Brian McKenna was comfortable in his life as a chef and club owner in Amsterdam until he was offered the chance to work in Beijing. Less than six weeks later he was on a plane to China. “I sold my home, my car, ended an eight-year relationship,” recalls McKenna, 36. “I literally got my bags, turned around, and that was it.”
It was 2006 and the capital was gearing up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. McKenna had little desire to return to his home town London, where, he felt, everyone was “in a rush but going nowhere”. In China, by contrast, “everybody is doing everything. It was just exciting. People wanted to be here.”
McKenna, who had become head chef of the (now closed) Michelin-starred Le Poussin at Parkhill restaurant in Hampshire, southern England, when he was just 21, was asked to launch the Blu Lobster restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel. He arrived, however, to find a nascent food scene that lacked variety and sophistication.
Rather than despair McKenna saw it as an opportunity. “At that time there was no Maison Boulud, no Capital M,” he says, referring to two fine dining stalwarts that are now established favourites in the capital. “The Chinese didn’t know what a Michelin [star] was. So I felt I could really come here and do something.”
That something was to put Blu Lobster on the map with its critically acclaimed modern Mediterranean cuisine. And for McKenna – a former boxer – it was a chance to mould himself into something of a local celebrity chef.
This year McKenna capitalised on his name by opening a chic restaurant in an imperial Qing dynasty former courtyard with views over the ancient Forbidden City moat. Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard, a partnership with Chinese-American developer Handel Lee, dishes up fusion European cuisine with a dash of molecular gastronomy at eye-watering prices for China’s newly rich.
When McKenna arrived in China, international high-end dining was still a concept largely reserved for the big hotel chains. Seven years later, countless restaurateurs, both local and expat, are jostling to cater to an increasingly cosmopolitan Chinese clientele, many of whom have lived abroad. McKenna savours the challenge. “I will take huge risks. If I lose, I lose. I don’t mind,” he says.
To give him an edge over his competitors, McKenna has incorporated playful nods towards China in the menu – a sure-fire hit with local diners. Patrons can crack into a chocolate terracotta warrior or a cheesecake that pays homage to the Chinese flag (both signature desserts).
China has “a million good things and 10 bad things,” says McKenna. His complaints are common: choking pollution, standstill traffic, and a restaurant scene which is still young (although improving rapidly, Beijing is easily eclipsed by New York and London). But these issues “don’t bother me because they’re all something I can’t do anything about,” says McKenna. Much more pressing is his lack of time and opportunity to practise boxing, a family hobby he has enjoyed since he was a small child.
Compensations, however, are numerous. McKenna loves to sing karaoke, a national pastime. He regularly goes out for pizza or enjoys local kebabs known as chuanr in small neighbourhood restaurants. Although he speaks no Chinese, he has a driver, personal assistant and translator to help him navigate the city.
For the past three years McKenna, a bachelor, has also enjoyed some of the city’s best views from his miniature penthouse in the Park Hyatt Residences. (Yao Ming, the former basketball star and national hero, is a neighbour). Situated in the middle of the central business district (CBD) among skyscrapers, upscale shops and clubs, the area is a coveted hub for the moneyed classes. With its vast car-clogged roads and titanic buildings, Beijing’s CBD has none of the quaint, low-key charm of the city’s older neighbourhoods. But McKenna – whose catering and restaurant concept company Brian McKenna Hospitality Group has 250 staff – loves the “pure convenience” of living close to his office. He is also keen to avoid living where many foreigners flock: the expat haunt Sanlitun, an area in the Chaoyang district, renowned for its vibrant, but gritty, bar street. “I fly first class, I stay in the best,” he says. “I have direction for where I am going.”
This has not always been the case. Born in London to poor Irish parents (McKenna’s father was one of 15 children; his mother one of 18), McKenna ended up in a young offender institution at just 14 years old. “I was just uncontrollable, I was wild,” he says. “I could still barely read or write at 13.”
The chef’s luck changed when he was placed under a mentorship scheme with an assistant rugby coach. He introduced McKenna to a new world. “He took me for my first McDonald’s, my first cinema trip, introduced me to my first chef,” remembers McKenna, who admits to harbouring certain prejudices while growing up. As a difficult and troubled teenager, he was certain that only women could, or should, cook. “I [had] never seen a man cook before.”
Despite this, McKenna started to work part-time in the kitchen at Chez Nico restaurant in the five-star Grosvenor House hotel in London. The job provided him with a much-needed routine. “I enjoyed discipline; I enjoyed being part of a team. I enjoyed being part of something. I loved working,” he says.
McKenna says he misses his mother – “everything I am today is because of her” – and the raucous fun to be had in Ireland, the country of his parents’ birth. Still, for now Beijing is where he wants to be.
“Imagine what it is going to be like in 25 years,” he says. “They are going to have the best sky rail system. It will be absolutely phenomenal.” Should the city ever get too much, however, or should an opportunity arise elsewhere, McKenna is not adverse to picking up his bags and moving on again. “If you need to make changes, change,” he declares. “Don’t be scared.”
Photograph: Simon Song