Brian McKenna was comfortable in his life as a chef and club owner in Amsterdam until he was offered the chance to work in Beijing. Less than six weeks later he was on a plane to China. “I sold my home, my car, ended an eight-year relationship,” recalls McKenna, 36. “I literally got my bags, turned around, and that was it.”
It was 2006 and the capital was gearing up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. McKenna had little desire to return to his home town London, where, he felt, everyone was “in a rush but going nowhere”. In China, by contrast, “everybody is doing everything. It was just exciting. People wanted to be here.”
McKenna, who had become head chef of the (now closed) Michelin-starred Le Poussin at Parkhill restaurant in Hampshire, southern England, when he was just 21, was asked to launch the Blu Lobster restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel. He arrived, however, to find a nascent food scene that lacked variety and sophistication.
Rather than despair McKenna saw it as an opportunity. “At that time there was no Maison Boulud, no Capital M,” he says, referring to two fine dining stalwarts that are now established favourites in the capital. “The Chinese didn’t know what a Michelin [star] was. So I felt I could really come here and do something.”
That something was to put Blu Lobster on the map with its critically acclaimed modern Mediterranean cuisine. And for McKenna – a former boxer – it was a chance to mould himself into something of a local celebrity chef.
This year McKenna capitalised on his name by opening a chic restaurant in an imperial Qing dynasty former courtyard with views over the ancient Forbidden City moat. Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard, a partnership with Chinese-American developer Handel Lee, dishes up fusion European cuisine with a dash of molecular gastronomy at eye-watering prices for China’s newly rich.
When McKenna arrived in China, international high-end dining was still a concept largely reserved for the big hotel chains. Seven years later, countless restaurateurs, both local and expat, are jostling to cater to an increasingly cosmopolitan Chinese clientele, many of whom have lived abroad. McKenna savours the challenge. “I will take huge risks. If I lose, I lose. I don’t mind,” he says.
To give him an edge over his competitors, McKenna has incorporated playful nods towards China in the menu – a sure-fire hit with local diners. Patrons can crack into a chocolate terracotta warrior or a cheesecake that pays homage to the Chinese flag (both signature desserts).
China has “a million good things and 10 bad things,” says McKenna. His complaints are common: choking pollution, standstill traffic, and a restaurant scene which is still young (although improving rapidly, Beijing is easily eclipsed by New York and London). But these issues “don’t bother me because they’re all something I can’t do anything about,” says McKenna. Much more pressing is his lack of time and opportunity to practise boxing, a family hobby he has enjoyed since he was a small child.
Compensations, however, are numerous. McKenna loves to sing karaoke, a national pastime. He regularly goes out for pizza or enjoys local kebabs known as chuanr in small neighbourhood restaurants. Although he speaks no Chinese, he has a driver, personal assistant and translator to help him navigate the city.
For the past three years McKenna, a bachelor, has also enjoyed some of the city’s best views from his miniature penthouse in the Park Hyatt Residences. (Yao Ming, the former basketball star and national hero, is a neighbour). Situated in the middle of the central business district (CBD) among skyscrapers, upscale shops and clubs, the area is a coveted hub for the moneyed classes. With its vast car-clogged roads and titanic buildings, Beijing’s CBD has none of the quaint, low-key charm of the city’s older neighbourhoods. But McKenna – whose catering and restaurant concept company Brian McKenna Hospitality Group has 250 staff – loves the “pure convenience” of living close to his office. He is also keen to avoid living where many foreigners flock: the expat haunt Sanlitun, an area in the Chaoyang district, renowned for its vibrant, but gritty, bar street. “I fly first class, I stay in the best,” he says. “I have direction for where I am going.”
This has not always been the case. Born in London to poor Irish parents (McKenna’s father was one of 15 children; his mother one of 18), McKenna ended up in a young offender institution at just 14 years old. “I was just uncontrollable, I was wild,” he says. “I could still barely read or write at 13.”
The chef’s luck changed when he was placed under a mentorship scheme with an assistant rugby coach. He introduced McKenna to a new world. “He took me for my first McDonald's, my first cinema trip, introduced me to my first chef,” remembers McKenna, who admits to harbouring certain prejudices while growing up. As a difficult and troubled teenager, he was certain that only women could, or should, cook. “I [had] never seen a man cook before.”
Despite this, McKenna started to work part-time in the kitchen at Chez Nico restaurant in the five-star Grosvenor House hotel in London. The job provided him with a much-needed routine. “I enjoyed discipline; I enjoyed being part of a team. I enjoyed being part of something. I loved working,” he says.
McKenna says he misses his mother – “everything I am today is because of her” – and the raucous fun to be had in Ireland, the country of his parents’ birth. Still, for now Beijing is where he wants to be.
“Imagine what it is going to be like in 25 years,” he says. “They are going to have the best sky rail system. It will be absolutely phenomenal.” Should the city ever get too much, however, or should an opportunity arise elsewhere, McKenna is not adverse to picking up his bags and moving on again. “If you need to make changes, change,” he declares. “Don’t be scared.”
● Beijing offers many opportunities for entrepreneurs
● It is the cultural, as well as the political, capital of China
● Cold winters and stifling summers
● Shanghai, rather than Beijing, is considered to be the top destination in China for bars and restaurants
● Transport links are still in development and make getting around the city hard
What you can buy for ...
￡500,000 A 100 sq metre one-bedroom apartment in the CBD
￡1m A 200 sq metre two-bedroom apartment in the CBD
马克南担任英格兰南部汉普郡(Hampshire)帕克希尔饭店(Parkhill restaurant)米其林星级餐厅Le Poussin（如今已关张）主厨时只有21岁，有次受邀参加在北京香格里拉酒店(Shangri-La hotel)蓝韵餐厅(Blu Lobster)举办的午宴。但抵达那儿后，他发现端上来菜品花样与精细程度乏善可陈，显得太过小儿科。
马克南并不感到十分失望，相反他看作是自己的机遇。“当时，北京既没有布鲁宫法餐厅(Maison Boulud)，也没有Capital M餐厅，”他说，他指的是目前北京两家知名度最大的西餐厅。“中国人不知道何为米其林星级餐厅，因此我觉得自己可以来蓝韵餐厅有所作为。”
今年，马克南充分利用美籍华人李景汉(Handel Lee)的名声，在可俯瞰故宫、昔日清朝的一座四合院内与他合开了一家时尚餐厅——马克南四合轩(Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard)。餐厅融合中西餐饮精华，以分子美食系统方式呈现给中国的各路新贵，菜价高得令人咋舌。
过去三年，单身汉马克南一直居住于凯悦酒店公寓(Park Hyatt Residences)的屋顶小户套房，从那儿还可俯瞰北京城的胜景。（前篮球巨星及全民英雄姚明(Yao Ming)是他邻居）。凯悦酒店公寓位于北京中央商务区(central business district, CBD)中心位置，周围高楼林立，高档商铺与夜总会云集，是各路富豪觊觎的黄金地段。北京CBD的马路上车水马龙，周围摩天大楼密布，完全没有老城区那种奇特精巧、低调含蓄的美感。但马克南却很喜欢居住于此，因为这儿距离自己公司近在咫尺，“上班异常便利”。他的全新餐饮理念公司——马克南酒店管理有限公司(Brian McKenna Hospitality Group)有250名员工。他还竭力避开外国人扎堆居住的区域：外国侨民爱逛位于朝阳区的三里屯(Sanlitun)，这儿以喧嚣热闹、但鱼目混珠的酒吧街出名。“我出行要坐头等舱，住的是最高档酒店，”他说。“我知道如何把握自己的人生航向。”
尽管如此，马克南开始在伦敦五星级酒店格罗纳夫大酒店(Grosvenor House Hotel)的Chez Nico餐厅厨房干兼职。这份临时工作训练了他日常工作如何程序化，这是他所急需的东西。“我喜欢受纪律约束，喜欢成为团队的一分子，喜欢参与其中，热爱工作，”他说。