[Update 2017: Goldstein has since left ZS Hospitality]
If anyone knows how to make a comeback, it’s Harlan Goldstein. Over the years, the chef-slash-restaurateur has worked at fancy hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, locked in prominent partnerships with Hong Kong’s wealthy backers, and made an unforgettable name for himself along the way. He tells us about his ambitious plans in a shoddy economy, cooking for billionaires, and Facebook exchanges with his 93-year-old mama.
A Little Background
Harlan Goldstein was born in New York City, and by his own account, was a troublemaker at a very young age. When he was 14, his mother shipped him off to work with his uncle, who was a French chef at New York City’s Le Cordon Bleu. Goldstein worked his way up the ranks, landing leading roles at a Michelin-starred restaurant (the now-closed La Francaise in Chicago), Hyatt Regency (Hawaii) and Shangri-La (Beijing), among other credentials. He settled in Hong Kong more than two decades ago, making his mark on the private dining scene at the Aberdeen Marina Club and cooking for the city’s elite on the side.
Goldstein eventually gained the confidence of Sun Hung Kei property mogul Walter Kwok, who gave him a space at the IFC to open up fine dine Harlan’s in 2004. Goldstein and his then-business partners went on to open a half-dozen more venues under his personal brand, but the two parties fell out and became embroiled in litigations four years later, with Goldstein leaving the collaboration and his namesake brands behind. He went on to open Central venues Tuscany by H, Gold and Strip House (all closed, but not before the latter two garnered Michelin nods). In 2014, he took over Causeway Bay projects Penthouse and Sushi To with business partner Simon To, but the collaboration also proved short-lived. In the summer of 2015, Goldstein retreated from the spotlight, only to resurface a year later with four new restaurant announcements, this time in conjunction with ZS Hospitality. [Update: Goldstein has since left ZS Hospitality]
To state the obvious: you’ve been through a lot. What have you learned from your experiences?
Twenty years ago, I was bad, I was worse than Gordon Ramsay. I’ve changed my strategy. I’ve started motivating [my staff], team-building, just getting them motivated and shit. That’s my strength now, to motivate a team.
People have this image of me, like: “Oh that motherfucker.” It’s okay, I don’t care what they think to be honest with you. As long as they’re talking, I’m happy, whether it’s good or bad.
Your mother was the one who set you straight and sent you down the F&B path. She sounds like an amazing woman.
She’s 93 years old now, she’s my Facebook friend, I talk to her three times a week. She’s super cool. Walks with a walker now, but very sharp. Lives by herself, me and my sister put her in assisted living. If I make it to 93 it’s gonna be a miracle. She follows everything, she knows what’s going on. It was a little bit embarrassing at the beginning because I would write things on FB, and she’d write in the comments. I’d go, should I delete her? Nah. I can’t.
You’ve traveled all over the world as a chef. Did it take a bit of convincing to get your wife to join you on your adventures?
I met my wife in Orlando. Then I got an opportunity to go to Hawaii for [Hyatt Regency] hotel. I said, “Helen, come to Hawaii. Listen, I’m not doing phone sex for six months, you either come or I’m getting a Hawaiian girlfriend.”
In Hong Kong, you’ve had the opportunity to cook personally for some of the wealthiest businesspeople and families. How was that like?
I always cooked on the side for all these big guys: Dixon Poon, Robert Kuok, Walter Kwok. Hong Kong’s standard is calling everyone by “Mister” something, and I never called them by their last names. It distances me too much. I need to be connected. If you have 3 billion dollars in your bank account and I call you Mr. Chan, I don’t feel comfortable. And they like it because they know I’m not the servant.
You also got a lovely space for your own restaurant from Walter Kwok…
Yeah. So I was up on May Road one day, cooking for them. And you’ve got 10 billionaires there. In front of them I said, “Hey Walter, when are you going to give me a place of my own?” And he goes, “Come and see me tomorrow at 10am in the morning.” I was like oh my god what is going on? I go, and all of a sudden [I got the space at the IFC]. I found funding for the restaurant in three days.
The market was crazy. Because the people would come in for lunch, a table for three, and spend 40 grand. I was like, are you fucking kidding me? I was the hottest thing, and it lasted for four years. In eight months I paid back their investment.
In your latest collaboration with ZS Hospitality, you’re opening four restaurants, all around the same time. Are you sure that’s a good idea?
You know what, Hong Kong is a very tough market right now. Twenty-four years I’ve been here and I’ve never seen it like this. But I still believe that if you give something good, price it right, and deliver to the expectation of your customers, you’ll make it.
My passion really makes me bleed to succeed. Success is measured in how good your restaurant is — the money comes later.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.