China Skyline nighttime

Dining revenues are down by as much as 50 percent in the past month at the Hilton Wangfujing in Beijing’s government district, according to Randolph Ng, the hotel’s executive chef. Chinese New Year, which falls this weekend, is typically a peak season for five-star hotels in Beijing, but this year the Hilton is scrambling to make up for lost business by looking to other sources of revenue, such as external catering.

A much-vaunted squeeze on lavish official entertainment and dining by China’s incoming leadership is hurting high-end establishments like the Hilton Wangfujing, which is located 15 minutes’ walk from Tiananmen Square. There, officials choose expensive, exquisitely decorated dishes like grouper to reflect their status.

While business banqueting remains healthy as firms celebrate Chinese New Year, there’s been a clamping down on the lucrative government banqueting business. In late December the Communist Party’s organization bureau announced that spending of public funds on banquets would henceforth be illegal, while the Central Military Commission overseeing the country’s giant military issued a similar ban on banquets.

Ad hoc clampdowns on political corruption are common in China, where public declarations of government spending and accounts remain notably absent. This time it may be different given renowned party troubleshooter Wang Qishan has been made the new head of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection.

The slow-down in banquet spending is unwelcome for Ng given he’s had to face food price hikes of up to 20 percent in the run up to Chinese New Year, due to both shortage of supply and opportunism by distributors. “It’s the peak time of year, sometimes the supply just isn’t there,” says Ng, who apportions up to 40 percent of his food budget to seafood.

Australian lobsters have nonetheless been a winter crowd puller for Ng. “We cook and serve them in a Chinese style for the diners, at a value price, and this draws a crowd,” explains Ng, who says he recoups his costs through high-value offerings like grouper and salmon. Even though conservationists have pointed to damage being done to wild grouper stocks the Hilton serves both wild as well as farmed grouper and charges RMB 200 (USD 32, EUR 23) per 50-gram serving of wild, line-caught grouper, says Ng.

Seafood consumption has changed frequently and hugely in the Singaporean chef’s seven years in China. He notes for instance the popularity of sashimi as a first course in the local banquets. “Four years ago, no one sliced sashimi. Now it’s in banquets and a la carte in many restaurants,” he says.

Ng puts much of the rapidity of the new trends down to mainland Chinese travelling more. “They’re seeing species abroad and then looking for them at home. Or they might take photos of seafood establishments and then open their own oyster bar.” Tasmanian oysters and New Zealand mussels are proving popular with Ng’s customers. Locally farmed shellfish, however, remain off his menus due to the dredging harvest methods which means a high sand content on local shells. Ng refuses to use local oysters, having had an experience of Delhi belly from a tasting of Dalian oysters.

Ng says the Hilton expects business to pick up again in March, once the new leadership, under incoming president Xi Jinping, is settled in. He’s lately been approached by local suppliers offering to supply barramundi and King George whiting, both of which Ng is considering using after Chinese New Year.

Slower spending at the Hilton may be a symptom of a wider malaise as China’s incoming government makes its point about cultivating a more frugal administration. China's catering sector grew 13 percent in 2012, to RMB 2.4 trillion (USD 384 billion, EUR 282 billion), according to Bian Jiang, vice president of the China Cuisine Association. The 2012 figure is 3 percent lower than industry expectations, and 3 percent down on 2011, according to Bian. He blames a weaker Chinese economy and the government’s recent austerity drive.

Yet there’s hope, said Bian, given the “majority of local dining expenditure comes from the private sector and individuals, not government.” Other restaurants have resorted to discounts and promotion platforms such as group booking websites. Bian says the China Cuisine Association will urge restaurants nationwide to save money by better purchasing and service policies.

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