Celeb chef Q&A: Philip Chiang

Why the Middle East is a booming market for P.F. Chang's

Culinary Consultant of P.F.Chang's Philip Chiang.
Culinary Consultant of P.F.Chang's Philip Chiang.

Co-founder and culinary consultant of P.F.Chang’s Philip Chiang reveals to Hannah-Farah Abdulla why the Middle East is a booming market for the brand.

Since launching the first P.F. Chang’s in 1990, how do you feel the F&B world has evolved?
It has changed so much for the better. You know, the advent of food networks has changed the landscape a great deal. I was just mentioning it earlier to someone that 20 years ago, when your child said he wants to be a chef, the response was like, “Oh my gosh! I don’t think so. Can you find another career?” But now, chefs are rockstars and restaurants have become more predominant in our everyday landscapes. Just in the last 10 years, there has been a great change.

Is P.F. Chang’s where you envisaged it to be when you launched the first one?
Oh, not at all. We have 200 restaurants in the United States market. We never started out with that thought. We just started off with one at a time, and see what happens next.

Do you agree with any who say P.F. Chang's food is not authentic?
I disagree. The food will still remain authentic as it has always been. The recipes have originated in my own restaurants and I got my recipes from visiting Chinese restaurants, not only in the States but also in Asia like in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. And apart from certain ingredients we may not be able to procure here, the food is basically pretty authentic. When it comes to the choice of dishes, in terms of authenticity, my dishes do not compromise.

Why is the Middle East such an important market for P.F. Chang’s?
When we first launched the brand internationally, we did it in two places. One was in the Middle East and the other was in Latin America. Both of them have been very successful, but the Middle East specifically is booming and our brand is also booming within the region. We have opened four restaurants in Dubai, two in Kuwait, one in Bahrain and one in Jordan.

We also have plans to open in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The region is growing; you see how much the infrastructure is developing, not only in Dubai but in all the regions. We think that it’s logical for us to look at the Middle East as a growth vehicle for our brand.

Do you think malls are the right place to open such concepts?
Well, malls have been the right choice for us so far. I mean, in the Middle East, because of the weather, people usually prefer to hang out in the mall. You don’t see a lot of people walking in the streets or hanging around outside. We believe it’s logical to be located in a mall but if the right opportunity presents, then I don’t see the reason why not [elsewhere]. But for now, all our strategies are in malls.

What’s next for P.F. Chang’s in the Middle East?
The Middle East is a region where we want to grow the brand. We would like to go to all the countries in the gulf, which we’re planning to do between this summer and the next, insha'Allah, as they would say here. We’re going to Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia this year; next year, we plan to go to Qatar. And of course, we want to grow within those countries as well.

We just opened the first one in Bahrain and the first one in Jordan, but that doesn’t mean we plan to stop there. We need to grow organically within the region, not only for P.F. Chang’s, but also for our other brand Pei Wei, which is food from different regions of Asia. It’s doing very well, lots of takeout and delivery. But we still have more room to grow, in terms of both the brands.

How challenging is it to continue to launch brands like P.F. Chang’s in a region where the F&B landscape is becoming increasingly saturated with international brands?
I cannot speak for other brands, I can only speak for P.F. Chang’s and Pei Wei. Both brands are extremely successful because we combine three things. First is fresh and excellent food, as nothing is ever made until it is ordered by the guest. Then comes excellent service. Our managers, chefs, sous chefs move to the States and train for 16 weeks.

We take this very seriously and I’m very happy to report that the comments I get from guests that have not only been in the restaurants in Dubai or in the region, but also in the United States are: “I cannot believe how consistent your brand is.”

And that is exactly what makes us successful. Of course there is always a challenge to find the right location to open the brand. But in terms of the success of the brand, we feel very confident that we can still grow and we will still be able to capture the hearts and minds of our consumers with our offers.

Advice for anyone joining the F&B industry?
Just keep it simple, and do the simple things really well.

Chef profile
Philip Chiang was born in Shanghai and grew up in Tokyo, before relocating to San Francisco. In the early 1960s, his mother Cecilia Chang opened ‘The Mandarin’, one of the first restaurants in the United States to serve Chinese food from regions other than Canton. After graduating with a BFA at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, Chiang ran The Mandarin for several years before opening an off-shoot concept called ‘The Mandarette’ in West Hollywood.

As a smaller, less expensive café, the restaurant served “grazing food” which became an immediate hit and attracted the attention of restaurateur Paul Fleming. After successfully opening Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Beverly Hills, Fleming was looking for a new opportunity.

In 1992, Chiang agreed to consult on a Chinese restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Fleming had recently relocated. One year later, the first P.F. Chang’s China Bistro opened and today there are over 200 locations worldwide. In his current role, Chiang acts as a culinary consultant and oversees new dish development and is responsible for the current menu.

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