Owner of iconic Joburg restaurant: Will people ever go out to eat again?

The Red Chamber's Emma Chen talks lockdown, takeaways and the new thinking around dining out

04 June 2020 - 09:17
By hilary biller AND Hilary Biller
Emma Chen, founder of one of Joburg's most iconic Chinese Restaurants, Red Chamber in Hyde Park Corner.
Image: Alaister Russell Emma Chen, founder of one of Joburg's most iconic Chinese Restaurants, Red Chamber in Hyde Park Corner.

Restaurateur Emma Chen, like all those in the beleaguered hospitality industry, has had many sleepless nights about the future of her businesses, her staff, and the industry itself.

Her Asian restaurant, Red Chamber, a much-revered institution in Johannesburg, has been around for 30 years. For the past 23 of those, it's been located in Hyde Park Corner. It's become a family restaurant, Chen explains, a place where birthday celebrations and get-togethers ritually happen.

The authentic Chinese food cooked by “proper chefs” draws in the crowds, but it's Chen's personal attention that has bought her customers' loyalty. Many of them have become friends and some have been patronising the establishment for decades.

“I know the person by looking at what they have ordered,” she says.

Red Chamber is closed for now, says Chen, adding: “There are great uncertainties like rental and how much one can afford to pay in retail spaces.”

Times may be tough, but Chen is pragmatic: she likens the lockdown to “winding down the clock”.  Her greatest sadness has been having to retrench half of her loyal staff, some of whom have been with her for decades, but she's determined to call them back to work when she can.  

Although the Red Chamber has temporarily shut, Pron, the restaurant's younger sibling in Linden, has been open for deliveries and now for kerbside takeaway collections.

Chen has been finding the new order difficult, however. She's not a fan of the concept of fast food, nor is it the way her restaurants cook: they've never been driven by volume and each dish is made to order.

Despite operating on a skeleton staff, social distancing in Pron's small kitchen is a challenge too. Chen manages to find the humour in the situation, saying there's plenty of space to do so in the empty dining area, where the tables and chairs are all piled on top of each other.

Decorations for the Chinese New Year, a 15-day festival that began at the end of January, still adorn the eatery. This is when business first started to drop off — long before the actual lockdown started — a sign of the discrimination Asian communities suffered following the initial outbreak of the virus in China.

“I sit in Pron and admire all the funky new décor we changed for the celebration, yet I’m the only one admiring it,” says Chen with a tinge of sadness.

One of her biggest fears, she admits, is whether customers will ever go out to eat again. Lifestyles have changed while the country's been housebound, and many people may be nervous to sit down to enjoy a meal once all the trading restrictions on restaurants have finally been lifted.

Time will tell, but Chen is looking forward to the chance to “wind back the clock” and start afresh. It will be a new beginning, she says. “I feel I can do it.”


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