Jason Lui - General Manager of Flower Drum Restaurant
Jason Lui is the General Manager of Melbourne's iconic Flower Drum restaurant. The venue has held pride of place in Chinatown for almost 50 years and was started by Gilbert Lau.
When you were growing up, how much did the family business impact on your life?
Growing up, Flower Drum wasn’t so much our family business, but rather the business family my father became a part of. Gilbert Lau (the previous owner) brought us over as a family from Hong Kong where my dad was already working as a head chef. I remember my Dad working so much, hardly seeing him really except for his day off and before school. My mum had passed away when my brother and I were young, so we had to grow up quickly. We learned to cook and clean for ourselves while Dad was not around.
What lessons did you learn from your father about business?
I learned a lot about Flower Drum from both my Dad and Gilbert - my Dad more about the way the kitchen and the menu runs, with Gilbert teaching me to see front of house through his eyes. Those two as a team, back in the day, was quite the formidable combination.
Were you always going to take over Flower Drum or was there something else you wanted to do?
No, well I didn’t plan to. I was completing University when the business was sold to my Dad and the other partners. Dad had asked me to help him out not long after. Apparently, behind the scenes, Gilbert and he had planned to train me up for the role without me knowing. Casual shifts turned to part time and part time turned to full time. Before I knew it, Gilbert ‘retired’ and I was left in charge. I hope I have done him and my Dad justice.
What does the future look like, given the challenges the industry is facing with COVID?
Very hard to say. At the time of writing, Melbourne is into our sixth lockdown. I worry a lot about the state of our industry and what the future looks like. While I can’t speak for everyone, for us, the last 18 or so months has been a steep learning curve. We’ve had to adjust to our calendar, with the city being devoid of big events, such as the AFL Final series, Spring Racing Carnival and more, while also adjusting to changing the business model to doing takeaway service only. Not to mention all the new COVID safe rules and regulations and processes to adhere to. That being said, I also believe that our industry is a very resilient one. And the positives I have noticed over this Covid period, is the industry has really bonded and supported each other - more than I have ever seen over my 20 years of working in it.
What core values of the business have changed through the generations or do they remain the same... and do you find they limit you? Does it make it easier or harder?
I believe the core values of the business are relatively unchanged. We have always had a strong emphasis on service, sourcing the best ingredients we can and also consistency in both service and food. It is so important for us to be able to provide the same level of service and product that my guests expect when they dined with us 20 years ago or 2 years ago. I don’t think it limits us too much, if at all. If anything, in many ways it makes things easier, as the team understands what is paramount in our values. Therefore we are all working to achieve the same goals.
Is there extra pressure on you because of the family connection?
The pressure is always there. Though I think I probably put more on myself to make the business work, more than anyone else. Over the years of running the restaurant, I have come to the realisation I am custodian of the business and I do want to make sure the restaurant thrives under my watch, despite the challenges that come our way. Over Gilbert’s tenure, he went through recessions and various other things and always found a way.
What would you hand over to your own children about the business and is there a succession plan in place for when that happens?
While I do not have any children as yet, I do not think I would want to force them to do anything they do not want to do. My experience in hospitality has taught me so much, not only on the job but in life, and also introduced me to so many people that I consider some of my dearest friends - something I would not change for the world. As for a succession plan, I am always trying to train up the next generation and also on the lookout to have great people to work with. While I have an amazing team as it is, I still need to be identifying those with the drive and energy to be able to take what I know and do in the business and carry it forward much as Gilbert taught me.
Do you go to your dad for advice?
I do on occasion, especially about food and menu matters. He has a wealth of knowledge in Cantonese cooking and food I feel is unrivalled. I’d be silly not to use that. Sometimes I’d tap him on the shoulder to ask him how things were done prior to my time. With the restaurant now into it’s 46th year, there’s a lot of history there.