BEIJING — Last week Maison Boulud Beijing, a French restaurant owned by the three-Michelin-star chef Daniel Boulud, shut down. Just before closing its doors for good, the restaurant suddenly became busy.

Eating the foie gras, a Belgian expatriate couldn’t help but sigh: “It’s one less place to dine out and experience French haute cuisine.

Maison Boulud Beijing was a byproduct six years ago of the capital's Olympic frenzy. It's location was particularly impressive, in the old American Legation Quarters near Tiananmen Square.

Boulud, a celebrity chef who owns a culinary empire of 13 restaurants worldwide, arrived here in 2008. Only one of his other restaurants had ever run into trouble, that was in Las Vegas, and Boulud opened a new Las Vegas restaurant soon after the first one closed. In Beijing, instead, insiders are saying that Boulud's restaurant is closing because of conflict between its Chinese and French partners — but also because of Beijing's stubborn culinary traditions.

“In spite of the fact that it is a capital city, Beijing does not leave much room for Western chefs to improvise,” says Hong Yip, a columnist. Chinese food culture is rooted in simple snacks and a wide range of specialties originating from different regions, a diversity that is reflected most vividly in the Chinese capital.

Aside from Maison Boulud Beijing, most high-end foreign restaurants have been attached to luxury hotels. For example, Yannick Alléno, another French three-Michelin-star chef, recently took over the S.T.A.Y. of Shangri-La Beijing. More and more investors in restaurants are now realizing that operating a top-end restaurant in Beijing independently is a tall order. You have to build a stable clientele and spend a fortune on marketing, and even that does not guarantee success.

Bags of cash

Brian Reimer, the executive chef of Maison Boulud Beijing liked to tell an amusing story from the restaurant's early days. Not long after opening, a Shanxi coal tycoon invited dozens of guests to a dinner party here. They ordered the most expensive dishes as well as the best bottles of wine from Burgundy. The bill came to $23,000. The coal boss called his chauffeur to bring in two bags full of Renminbi notes, which he used to pay the bill.

This kind of story makes Western restauranteurs' mouths water when they think about setting up shop in China. Unfortunately they don’t fully understand the secret games in this city full of dignitaries and the super-rich, who often prefer to dine in private rooms to hide from view and establish an air of superiority. But since Xi Jinping issued an administrative circular late last year forbidding officials from using public funds for luxurious banquets, the flow of easy money for top restaurants has largely dried up.

Before the Fall: Maison Boulud Beijing's staff — Photo: Facebook page

Certain Chinese gourmets believe that a good Beijing restaurant has to be capable of winning over the local middle-class if it is going to survive. This is because “Beijing is not like Shanghai which had the French Concession, a whole older generation of people who studied in the West and who are passionate about Western-style cuisine as well as a general willingness to accept foreignness,” said Shi Jiafan, a Shanghai food writer. 

Columnist Hong Yip agrees: “It’s hard to imagine a regular person from Beijing who eats doughnuts and drinks soybean milk being interested in completing the ritual of eating expensive Western food, unless someone else is paying."

It's business, baby

Unlike in Shanghai, where people go to a restaurant because the food is excellent, people in Beijing don't care about the restaurant ranking, adds Lu Yuenong, the editor in chief of a Chinese travel magazine. “For people in Beijing, dining out is mainly for talking about businesses or chatting," Lu notes. "They focus on the food less.” 

According to Lu Yuenong, both food chains and renowned chefs choose to enter China through Shanghai. “A lot of brand shops are introduced to Shanghai by Hongkonese, Taiwanese or Singaporean agents who they already know the Asian market and are able to become quickly integrated there. Besides, it is also easier to source needed food ingredients and to hire skilled employees in Shanghai. There is also a bigger and more stable clientele there.” 

Sourcing ingredients has always been a dilemma for Beijing’s high-end western culinary establishments. Though fresh thyme, rosemary and basil can be grown in the kitchen, parsley and tarragon are too delicate to grow well in this city with its long bitter winters. Daniel Boulud once admitted this point in an interview. He noted that from the farmer to the restaurant the ingredients passed though at least four hands. Considering China's food security issues, finding reliable farm sources can be a challenge.

“However, elitism by itself doesn’t explain Maison Boulud’s failure in Beijing,” said Shi Jiafan. "The problem is that this restaurant modified its menu so as to cater to the local clientele. In doing so, the restaurant lost its soul.”

The average restaurant-goer couldn't afford to eat at Maison Boulud, but the true gourmet would turn up his nose at the restaurant's bastardized French-Chinese fare.

Even if Shanghai is a bit further on the road to accepting Western cuisine than Beijing, Shi thinks that, “Really top Western culinary establishments are yet to be widely accepted in China. Very few Chinese consumers really understand the essence of European cuisines. Most people regard eating the very formal six-course Western style meal like an endurance test. It will still take a long process of education and initiation for Chinese people to find pleasure in this.”

Still, Shi says there is already a ripe apetite in Beijing for more modest and authentic European restaurants. “Where the food is good and one feels the warmth of home like an olive tree thriving under the hot sun — it's that hearty Italian and Spanish cuisines.”