is a joy for me to watch children running to me with wide eyes, to confirm Da Ge's age, after their parents point out Da Ge to them, explaining that they had known him when they themselves were children.

Da Ge, the Red Chamber's resident Sailfin plecostomus is a record-breaking 25 years old.
Da Ge, the Red Chamber's resident Sailfin plecostomus is a record-breaking 25 years old.
Image: Alaister Russell

Over the years, I noticed the growing understanding of the different types of Chinese food. Gone was the set menu of sweet and sour pork, chicken chopsuey and a huge bowl of rice.

In 2015, I opened People's Republic of Noodles (Pron) in Linden. I wanted to serve the kind of street food I was brought up with. Noodles, bread and dumplings and a selection of small dishes often spiced with spring onion, garlic, coriander, chilli and Sichuan pepper. Pron's flavourful and house-made food has made it a success.

The restaurant business has ups and downs - it has been very tempting to serve whatever was trendy: sushi, fusion, dim sum and poke bowls, for example. We have managed to stick to what we believe we are good at and try to do them right. Our signature dish, Peking duck, has been prepared the same way for over 25 years. It always makes me chuckle when customers return from a trip, "Emma, I still prefer your Peking duck!"

The Red Chamber's signature dish, Peking duck, has been prepared the same way for over 25 years
Emma Chen

A restaurant relies on teamwork. Sooner or later, unfortunately, someone will make a mistake. It took me a long time to accept and understand that. I believe that the foundation of a restaurant is the people who work there. Some of my team have been with me for more than 20 years.

Looking back, I wonder what I would have done differently. Perhaps I  should not have stayed in an expensive shopping centre for so long? Perhaps I should not have built up a business that is too personal?

I ask the customers every day, "Are you enjoying yourselves?" I am reminded that I enjoy what I am doing and I am extremely fortunate to carry on doing so.

THE CUCUMBER SALAD SECRET

Having failed to extract the recipe for the Red Chamber's famous Tiger Tiger salad, Sunday Times Food Editor Hilary Biller tries to recreate it. But what does Chen think of the result?

"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.

It is the most delicious salad. Ask any Red Chamber regular and the cucumber salad is bound to feature high up on their list of favourites. But getting the recipe is akin to unravelling the Da Vinci code. So simple, but what's the secret?

With the restaurant celebrating its 30th anniversary, it was time to find out and so we decided for fun that I would make what I thought was Red Chamber's version and put it to Chen for the ultimate test, the taste test.

The Red Chamber's famous Tiger Tiger salad.
The Red Chamber's famous Tiger Tiger salad.
Image: Alaister Russell

"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.

"Both salads are delicious," she said, referring to the Red Chamber original, gleaming nuggets of cold cucumber with just the right amount of chilli and garlic, and mine, which to my eye was looking a little on the pale side. The dressing had puddled at the bottom of the salad and the sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds was way too generous.

My turn to sample. No surprise, Red Chamber's cucumber salad was as delicious as ever and mine was the poor relative. But that didn't stop Chen bringing out the big guns, the father of the cucumber salad, the Tiger Tiger, a delicious mound of grated cucumber with the skin on and a good helping of chilli and garlic. Yum.

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

"Choose young cucumbers with a narrow waist," she said. The skin should be covered in lots of little bumps and preferably still have the flower attached, "which means it was picked that morning."

The cucumber, she said, should be taken from the fridge, sliced just before serving ice cold. And no rice vinegar!

Hilary Biller's oriental cucumber salad.
Hilary Biller's oriental cucumber salad.
Image: Alaister Russell

HILARY BILLER’S ORIENTAL CUCUMBER SALAD RECIPE

Ingredients:

1 large cucumber

Salt

Dressing

15ml (1 tbsp) rice wine vinegar

15ml (1 tbsp) sesame oil

1 dried red chilli, de-seeded and finely sliced or 5ml (1 tsp) dried chilli flakes

5ml (1 tsp) sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Method:

  1. Peel the cucumber using a vegetable peeler. With a sharp knife cut the cucumber in half lengthways then, using a teaspoon, remove the seeds and discard. Cut the cucumber in half again and cut into even-sized blocks.
  2. Place in a colander and sprinkle with salt and leave for 10 minutes.
  3. Make the dressing by combining the vinegar, sesame oil and chilli. Mix well and add a pinch of salt.
  4. Rinse the cucumber and place in a clean tea towel and squeeze out excess moisture.
  5. Place the cucumber in a serving dish. Just before serving, pour over the dressing, toss through and serve sprinkled with sesame seeds.