Former Chinese Restaurant Employee Tells All
Editor's Note: This article was widely circulated on China's internet websites. We believe it will provide our readers an insight into the mindset in China.
I remember the host on a program about animal rights saying, “Please take care of our animals. It will be good for everyone.” However, some Chinese don't think about the animals when eating meat. They dare to eat anything but aren't aware that what they are eating may actually be harmful to them.
Ah Chang, who has worked in the restaurant industry for many years in China, has witnessed the use of all kinds of tricks used to fool the public into buying inferior meat. The following is his experience as a kitchen helper in a restaurant in Guangdong Province.
Five years ago, I left Guangxi Province for the modernized Pearl River Delta in Guangdong province. With the help of a friend from my hometown, I was interviewed by restaurant owner Peng Da, and eventually hired as a kitchen helper. When the boss introduced me to the “Big Guy” – a popular name for a chef, I was shocked to see that the “Big Guy” was a female. Everyone called her Sister Rong. Sister Rong was in her 30s and was quite attractive. She told me that my responsibilities included killing animals, cutting and chopping various meats and bones, and preparing the meat before it was cooked.
On my second day at the restaurant, Rong pulled me over and said, “Ah Chang, since you are new to this field I will teach you a lesson: How to “use” the weigh scale. Our scale is accurate, but the displayed weights are not. Four hundred grams will show as 500 grams. This is not trickery but rather a common practice in this profession. All restaurants are doing this.”
Under Rong's guidance, I quickly learned to use the scale. According to Wu Tian, when there were customers watching us, we should be careful not to let them see us exchanging bigger pieces of meat with smaller ones; or after killing a fish, cutting a section from it. Generally speaking, it was an open secret in this profession. Only when serving our friends would we not cheat, as our conscience's wouldn't allow it.
The Peng Da Restaurant was flourishing during the time I worked there. Every morning I had to kill many cats, sometimes five or six, and sometimes as many as ten. However, I didn't see the cat meat sold in the restaurant. What happened to the meat? After thinking about it for a long time, I still couldn't figure it out. Later, I paid more attention and found that some of the cat meat was stewed with medicinal herbs, and sold as stewed leopard meat with medicinal herbs for 198 yuan (approximately US$24.25) per dish. When Rong saw that I was confused, she said, “Leopard meat stewed with medicinal herbs is the signature soup of our restaurant. Cats are very common, so only by advertising the meat as being from a wild animal would it be attractive to diners. After removing the heads and claws and soaking the cat bodies in the herbs, even the smartest diner can't discern that what they are eating is cat meat. Cat meat cost us 20 yuan (approximately US$2.50) for each carcass, but leopard meat cost 138 yuan (approximately US$17.25) per kilogram.”
With Rong's teaching and guidance, I was soon promoted to Cook's helper, and made responsible for arranging the food on the plates. One day, when Rong and I were on duty, someone ordered stewed deer meat. I was angry when I saw the order because I hadn't seen any deer meat after having been there for six months. Thus, I said to Xiao Hong, the floor director who took the order, “We don't have any stewed deer meat.” She replied, “Why was it on the menu?” Rong came over and said, “We have it. How could we not have it? The mountain tortoise meat was deer meat.” “What?” I thought I had heard wrong. The restaurant charged 68 yuan (approximately US$ 8.5) for 500 grams of tortoise meat, and 268 yuan (approximately US$ 33.5) for the same amount of deer meat. “Are you afraid?” Rong asked, “There is no deer meat in the whole city. I believe few people have eaten it, so how can they tell the difference? Don't worry about it. I will be responsible.” After hearing what she said, I had no choice but to serve the tortoise meat. Still, I worried about complaints from our customers. Despite my apprehension, nobody complained and the restaurant earned an extra 200 yuan (approximately US$ 25) every time they sold the dish.
On the second day, some guests ordered stewed tortoise and stewed deer at the same time. I became flustered and hurried to ask Rong what to do. She calmly said, “Tell the waiter that the tortoise meat has been sold out. Next time, in this kind of situation you should remember to provide customers with the dish that earns us the most money.”
After following Sister Rong for a while, she told me some inside secrets about the food in restaurants. She told me not to eat white phoenix claws (chicken claws) cooked by our restaurant. Instead of using white rice vinegar to bleach the claws, the chicken claws were whitened by soaking them in Hydrogen Peroxide. Also, the white tripe we served was bleached using an unknown chemical. Rong also suggested that I not eat fried cookies because they all contain sodium borate that harms one's health.
At that time, local people enjoyed eating internal organs, especially tripe. Sometimes when business was slow, the tripes would dry out in the refrigerator and lose their firmness. Rong taught me to make the tripe look fresh again by soaking the tripe in some kind of chemical for an hour, and then put it in boiling water for a while. After washing the tripe with water for an hour, it would be firm again. Actually, the chemical used for soaking the tripe was a corrosive. I had used my bare hands to mix the tripe while it was soaking in the chemical and my hands actually turned brown. After doing this several times, my fingertips were damaged. Rong saw them and said, “Why are you so foolish. Why not use a spoon to stir?” She bought some medicine to treat my wounded hands. I asked her, “The chemical harmed my hands. Won't it hurt people's stomachs?” Rong said calmly, “Don't care so much. Now people pursue the taste, and you just need to know you shouldn't eat much tripe in the future.”
Once I asked Rong, “Do all restaurants take inferiors as superiors and mix the spurious with the genuine?” She sighed and said, “People are the same all over the world. They all pursue profit. Furthermore, we just make the best use of everything. If we throw away those dead animals and bad quality food, who would compensate us for the loss even though we guaranteed the quality? To tell the truth, I don't want to do this, but we receive wages from our employer so we should consider our employer when the opportunity to make money for the business arises. We neither stole nor grabbed [their money]. Our customers came to eat here of their own free will. They can complain if they are not satisfied. They are all intelligent people and know how to protect their rights. You should know that it is not easy to cheat them. Sometimes you really need to have some abilities to cheat people.” I couldn't understand Rong's way of thinking very well. I felt that it was not absolutely correct to say that she didn't have professional ethics. No matter whether I understood or not, the restaurant continued to prosper.
One day, a vendor showed us some very expensive herbs, called aweto, which he was selling for about 6,500 yuan per 500 grams (US$615 per pound). Rong and I went to the storage room to examine the herbs. I heard Rong question the salesperson, “Mr. Wang, are you kidding me? Bring me fresh herbs.” I saw Wang walk away embarrassed without saying a word.
After Wang left, Rong spoke to me with an aweto in her hand, “These herbs used to be good, but now they are worthless because they've been cooked and lost their nutritional value.” “How could you tell?” I asked curiously. Rong crushed some of the herb in her hand and said, “See, this herb is dry and has no flexibility. Because it's been cooked, it lost its natural color and became hard. It's flavorless. The sellers cooked their food with the herbs before selling them. They're so unethical.” I smiled bitterly and thought that some of the things we did in the restaurant were no better. Rong noticed my expression and continued, “Well, these herbs are really expensive. What we do is nothing compared to this. It's tough to be in the restaurant business nowadays.”
Next day, a customer ordered shark fins. After examining the shark fins, Rong immediately told the delivery person to take the fins back. The seller wasn't happy and asked why. Rong said, “You think I don't know anything? These shark fins have been chemically processed. Once they are cooked, they will shrink to one-fifth their original size. Are you trying to ruin our reputation?” The seller immediately slashed the price. As Rong was going to reject the offer, the restaurant owner asked us to use them. Rong had no choice but to buy them at half price. After the seller and owner left, I asked Rong what was the chemical she had referred to.
Rong explained to me, “I only know it's a kind of chemical that can make shark fins grow from the size of a needle to the size of a bean sprout. It's dangerous and you can get sick from eating it.” I was shocked and started to worry about those rich people who wanted to eat well to improve their health.
One day in April 2000, a wholesaler brought over some camel humps. Rong asked the wholesaler to cook it and let the kitchen staff taste it. Everyone said it had good texture and told Rong to try it. Rong hesitated and took one bite. I saw Rong secretly spit the meat into the sink drain. From then on, the camel humps became a hot dish in the restaurant. Many customers came back repeatedly and ordered the dish. I liked the texture and snacked on the dish from time to time using the excuse of tasting for flavor. Rong smiled and asked if I really liked the camel hump dish. The question came out of nowhere. I was confused and asked her what was wrong. She chuckled, “Those so-called camel humps are in fact breasts from female pigs.” I was quite shocked by what she said and did not believe her. Rong smiled and told me that the wholesaler had admitted it to her. She had been keeping it a secret all this time.
The next day while I was slicing the 'camel humps', I paid close attention to the dark red flesh and found several holes spread out evenly. If they were real camel humps, why were there holes in them? The holes must be what were left after the nipples were removed. The smell of sour milk hit me and then I totally believed what Rong had told me. A few days later, I confirmed it with the wholesaler and he admitted it. I had to admire the thought they put in it. If they called it female pig breast, who would dare eat it? After giving the meat an exotic name its price went up tenfold and could thus be served in a high-end restaurant. I never again wanted to eat 'camel humps' after learning the truth; not even when the kitchen staff wanted me to taste it for flavor. It might sound weird but now every time after I cut the 'camel humps', I can smell the milk on my hands even after I washed them many times.
On a hot summer day in the year 2000, Rong went out and came back with about 100 dead fish. Each of them weighed only about 130 g (~0.3 lb). Rong asked me to check them over and throw away the smelly ones. It took three of us an entire afternoon to finish the job. Rong called Chef Ah Bing to take 30 of them and blanch them in boiling water. Then Ah Bing stir-fried them with ginger and garlic till they turned golden brown. Each fish was put in a small stewing cup and stewed with dried longan and some other Chinese herbs. Rong asked the assistant manager Xiaohong to strongly promote the fish-longan stew for 58 yuan (US$7.2) per cup.
Later, Rong told me that a friend of the restaurant owner ran a fish farm and these young fish had died because of the hot weather. The owner's friend didn't want to waste the fish and asked the restaurant owner and Rong whether they could use them. The owner, without even thinking about it, bought them at 3 yuan (US$0.4) each. According to the assistant manager, the fish-longan stew became extremely popular. One customer came three days in a row asking for the dish. Some people thought it was so good that they took extra servings home. I greatly admired Rong after this. She could turn the rotten into something desirable, and sell something worth 3 yuan for 58 yuan! It was indeed very profitable! On December 10, 2001, Mr. Zhang, a factory owner, ordered a dish called “Indian star tortoise stewed with aweto”. It was said that he was looking for a cure for his ailment, and Indian star tortoise was said to be effective in treating certain diseases. Indian star tortoise is a nationally protected animal. If it is for sale, it is being sold illegally. Thus it is very rare and expensive. Even the cultivated ones are sold for 12,000 yuan (US$1,498.35) per kilogram. Mr. Zhang had ordered one kilogram, for which our restaurant would charge him over 10,000 yuan (US$1,248.63). We also added on the cost of the precious aweto herbs.
After the Indian star tortoise was sent over, Rong called Mr. Zhang and asked him to come over and check it. Perhaps Mr. Zhang was reluctant to appear to be too picky, he hesitated. Rong urged, “Mr. Zhang, you have to come to give us some directions. Don't be so old-fashioned. Come and direct us.” She flattered him as if he were a specialist. He arrived in high spirits. In order to set his mind at ease, Rong even weighed the tortoise while Mr. Zhang watched.
But the tortoise was not killed. Instead, it was sent back to the storeroom. Rong asked me not to leave after work. At 9:00 pm, after all the staff working in the kitchen had left, Rong asked me to lock the door of the kitchen. Then she took something out of the refrigerator and threw it on the floor. The thing was as hard as stone, and it made a loud thud when it hit the floor. I opened the package and found a dead tortoise inside. Rong laughed and said, “Ah Chang, this tortoise can earn you half a year's salary.” Thanks to Rong's help, my salary at that time had been raised to 1200 yuan (US$150) a month. Rong then threw the dead tortoise into a basin, turned on the tap and let the water wash over the tortoise. After about an hour the tortoise had softened. When I fished it out of the basin, a bad smell hit me. I asked Rong to come and have a look. She looked at the dead tortoise, smelled it and frowned, “Oh, Mr. Zhang is in bad luck. He has to eat this stinking tortoise now. But who will eat it if he doesn't? Our boss had asked three shops before he could get this 'inferior item'. After exchanging the good tortoise with this one, we will earn at least 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (approximately US$875 to 1000).”
I was a little frightened. This is a business worth more than 10,000 yuan (US$1250). If Mr. Zhang finds out and rejects the tortoise, who will pay for it? Since he has spent so much we shouldn't give him something which would harm his health. I murmured, “Sometimes we need to demonstrate that we have a conscience.” Rong looked at me for a while. Then she sighed, “This is not the time to talk about conscience. Our boss asked us to do this, and we must do what he says. We just have to. Ah Chang, it is true that people should have a conscience, but it really depends on the situation. If Mr. Zhang went to other restaurants, he would eat similar kinds of things. Don't those who want to get rich fake things? We've already tried our best. We are at least better than those who sell fake medicine. It won't make much difference to Mr. Zhang's health whether he eats this tortoise or not.” I had nothing to say. After all, we are only carrying out our boss's orders. Why should I worry?
I started washing the tortoise. Rong asked me to discard all of the flesh on it. I couldn't believe what I heard. What shall he eat if all the meat is eliminated? Rong laughed at me and said, “The meat has all decayed. We would be really harming him if we let him eat the meat. So we have to get rid of it. The efficacy of the tortoise lies in its shell anyway. The shell is very hard to cook. After 20 to 30 hours of cooking, the shell won't be dissolved. The reason why I asked Mr. Zhang to come and check the tortoise was to gain his trust. The meat of the tortoise won't last that long. After 20 to 30 hours of cooking, the flesh would have dissolved into the soup. So removing the meat will prevent the bad taste in the soup. Otherwise our deception will be discovered.” While she was talking, Rong had taken out some meat from an ordinary tortoise from the refrigerator and put it under the tap to wash. She said, “The meat of the ordinary tortoise can make our dish flawless. Mr. Zhang is really lucky this time. He bought only one tortoise but he will eat two! Of course, when I become rich in the future, I would rather die than eat this kind of thing!” She said laughing loudly. After picking all the meat from the shell of the Indian star tortoise, she stir-fried the shell three times with ginger and shallots. After washing it again, she tasted the shell to make sure there was no strange taste left. Then she put it into the pot to cook. After everything was done, she asked Uncle Chen who was on night duty to watch the tortoise soup and add in some water once in a while. It was 1:00 a.m. when we left.
At about 9:00 a.m. , the Indian star tortoise soup was sent to Mr. Zhang. Later, the cashier told me that Mr. Zhang was not a fool. He felt the soup was not as good as that served at the Tianshan restaurant. He also had loose bowels after he ate our dish. So he phoned our restaurant to complain, exclaiming that he wanted to be reimbursed 3,000 yuan. Our boss summoned Rong to find out what had happened. She came back looking very unhappy.
Four days later, I didn't see Chef Ah Bing. I asked around and was told that he had been fired the previous evening. It was said that a lot of customers had complained about our soups recently. I knew that the true problem was related to the tortoise soup. The boss didn't know that the soup was actually cooked by Rong and me, nor did Ah Bing know that his dismissal was caused by a pot of soup that he had not cooked. So Ah Bing was a victim of our deviousness. No matter what, the restaurant still made a profit through selling this tortoise soup, even if it was less than expected.
I didn't dare tell anyone what we had done. I felt dreadful for continuing to work with Rong. I might end up being a scapegoat for her in the future. I wanted to get away from her. So I started to keep my distance, and often found faults with her, which Rong noticed.
I was subsequently fired.