Unfiltered: Michael Peng
As Hunan celebrates four decades of trading in Chelsea, operator and wine aficionado, Michael Peng is enjoying seeing “the happy faces of his guests”, high on the supply of his ever-exciting wine list and banquet of around 18 dishes per sitting. That is despite challenging market conditions, including the increased scarcity of Chinese ingredients, and a decrease in the availability of highly skilled Chinese chefs coming to our shores.
What is your vintage?
1975 from which Lafite wasn’t too bad, though the magnum of 1978 from my wife’s vintage was much better. Both were built to last with robust, tertiary flavours, which I love.
What is your motto?
If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.
Where did you grow up?
My family along with the chefs and waiters shared rooms above the restaurant, which is how a lot of businesses operate in China. An old-fashioned way of running a business which I wouldn’t recommend! My parents, who were constantly working, asked me to help out when I was nine years old which I thought was normal. They were a major influence on my work ethic.
How did you come to take over the wine list?
Being an archetypal patriarch family leader, my father made all the decisions when it came to Hunan, so I wanted to find an angle where he couldn’t tell me what to do, which turned out to be wine.
What bottle ignited your oenophilia?
My Chinese cooking course tutor at Westminster Kingsway College, Norman Fu, who brought out Rieslings for us to try with the food we had made. The marriage of Oberhausen Brücke by Dönnhoff with Thai salad was a revelation.
Who was your inspiration?
For 25 years, my parents only had one wine supplier. A three-times-a-week lunch customer told me, “the food is great, but the wine is so-so – you could do so much better.” He turned out to be a massive collector and helped me open a bonded account, breaking down the whole process, explaining en-primeur, and introducing me to the people he worked with. He then transferred 20 cases of Bordeaux into the account, “to get you started.” Whether Bordeaux is the best match with Chinese food is up for debate. And at one point we had over 30 suppliers.
What is your father’s view on running a restaurant?
Forget the décor, service and wine because guests come to see him and for the cooking. Though he could see the value when we started to sell better quality wines, especially given a lot of our customers are wine collectors, enthusiasts, or work in the trade, or they come from the art world, for which there is a correlation with wine.
What are standout producers on your list?
Palladius by Eben Sadie and the single-vineyard Pinot Noir, Abbey Ridge from J. Christopher, Dr Loosen’s operation in Oregon which works well with our food. I’ve taken on some smart wines from Corsica, recently, too. Then there’s the “secret” handwritten list which features odd bottles we pick up, such as Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant and Clos Rougeard.
What style of wines do you enjoy?
Pure and elegant with bottle age. Though I’ll drink anything provided it is well made.
Which grape can you happily do without?
Where would we find particular value in your selection?
Portugal, Austria, and South Africa. Getting value excites me.
What’s the biggest challenge to Hunan?
Getting chefs is a real, absolute nightmare. In Chinese cuisine, if a chef is 55-60, they’re seen as young. Most of the chefs at Hunan are in their 60s and 70s. The skillset is dying.
Who is your current head chef?
Sam Wong, formerly senior sous chef at the very famous Ming Court, Hong Kong. He is marrying his style with that of my father whose cooking can be hard to replicate given he cooks with feeling and organically. Sam was used to working with 40 people underneath him before. I was very lucky to find someone of my age.
How many dishes do you serve in a sitting?
Around 18, after which we charge a supplement. We had one guy who wanted to set a record, who went to 28. But people are more health-conscious now and I don’t want to encourage waste.
Are people also drinking with more consideration?
Yes, they’re drinking less and wanting better. The days of chucking down three bottles of Prosecco over lunch are over. And dry January has become dry February.
Do you enjoy selecting the wine for guests?
My view is if I’m going to choose 18 plates of food for you, why don’t I choose your wine, too? And if you don’t like it, I’m happy for you to send it back. It’s about adding value to the experience.
Who is the most memorable guest you have looked after?
I don’t like to name drop. We get all sorts who bring in stonking, “once in a lifetime” wines which I’m very lucky to try.
From where do your ingredients come?
As an example, we buy dayboat fish, which can be a logistical nightmare. But it’s a price worth paying for extra freshness. I can even give you the name of the captain of the boat which landed it.
What ingredient do you struggle with?
Green bell peppers except in sweet and sour chicken.
How are Chinese drinkers evolving?
Wine culture in China has picked up so much over the last couple of years. A lot of high-net-worth Chinese come in knowing exactly what they want – they know their beans. A sign of things to come. There’s one guy who only wants to drink natural wines and it’s cool to see that. Not many Chinese restaurants put a big focus on wines and they’re missing a trick.
What’s your go-to drink at the end of a long day?
Chinese people like sweet wines perhaps because you can’t taste the alcohol. I like older Tokaj and aged Austrians like Kracher 1994 Auslese. Around a third of what we drink at our numerous staff parties is sweet. And because this style is not super-popular, it can be easier to pick up at good value and with age.
What are the best seats in the house?
Tables three and four right at the front in the windows which we save for VIPs.
Tell us something surprising about yourself?
I’m known for going on runs. Even if I finish at 4 am, I will go running at 7 am on Saturdays.
What do you look for in employees?
Potential, open-mindedness and a willingness to learn. We can then polish them up.
Hunan – 51 Pimlico Road, London, SW1W 8NE; 0207 730 5712; email@example.com; hunanlondon.com