Episode 3: Barshu Sichuan Restaurant with Winston Xu
Yvonne Morgan, Winston Xu
Yvonne Morgan 00:08
Hello, and welcome back to Flipdish Takeaways where we bring you excerpts from the restaurant and hospitality industry from around the world. I'm your host, Yvonne Morgan. In this episode, we talk to Winston Xu about Barshu, a Chinese restaurant specializing in Sichuan cuisine, located in Soho, London. We talk about the unique tastes of Sichuan food, and the joy of introducing traditional dishes to his local customers. We chat about Barshu's, recent shift to online ordering, the changes that they have needed to make to grow their takeaway and delivery business, and Barshu's recent inclusion in the Michelin Guide. I'll start off with a bit of an introduction, Winston, it's a pleasure to meet you and to see you finally,
Winston Xu 00:52
Thank you, you too.
Yvonne Morgan 00:54
Just want to, want to thank you for coming on and sharing a little bit about your story and the story of Barshu.
Winston Xu 01:00
You're more than welcome.
Yvonne Morgan 01:01
So, if you don't mind, I'd love to just kick off and ask you a little bit about the history of Barshu. And maybe tell us a little bit about the history, when it was founded, your location, for those listeners who maybe don't know all about Barshu
Winston Xu 01:18
Yeah, I mean, first of all, I want to say that I wasn't really the founder or the person who invoked Barshu's setup about 15/16 years ago. And I recently joined the team, about a year ago, after the pandemic. So, the story I'm going to share is based on what I've heard, and what I have learned as well. So basically, Barshu was founded in 2005. So pretty much about 15/16 years ago, and at that time, as you know, the location of the restaurant's very close to Chinatown. So, most of these Chinese restaurants in Chinatown is selling the Cantonese one, which is like roast duck and the other classic dishes from south of China. And Barshu is the first restaurant who sells the Sichuan cuisine, which is mainly known as a spicy and a numbing flavour. So, at that time, nobody was sure about the, whether the business was going to be successful or not. But luckily, when they first opened, it attracted not only the Chinese customers, but also a lot of a Western foodies as well. So, it was a huge success at that time. And after that its continued to be a very strong competitor in the food industry around this area for many, many years and to now. Basically, that is the general history of Barshu restaurant.
Yvonne Morgan 02:45
Oh wow. And what do you think brought some of the kind of Westerners or tourists into the area as well, being such a new concept and maybe something that locals weren't, weren't used to? Was there a way that you got the word out there?
Winston Xu 02:57
Yeah, I mean it just, like, to me, I'm Chinese and you got to understand I know London and it's a very - they accept a multi culture and a multi food place and is a great city in the world. But there are slight conceptual differences between what Chinese really is and what Western people think China is. It just, in terms of the food and people from the Western world were more accepting at that time, I'm talking about 15 years ago, it's probably more about a roast duck and sweet and sour chicken you know, Kung Pao, prawns, all the very, very traditional dishes. And so, this is the huge challenge of when Barshu first set up and then coming to the market, it was, it was not easy to do the forecasting. But again, this is the reason why the owner and then the management at that time, the founders were very excited because Barshu was a success. So, because the flavour in Barshu is really spicy and a numbing flavour, a lot of chilies and then you will find all these spices inside of the dishes, whereas the Cantonese dishes most accepted by the Westerner are more sweet and sour and the taste of the dishes are completely different. I'm not sure whether you can get it or not.
Yvonne Morgan 04:31
I do, you're actually making my mouth water
Winston Xu 04:36
Yeah, so yeah, that was, for the owner and for the management was very difficult to forecast. And then because the Sichuan cuisine is one of the best cuisines in China. So, in the early – that decade, and China became more and more involved in the new world everybody started to view the real face of China. So, this is another reason why the owner wanted to bring the, the authentic, the best dishes in China to the new, greatest city. So that is what I've known from that time, 15 years ago.
Yvonne Morgan 05:15
It sounds like he knew that he was taking a bit of a risk or doing something that was a bit different, or outside of the norm of what people were expecting from the cuisine.
Winston Xu 05:26
Yeah, I mean, well, generally speaking businesses, it's risky behaviour, right. So, no matter what you do in business, there's, there's a risk involved. So, but this is also one of these, the challenge, and then the most exciting point for people to do business. So I mean, you're not only bringing the new dishes from China, but also bringing real culture to this great city, you know, to let people know that China is a huge, multi-cultural country, it's not only about the dishes in Hong Kong, but also we, as a Chinese, we, we've got such wonderful dishes from other parts of China, which in that time, not many people got to know about this point. So, I think it's not only the food, but also the culture, you know, this is the - another great way for the owner and the management to make this point.
Yvonne Morgan 06:26
Okay, and just talking about kind of when Barshu first opened, can you explain a little bit about what Barshu set out to do? Was there a mission that the restaurant was aiming to kind of achieve, potentially how that's evolved, since you originally opened?
Winston Xu 06:45
Yeah, at that time, the owner managed to bring the shift from Sichuan, particularly, to come all the way from China to London, to cook this authentic food. So, and the management brought every single table and chair and even the decorations are originally from China. So, it's not about the food, but also the decoration. So once this restaurant was set up, it was amazing for most of the people in London, not only the food, which they never had before, but also the environment, the atmosphere, you know, the music, you know, everything is so traditional China, that people had never seen in the other parts of the Chinatown restaurants. So, I think that it also gives the local customers an exciting point for people to start coming in and also to come back again. And but also obviously the service as well. You know, we have a great team to, first they need to understand what Sichuan cuisine is so they, they had very good training back in China. They not only make sure they understand the dishes, the culture, but also, they're just like the Sichuan culture ambassadors, so they pass on this culture, the passion of the food to the people in London, I think that is another way of success as well.
Yvonne Morgan 08:14
And what about the restaurant industry more generally in London? And where do you feel that Barshu fits in, in the dining scene and the Chinese restaurant scene,
Winston Xu 08:26
I think this restaurant sells the original Sichuan food, the Sichuan cuisine, so it's more famous for, like I said spicy, and numbing and all the chili oil and I think that is what this stands for. Nowadays, you know, after the success of Barshu, there's a lot of other investors or business partners jumping in this particular food industry. So now, Barshu obviously is not the only one who is selling these kinds of dishes. So the competitors also reduce the distance between other restaurants and Barshu. So I think now, the London food industry is accepting more and more dishes from all over the world, you know, and then obviously they place Barshu not as outstanding as, as 15 or 16 years ago, but we continue to be outstanding, we continue to be special. And this is the reason why we lasted for 15 or 16 years and we even, during this very difficult time, we still never lose the faith, never lose the confidence. So we will continue doing what we used to do and do our best in the near future.
Yvonne Morgan 09:48
And I do want to go to some of the changes that you've made more recently and during lockdown. However before we go there, I want to kind of talk about a little bit more about your food and your chefs and how you go about creating the menu and what you, what you offer today, how you listen to your customer or what's happening in the industry to evolve or create the menu that you think is what your customers are going to be interested in.
Winston Xu 10:17
Yeah, that's a very interesting point, because for us, the biggest challenge is balancing between the Westerner customers and also the Chinese customers. There are certain foods, for example, the fish, okay, and as far as I know, we, as a Chinese, most of us eat the fish with bones, okay, but the Westerners are more likely to eat the fish fillets without the bone. And the difference in flavour, obviously, it's different. But we also have to respect the western people that they prefer not to eat any meat with the bone in. And so there are certain dishes we have to make adjustments to. Even though that is one of the best dishes from China for Chinese customers. But we have to make a certain adjustment to, you know, to suit the local customers. So in doing that, we don't want to lose the authenticity of the original dishes. But we have to also respect the local customers' eating habits. And so this is, this balance never disappears from our restaurants. And then, so we need to fully understand what's the difference? That's the first and secondly, we will have to manage to make the suitable changes.
Yvonne Morgan 11:38
And do you do you spend a lot of time educating customers about the cultural differences? Or about what you're serving because of that?
Winston Xu 11:45
Yes, yes. I mean, just because it's not easy for Westerner customers to accept the full Chinese eating habit, for example, okay, let's say pigs trotters or pig's ear, you know, the beef offals or things like that, we respect the point that Western people, the local people, it's probably not easy for them to accept at the moment. But we are still trying to introduce, let them know, we open the door for them to understand real Chinese people's eating habits, so it's not that we push them to start accepting, but we will let them understand, you know. For some of them, it is easy, you know, they're open minded, once they know, they're, they're quite funny. So the local customers if they see the next table, where Chinese people are eating, ordering some different food, completely different from what they order, some of them say, "oh, what was the next table’s dish? Can you tell us more about it?" And then we'll be more than happy to share our views on it. And then some of them say they're going to go for it. You know?
Yvonne Morgan 13:31
Yeah, it's a huge compliment when you know, you're trying something new on your menu, or maybe there's something that's described might be a little bit more risky for someone who's not used to your cuisine.
Winston Xu 13:42
Yvonne Morgan 13:42
They see it being brought over to a table, they ask what it is, and they want to try that too. So, I'm sure that's probably exciting feedback that you get in the restaurant as well.
Winston Xu 13:51
Yeah, that's right, yeah.
Yvonne Morgan 13:53
I want to talk a little bit more about the more recent changes that yourself and you know, many other restaurants are going through at the moment. And some of our audiences that are listening are global audiences. So not just from the UK, or here in Ireland, across the US as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about the environment for restaurants within your city? And kind of what you've been experiencing and the challenges that you've gone through over the past few months? And probably even years, in some cases.
Winston Xu 14:23
Yeah. I mean, understand this, this moment is very tough. It's tough not only for us, but also for most businesses across the world. And definitely we are one which was affected. But as I said, it's business. Like, you have to do the business of the market. If the market's changing, you've got no other way but to start adapting to the new rules. For example, delivery, Before the pandemic., we didn't really pay attention to takeaway. It's not because we tried to ignore this market, but it's more like, our dishes, there is such a difference between the eating quality and the takeaway quality. You know, imagine if you've got piping hot chili oil that's kind of like a theatre, but I have no choice but to put it in takeaway containers. And by the time that the drivers get to your house, God knows how long that is going to take. And God knows when you open the lid, what your first impression will be. So this is, this is something that we wanted our customers to experience before the pandemic. So this is the reason why we never did a lot of takeaways, but after this lockdown, we had a very tough time. So we made our decision to start doing takeaway business. And then surprisingly, we've had reasonably good feedback from our customers, as you know that you know, that takeaway, you can only deliver, let's say, within three or five miles. So within three to five miles of our location, first, we have huge competitors, cause, you know, we've got very strong competitors just around the corner. And there are a lot of other choices for customers to order as well. And then they are very limited to the number of restaurants within three or five miles. So I'm really glad that we made our business survive during this difficult time. So we started cooperating with different takeaway platforms. So we did our, our best to do the campaign, to do the promotions, you know, we work closely with the platforms to get the feedback from our customers. So these are the, all the changes. We never thought about it before the pandemic. And we're very excited by the results we've made and as I said, you know, business, you never can avoid change in business, the business environment keeps changing every single minute. And the most important thing is that you just need to adapt to the new rules and start working on it hard.
Yvonne Morgan 17:05
Did you have to make any adaptations to your menu or your packaging when you started to kind of deliver outside of the restaurant or offer takeaway?
Winston Xu 17:13
Yeah, I mean, for certain, for certain dishes, we used to, as I said, we didn't have a lot of experience delivering food. So the containers we're using. they are one of the challenges for us as well. And some of the dishes, like I said, it's coming out to the table with piping hot oils, or with hot soups, and there are certain dishes we really cannot, for safety reasons, we cannot get to the delivery service. And for some of the dishes, we had to make changes, or we reduced the temperatures. So once the dish is cooked, we have to leave there for a certain number of minutes to get it cooled down before handing it to the drivers, you know for the style of the containers or wrapping skills, with clean fumes and make sure that it's all been properly looked after, for the safety of the drivers, these are all the challenges that we face and during this time, where we never had a similar experience. But yeah. So those are the things we, I'm sure we're not the only one. Other businesses are also doing the similar changes in behaviour. Because we've also had our own customer space all these years. So, for instance, they place, we've got a reasonable number of people who want to order from us, they're probably about 10 miles away or eight miles away. So, we create sort of like a group, like WhatsApp or WeChat group, so people are ordering from us on the same day. So, we have to get our own drivers to get all this food delivered on the same day just knocking on their doors, one by one and deliver to them. So, we've done that as well. Well, actually, I've delivered a few times by myself. We, we try to make the business, whatever it takes.
Yvonne Morgan 19:29
Absolutely. I wanted to ask about you dine-in experience. So now that you've opened back up, I think outdoor opened first and now you're open indoors as well.
Winston Xu 19:40
Yvonne Morgan 19:40
How have you adapted indoor?
Winston Xu 19:42
Well, yeah, it's quite funny. I mean, since you ask because we never ever put our tables outside, you know, and then after the 12th of April, because at that time, the government guidelines were for outdoor dining only, and tables inside were not allowed. We actually brought about four or five tables outside, and that made our business, to be honest. And then we never imagined people would want to sit outside to eat our food, because you might want to go to Soho for tapas, for drinks, you know, for fish and chips, but for our food, we never thought about that. But once we put our tables outside, we're, again, we are amazed by how many customers came back to us and started sitting down outside. And then we had one of these, a celebrity, I can't really mention his name, but he keeps coming back five times a week. You know, one of the times he had to hold his umbrella, because it was raining in London's weather. So having seen these customers, eating, coming back eating in the extremely bad weather, you know, that made us, you know, very touched, and then we just said, look, so now that we have the tables outside, we will never give up on the tables outside. And actually, now because we are in Soho, and especially on the weekend’s nights, Friday night or Saturday night, a lot of people sit down and have their drinks, before they carry on to next pub or bar. So that opened another door for us. You know, for people to understand this brand, this imagery from a different angle. So, I think that has been interesting for me since joining the team, as well.
Yvonne Morgan 21:27
Oh, that's great. You know, your restaurant has adapted a lot obviously since the pandemic, but it's so nice to hear, you know, that customers love your restaurant so much that they too, are adapting by doing things like you know, wanting to sit outside and still enjoy your delicious food. So that's great.
Winston Xu 21:45
Thank you, yes. Thank you.
Yvonne Morgan 21:46
And it sounds like you'll continue to keep those tables outside for your patrons then, for your customers.
Winston Xu 21:50
Absolutely, absolutely, yes.
Yvonne Morgan 21:52
Great. Talk about, a little bit more about the future. What do you think or what do you kind of anticipate or expect for the future for Barshu? And the restaurant industry more generally? Do you have any kind of comments or feelings about that?
Winston Xu 22:06
I think, well, for now, all I can say is this, it seems like this pandemic is not going to quickly. So everyone, every business, every company needs to adapt the new rules, and we just need to work out the best way for ourselves, you know, for the market, especially, you know, if it takes time for all these foreign students or the tourists to come back in London, you know, we have to continue to serve the local customers, make sure they keep coming back until UK can open the door accepting more tourists, more international students, especially from Asia. For the future, I think the dishes, we still have to work out with the chefs and make sure that we're doing the best dishes in town. And it's continue communicating with the chefs like sort of like a researcher department in China, we continue working on the dishes, no matter the pandemic or not. And for the marketing, we will continue working very hard with a delivery service. And for service, obviously, we cannot ignore the, any customers coming back, we're still going to offer the best service as well. So, no matter what happens, we just need to push from our inner world, and then do the best that we can, you know, for the best performance.
Yvonne Morgan 23:33
Excellent. And speaking of the best performance, I learned that you were recently included in the Michelin Guide. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Winston Xu 23:41
Yeah, thank you. Well, to be honest, that is one of the points which made myself proud as well, actually, Barshu has been nominating the Michelin Guide all these years. And funny enough, and we just realised, oh, it's been middle of 2021 It seems like we haven't received any stickers or any certificates yet. So, it was actually me contact them. And then to say, because when I looked on the website, we find out that we already been, you know, appointed as a Michelin Guide restaurant in this area. So, I just phoned them up, and then what I've had to do and then get stickers back on the window. It's actually, I just stick there a few weeks ago when I received it. It's a great honour to be part of the Michelin Guide, you know, and that means we have been doing things right to be pointed. And yeah, so whatever we do good, we do outstanding, we'll be continued doing that. And then we'll at the same time, as I said, we'll have work hard facing the very difficult business environment.
Yvonne Morgan 23:42
Well congratulations, achieving something like being included in the Michelin Guide during these, this time is quite, I'm sure a challenge amongst everything else that you have going on and the adapting that you've done in this environment. I'm sure that you probably have some advice for other restaurants. I wanted to ask, is there any, anything that you would mention or share with other restaurants either, whether it's around coming out of lockdown, or just as a highly respected restauranteur, and what you would suggest?
Winston Xu 25:17
Well, I think it's very difficult time and it's some of the restaurants facing extremely hard time to survive. You know, I just want to wish all the best for all of them and just, you know, get up and just no matter how hard it is, you still got to do what you got to do, you know, got to open door for every single business opportunity. Don't give up and just work hard on the right points, on, every single day. So good luck, everyone.
Yvonne Morgan 25:44
Thanks so much, Winston.
Winston Xu 25:45
Thank you. No problem.
Yvonne Morgan 25:51
That's it for this week's episode of Flipdish Takeaways. If you'd like to find out more, feel free to visit our website at flipdish.com If you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to hit subscribe wherever you're listening. See you next time.