French chef Gregory Louraichi (MA LI)
French chef Gregory Louraichi has rubbed shoulders with Michelin-starred celebrities and worked in some of China's best-known French restaurants. He opened Greg's in one of Xiamen's most exclusive neighborhoods in 2011 and has become a household name in his adopted city.
A rags-to-riches story
Louraichi, 35, from Arcachon, a popular seaside resort near Bordeaux in France, has spent much of his life behind a stove. If he comes across as an affable sort of man, he can be a ruthless perfectionist in his kitchen. "I was 13 when I joined the École hôtelière d'Arcachon. I started work at 17," he recalled with a sense of pride.
Louraichi had spent six years honing his skills in restaurants in France when finally opportunity beckoned. "My best friend went to China, and I followed him to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province in south China, in 2003. I didn't have a penny to my name when I got there," he said with a shrug.
He went on to work for La Seine, a hallmark of French cuisine in China at the time, and was soon opening branches in Shanghai and Beijing. After a stint in Hong Kong at La Villa with international chefs, he came back to the mainland and got married. He then embarked on a consulting career, and it was during a wine event in Xiamen that some influential people noticed this gifted Frenchman in his mid-20s. His four-year tenure with Sofitel was his major breakthrough: the indefatigable Louraichi managed this French premier hospitality company's restaurant business in Xiamen and Dongguan, another city in Guangdong.
The birth of his two sons during this period was a clarion call for change: "I had been toying with the idea of opening my own business, and I found a great location in what used to be a café called Xiamen Xiamen." It was in the winter of 2011.
Louraichi kept collaborating with Sofitel. He took part in a major event with the world's most renowned chefs, the Sofitel Star Chef, in Xiamen in 2012. He is now working toward opening a second restaurant in Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province in southwest China, by the end of 2016.
Louraichi is enthusiastic about this new venture. "The idea is to bring French cuisine to second-tier cities in China. Of course, the competition is fierce, but if you strive to create something that is really unique, there's no reason it will fail," he emphasized.
Cosy and intimate at Greg's (MA LI)
A labor of love
Being a chef is not all roses, even more so abroad. "It can be a problem to get all the ingredients you need when you are outside Shanghai or Guangzhou," he remarked wryly. Therefore, he stressed, it was crucial to develop a solid network with other international chefs and share experiences.
Today, a force to be reckoned with in Xiamen's high-end catering sector, he says he can do all sorts of events, from buffets and afternoon teas to cocktail parties. "I can also do private parties with a tasting menu of 10 to 12 different dishes depending on the availability of ingredients such as caviar or oysters. The key is to be original and creative," he said. "Food must be a gustative and visual experience. I stick to the basics and add my personal touch depending on my inspiration."
Louraichi's cuisine is in high demand in Xiamen's business circles. He is now able to arrange up to five events in a single day. "Greg can cater to all sorts of events, from private business dinners to large receptions of 500 guests," said Viviane Long, his wife, who is from east China's Jiangxi Province. The key to his success and efficiency is simple: a blend of rigorous timing, strong organizational skills, and authoritative leadership.
"Greg works against the clock. I sometimes wonder how he can manage such a workload," Viviane said admiringly.
She is in charge of marketing and public relations, and deals with the administrative and financial sides of the business. Louraichi has a team of dedicated employees. Abel, 29, his second-in-command in the kitchen, has followed him in every endeavor since 2008.
Louraichi may be a stickler for detail and the work hours may be long, but he makes it worthwhile for everyone. "I share everything with my staff and other chefs," he said.
Getting ready for a busy evening at Greg's (MA LI)
Living the good life
Ask foreigners about Xiamen, and they will mention its relaxed atmosphere. It was rated China's most romantic city in 2011 and second for its exceptional living environment, next to Shanghai. The main island with its two districts—Huli and Siming—and the Kulangsu Island are a magnet for foreigners. In 2015, expats put Xiamen on the Top 10 list of China's most attractive cities.
A 19-year-old Ukrainian, known only as Sacha, waits at the table at Greg's. He has been living in Xiamen for two years. "Xiamen is clean, we live in a relaxed environment and everything is so convenient here," he said with a broad smile, echoing a much-repeated mantra.
Laurent Le Guen, a French wine dealer, has spent nearly a decade in China. He has opened an office in Xiamen and Greg's has become his "canteen." "I drop by whenever I can," the 48-year-old said slowly, sipping a glass of red wine. "The food is fantastic." Like most of the foreigners who have settled in the leafy Guanren area, he is living the good life.
Louraichi has been almost like the official face of Xiamen's foreign community since 2014. He was appointed Xiamen's goodwill ambassador for tourism and received a certificate from the municipal government in May 2016. Greg's has earned a reputation for entertaining international football stars —such as Cafu and Ronaldinho—as well as top Chinese CEOs.
Louraichi feels he wouldn't have all these opportunities to grow and flourish had he stayed on in Arcachon. France is never far away though. Xiamen and Nice are sister cities and Louraichi caters to the main events between the two sun-drenched seaside resorts. A homecoming of sorts.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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