MELBOURNE | Chan Hon Meng, head chef and owner of the Michelin starred hawker stall “Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle” is bringing his famous chicken rice to Melbourne, and the news has got people talking. The 100 seat Hawker Chan will be opening on Lonsdale Street in October, and promises to offer a menu that “will be almost identical to Singapore with some local seasonal changes”.
It’s easy to get excited by the hype, but there’s good reason to be cautious. Over the past few weeks, since it was announced that Hawker Chan was opening in Melbourne, the hype has been steadily been building. Saying that the world’s cheapest Michelin starred meal is coming to Melbourne makes for a great headline, but it’s not much more than a marketing tool. The Melbourne Hawker Chan will be one of many in the region that have opened over the past year, joining Hawker Chan branches in Thailand, Taiwan, and Indonesia, and soon the Philippines. There are lot of Hawker Chans out there today, but only the original Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle has a Michelin star.
If you’re wondering how a humble chicken rice vendor has been able to expand his business so fast the answer is, of course, with partnership and investment. Hawker Chan is a collaboration between Chan Hon Meng and Hersing Corporation, the successful Singaporean investment company who have, amongst other things, built a reputation for turning small Asian food spots into successful chains. Melbourne diners will be familiar with one of Hersing Corporation’s other investments, Tim Ho Wan.
In 2009, Mak Kwai Pui’s dim sum restaurant Tim Ho Wan came to the world’s attention when it was awarded a Michelin star, becoming the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. Soon after, Mak Kwai Pui teamed up with Hersing Corporation, and today Tim Ho Wan outlets can be found across Asia, the USA and Australia. When Tim Ho Wan came to Melbourne last year, the hype was palpable – there were gushing previews written up, lines at launch, and of course, a lot of Instagram action about how “amazing” it was.
Once the dust settled and the hype wore off however, reality set in. The food at Tim Ho Wan Melbourne is good, and you’ll more often than not (consistency has been an issue for the store) get a decent feed here, but it’s no better than the best dim sum spots that already existed in Melbourne before its entrance. The tag line “the world’s cheapest Michelin restaurant”, which Tim Ho Wan like to use in their marketing around the world might sound good, but Tim Ho Wan in Melbourne is not one of the, as at today, three Tim Ho Wan outlets in Hong Kong that holds a Michelin star, and the food is not Michelin standard.
I’m a big fan of Chan Hon Meng’s Hong Kong-style soya sauce chicken rice (and his char siew noodles), and have visited the original a few times on my visits to Singapore since discovering it in 2011. If the chicken rice served at Melbourne’s Hawker Chan comes close to what’s being served up by Chan Hon Meng himself at the original, it’s going to be awesome. A perusal of write ups about not just the Hawker Chans that have opened up outside of Singapore, but the additional outlets that have opened up in Singapore, however, reveal a consistent theme – a decline in quality compared to the original and consistency issues. Given this, which mirrors the experience of many favourites which have become chains and declined in quality over the years (London’s Hummingbird Bakery I’m looking at you), the hype over Hawker Chan’s Melbourne opening loses much of its gloss.
When a chain expands so rapidly and so widely, quality almost always suffers. In fact, Chan Hon Meng has even been quoted as saying “I want to become the second KFC one day, to bring my soya sauce chicken to every part of the world.” I hope that Hawker Chan Melboure is great, and we’ll all be able to find out, but for now, I’m approaching this one with caution. In the meantime, Mr Loy’s Puff is a great chicken rice spot you can visit in Melbourne right now.