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Hospitality a well-honed art
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It is a wonder at times how people can deal with reporters. Sure, coverage in the press is currency for business endeavors but dealing with The Great Unwashed has to rank just after chicken pox and broken legs in a list of favorite things in the world.

Industry veterans have it much tougher.

After all these years in the business, some young whippersnapper still has to come up and bore them to tears with the same insipid, asked-to-death questions that have been published a million times before.

This is probably why M on the Bund proprietor Michelle Garnaut decided to forgo the formal interview this time, opting instead for an intimate dinner with some friends and offering Behind the Scenes a chance to listen to what the grand dame really thinks, and why. Which suited the purposes of this column just fine.

For those who have not yet heard her story or read it in her hundreds of newspaper and magazine interviews, this is it in a nutshell. She came to Hong Kong in the early-1980s to cook, did not like it, did stints in Europe and Thailand (where, according to the Australian, "people got jobs to party"), and figured Hong Kong was not so bad when she returned. In 1989 she opened M on the Fringe, and, after years of keeping her sharp ears to the ground, snapped up her present Bund venue in the former Nissin Shipping Company premises in time for a 1999 opening.

Needless to say, the restaurateur has shown immense savvy in her dealings in these parts of the world.

Speaking to her, one gets the sense that she is more than familiar with the heat of the kitchen, their intrinsically sexist nature and just what it takes to get to the very top of the demanding F&B business.

Her initial Shanghai work experience came about in December 1996 at the Peace Hotel. An acquaintance of hers had thrown a huge party there in 1991 for 550 people, and he was later asked to set up a dinner party in the same venue.

Garnaut arrived with Espen Harbitz her former Fringe and now Capital M (newly opened in Beijing) manager as the first foreigners to work in the renowned landmark, an honor not lost on the visionary. True to form, not everything went as planned. "We spent the first two days preparing," said Garnaut, who by all accounts is no shrinking violet in the kitchen.

"When we called for someone to clean the dust off the window sills, they sent someone to just paint over it. There must have been three or four layers on there."

There are no such irregularities at her own place here, this month celebrating its ninth anniversary.

One of the pioneers of fine-dining standalone Western restaurants in the city and the first on the Bund, M is still talk of the town today.

Fabulously stylish, the 220-seater with the glitzy Glamour Bar one floor below is an accurate reflection of Garnaut's cosmopolitan nature.

"We quite like retro here," the feisty bon vivant declared. Quite rightly so, with a menu offering oldies but goldies such as steak tartare and crispy suckling pig, starched tablecloths and gleaming silverware and service that remembers the name of the game is to provide a wonderful time to match the fare.

She has surrounded herself with likeminded aesthetes to keep her business ("we're not quite an empire; we're happy with three for the moment, although Guangzhou still holds a special place in our hearts") running the way she envisions while she jet-sets round the world.

Just as ready to talk about the socio-geographical nature of Mongolia as she is to discuss Turkish fare, listening to Garnaut's anecdotes is not entirely different to gleaming over the accounts from guest speakers that regularly make an appearance at Glamour.

An avid art collector and intellectual, her venues are also a vanguard in the art and literary scene. From art installations to the now-famous annual literary festival, Garnaut and her team are not simply obsessed with aesthetics but rather desire to provide a conduit for the propagation of ideas.

The latest addition to the family, Capital M, looks to continue in the same vein. "This is the seventh or eight project we've tried to undertake in Beijing over the last five and a half," said the Victorian.

"Now we've got THE view of Tiananmen." It goes well with the view her place has over the Huangpu and, one envisions, the view she will have one day over the Pearl River.

For all of Garnaut's acumen and the group's pizzazz, nothing less will do.

As part of M on the Bund's anniversary celebrations, the restaurant is offering The Grand Dessert Platter for just 9 yuan (US$1.25) with lunch and dinner through February 1.

The collection features its famous Pavlova, and whatever tarts, souffles, fools and beignets are on the dessert menu.

(Shanghai Daily January 24, 2008)

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