WATCHING Alan Tran at work on his turbo wok range, it’s difficult to believe he only became a chef less than a year ago. He and his wife, Pat Shek, gave up well-paid city jobs in Beijing to turn what was a traditional Tynedale village pub into a Chinese restaurant.
It was a huge gamble, but one that is paying off for the friendly couple who have a two and a half year old daughter Lavinia. “We knew it was a challenging project,” Alan says. “But both our families have backgrounds in catering, albeit in more populated areas. None of us had looked at old coaching inns.”
Understandably the locals in Great Whittington might initially have been a little disconcerted to hear their beloved Queen’s Head was to become a Chinese. But they have taken Alan and Pat to their hearts – particularly as the couple have taken care to preserve the bar so it is still a place to enjoy a good pint as well as having what’s fast becoming a destination restaurant out back.
Indeed, last December Alan and Pat were called upon to lay on a 75-cover Christmas buffet for the local community, including the village hall and cricket club. “We did chicken and sweetcorn soup and starters like ribs; prawn toast and spring rolls and the mains were sweet and sour king prawn and Cantonese fillet steak. Everyone seemed to enjoy it.”
The Queen’s Head had been closed for four months before Alan and Pat took over the reins last May. “So the locals are happy because their village pub reopened but also because of it being a Chinese,” Alan says. “They can take advantage of that – it’s very convenient as we do a takeaway menu as well.”
Although cheffing is new to Alan, he has plenty of guidance from his father who works alongside him in the kitchen. Ivan Tran was head chef at a variety of Manchester’s Chinatown restaurants before swapping to the supply side of the business. “My recipes are from my dad,” Alan explains, pointing to a piece of paper taped up above his workbench and carefully handwritten in Chinese script. Alan, who is a Cantonese and English speaker, also has his father’s hand-held scales which he still uses.
Each large notch in the wood is the equivalent of 50 grammes (a leung in Chinese) whilst the five small notches in between represent one ’tin’ each (equivalent to 50g).
“My dad’s recipes are from the man who taught him and he had these recipes back from when he was a head chef back in Hong Kong.”
“Since my dad left the restaurant trade, he has never stepped back into a kitchen until I got this place,” Alan says.” Now he comes and helps regularly and I can see he enjoys this more than what he does now. When he steps back into the kitchen he sort of becomes himself again and knowing that I am sticking to recipes that were handed down to him, I think he feels proud.”
It was Ivan’s parents who first came to England Alan says. “We were Chinese ethnically. However, both my grandads were born in China but moved to Vietnam. So we have that Vietnamese link. Our cookery is definitely more influenced by Southern China and our sauces and marinades are very 1970s. What we have found is a lot of restaurants and takeaways now use more time-efficient methods, for example using ready made sauces from a box or crispy duck that’s pre-marinated and pre-cooked and then heated up for your consumers.
“There’s nothing like that here. My dad’s recipes are from the man who taught him and he had these recipes back from when he was a head chef back in Hong Kong. A lot of time when I hire help in the kitchen, they will say, I’ve seen this done this way and it’s a lot quicker. But one thing I won’t deviate from is the base sauces and the marinades.”
Cantonese cookery is their speciality. Canton is another word for Guangzhou which is the capital and largest city of Guangdong province in South China. Alan explains: “It has a lot more mixtures of flavours. There’s a lot of sweet and sour and a lot more colour – probably because of the heat really in Southern China. Yunnan province, Guangzhou and Vietnam are all humid and hot environments and I think a lot of people’s taste buds may need something more stimulating.
“In Northern China, including Beijing, they prefer stodgy things like dumplings and noodles because it’s colder in the North. So in the North you don’t tend to get so many dishes.”
Pat’s family, who hail from Newcastle, were Hong Kong Chinese and also in the catering trade. Pat and her aunty Susan see to the front of house at the Queen’s Head. “My grandad ran The Blue Sky restaurant on Pilgrim Street, one of Newcastle’s first Chinese restaurants in the 1960s and the building still stands,” she says.
“He came over from Hong Kong and was initially in Kent. He ended up in Newcastle and that’s when grandma and the rest of the family came over. We come from a very small island called Duck Island which is now a conservation area.”
Pat met Alan 17 years ago whilst she was a fashion student at Manchester Metropolitan University. Alan was also at university in Hertford studying law but was on a trip home. Pat abandoned her degree to work in bars and restaurants and eventually went into finance whilst Alan completed his studies before moving into property law with Countrywide.
“One day I was taking Pat down to Ipswich for an interview for a position in Beijing with no intention of taking a job myself but Pat’s interviewer convinced her to get me to send him my CV as well.
“At the time it was 2008 and mortgages were not the best business to be in so I thought I would go and see what the offer was. They made clear they would be happy to have both of us so we gave him our reply the next day and from there he gave us two weeks to pack up our lives.”
They landed in Beijing in October 2008 and in 2010 they returned briefly to Manchester to tie the knot. It was the couple’s travels around Asia, whilst working in Beijing that turned them into confirmed foodies.
“We have always been very into food,” Alan says. “And we always take opportunities to travel as much as we can. We like to go off the beaten track and taste local stuff and some of the best meals we’ve had has been street food.
“We have been to Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. At Christmas we would spend a month away. One year we hired a villa in Phuket and we had friends and family fly out to visit us.” Some of Alan’s photographs of his travels, including the mystical village of Shangri La, now adorn his restaurant’s walls.
“Life was really good out there but our priorities have changed since we had Lavinia. We decided we wanted to spend more time as a family. Over there it’s easy to get absorbed in the comforts – you have a maid, a driver, people picking up your kids from school.
“We had been living and working in big cities pretty much all of our lives, but every time we got the chance to drive round the British countryside we always said, wouldn’t it be great to have a place like this? And if it brings in an income, even better. We decided we would either stick with what we were doing or do a complete change.”
When they saw the Queen’s Head was vacant, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start a new life. But do they miss the bright lights? “Now and again,” Alan laughs. “But to be fair, on a clear night when we finish work, shut the door and the last customer leaves, you look up to the sky and it’s a different kind of bright light.
“You can only get it round here. We have swapped the bright lights of a city of 20 million people for the bright lights of stars in Great Whittington.”