The Duckman: How to ruffle feathers at the Ritz

imageduckmanritzhotel

THE Peninsula Hotel is one of Asia’s most refined establishments. Some guests are chauffeured by Rolls Royce to and from the airport.

The good wife, our two girls, Madi and Milla, and I walk past the Rollers and into the seductive colonial-era foyer within two hours of landing in Hong Kong.

There are small towers of Louis Vuitton suitcases piled on trolleys near check-in. The porters, who have presumably lugged the bags from the Rollers, still have work to do.

I carry my own bag, a small chiller bag, into the hotel.

Four packaged birds are inside, yet it exactly resembles a cooler bag bulging with beer. I’m worried the Peninsula staff have pinged me for the boorish Aussie trying to bring his own booze to this elaborate party.

We aren’t staying at the Peninsula. We are meeting someone who has expressed interest in buying our ducks. We’re excited about the possibilities that might await us in Hong Kong, but all I can do is wonder if I’ll soon be thrown out.

Which would be a shame, not just because it would add to the growing list of reasons Madi and Milla have to be embarrassed about the old man. It would delay getting the ducks to our contact.

Bennet Lee runs a company that imports produce from farms, many of them small, the world over. He is as passionate about the origins of good food and farmers as anyone Jodi and I have met. He hasn’t promised us sales and indeed has forewarned us the process of getting our ducks into Hong Kong may be lengthy.

It took him three years of persistence to get a rare breed of Hungarian pig — the Mangalica — into the Peninsula’s Chinese restaurant. A farmer of rare-breed sheep in England provides him with eight lambs a month. He takes what the producer can grow, doesn’t make demands.

Bennet visited our farm late last year. With his encouragement, we’ve travelled to Hong Kong to get our ducks into the kitchens of some of the country’s most esteemed chefs. Bennet has organised a welcome dinner, and the duck handover, at a first floor restaurant at the Peninsula.

We walk swiftly through the Peninsula’s foyer. The good wife, carrying only her credit card in case she is struck by an urge to go shopping, suggests we take the stairs.

Never mind the bag with four ducks in it — I’m sweating despite the aircon. We make it unchallenged to the restaurant entry where I attempt to walk confidently past the maitre d who keenly eyes my bag of “beer”.

Fortunately, Bennet is seated at a table and offers a timely wave. I stumble on, complete the handover of ducks, and successfully avoid embarrassing my girls.

We spend four days in Hong Kong. Our generous and gracious host keeps us busy with dinners and duck tastings with various chefs.

On one memorable night we have dinner on the 101st floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This is the highest hotel in the world and the restaurant the highest in Asia.

Executive chef Peter Find is originally from rural Germany and has 130 chefs under him. They cook thousands of meals a week in the staff canteen alone — a wedding with 250 guests here is considered small.

We dine in a Ritz-Carlton private dining room usually hired for a gazillion dollars (though it might be more) a night by guests. It’s just the four Clarkes, Bennet, Peter, two of his chefs and the impeccable wait staff who make great fuss of presenting one of our fruit-fed ducks to the table.

We are thoroughly spoilt, but though we often get lost in the food, conversation and extraordinary views (and the champagne) the reason we are here is not lost — there are millions of people in China with a taste for this type of gourmet exclusivity. In another private room near us is a birthday party for a 14-year-old.

During the course of the evening we are joined by Peter’s colleague, Pino Lavarra, who runs the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. Both men are generous with their time and share their thoughts on food and the opportunities for small farmers.

“I like family businesses,” Peter offers. “And I like to meet them [the farmers]. You see the product in a different way then.”

“People come [to the Ritz-Carlton] first for social status but they come back for the produce,” Pino says. “The ingredient is the key.”

Peter says in the private dining rooms in particular “they come to hear [food] stories”.

Origins of food are increasingly important to these chefs, so is trust and consistency.

However, “unique” is a word they use often. “Everybody wants unique product,” Pino says. These chefs are not after replicas of famous produce. Pino, for example, isn’t interested in a version of Italian parmesan. He wants a distinctive product. The world is their larder. They’ll get good and distinctive produce from anywhere.

“I like it when I have something no one else in Hong Kong has,” says Pino, who recently tasted freeze-dried pepper from Tasmania. “It was a completely different approach. It moves away from the usual black pepper (I get) from Madagascar.”

Both men are busy people and often rely on suppliers, such as Bennet, to alert them to new produce. But unlike some of their customers the food isn’t flown in on private jets. Peter tells us he has budgets to adhere to.

This is somewhat bad news for Jodi and the two girls who are quickly hatching secret plans to send husband-dad-shopping hand brake back to Australia to run the farm, move into the Ritz-Carlton and oversee the quality of the ducks I’ll ship over. Unfortunately the good wife’s fantasy of living off a limitless credit card is dashed by Peter’s reality.

To the end of the night when Peter, who is fantastically enthusiastic and encouraging, offers generous words about the quality of our duck, Bennet helps again keep the good wife’s vision of the future realistic. “If it happens, it will take time,” he says of our still infant export plans.

Greg Clarke and his wife, Jodi, farm ducks at Port Campbell. To read the original tales of the Clarkes’ venture, visit theweeklytimes.com.au

TRAVEL AGENTS

We knew nothing about the logistics and legalities of getting our sample ducks to Hong Kong. I first rang the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and got nowhere — the T in DFAT, you might not know, really stands for Torment not Trade. We’ve since been told it may have been better to try Austrade.

Fortunately around the same time we booked our Hong Kong trip, Jodi sent a box of ducks to Tasmania for the first time. She sent them with Qantas Freight. The lady the good wife dealt with at Qantas was fantastically helpful.

Jodi called her back and asked about taking fresh meat from Australia to Hong Kong. “People do it all the time,” the lady said, and recommended we buy a small chiller bag, pack the ducks in it and check the bag in with our luggage (it’s perfectly cold in the cargo hold of a plane).

The unconfirmed caveat on this was the meat had to be less than 10kg and couldn’t be for sale — it could only be for personal use, which we decided it was since we ate and shared all our own ducks. At Hong Kong airport we collected all our bags, walked straight from the airport onto the train and were in our hotel in less than an hour. Our ducks were still perfectly chilled.