Restaurant visionary Kurt Zdesar, the brains behind Ping Pong and Chotto Matte, on what makes the perfect place to eat
In Moscow there is a very special restaurant. Housed in a vast 18th century building, more Vienna than Soviet Bloc, the place is run by waiters dressed in silk frock coats with buckled shoes and periwigs; menservants from Imperial days. I expected to eat roast pheasant and Sachertorte. Instead, a ‘footman’ served me sweet & sour chicken and a bowl of Wonton soup. I hated every mouthful.
I’m a romantic. I love tradition. When I walk into a trattoria, I want to believe Mama and Papa are out back cooking rigatoni. Like most people, my dining experience begins at the front door. I need to feed my eyes and emotions before my belly. When it comes to my fantasy eatery, design is more than just decoration. Everything from furniture to lighting needs to whet my appetite by respecting and reflecting the most important element, food.
Intelligent design triggers strong feelings about what we eat. For example, when I launched my modern dim sum restaurant group Ping Pong, I wanted to convey the sense of sharing with family and friends you find in traditional Chinese eating houses. I also wanted to avoid cliché. Flock wallpaper. Dragons. Fish in a tank.
So, MACH and I began a process of what you might call ‘Architectural Impressionism’. Taking cues from modern China, we used materials, graphic design, shapes and colours to create a contemporary impression of the country and its dim sum culture. Handmade round tables in dark Swiss oak, for instance, were inspired by the Chinese woodwork tradition but wouldn’t look out place at the Milan Furniture Fair. The curved interior evokes a dim sum spirit of sharing. Carved wooden screens feature a design that suggests 19th century Shanghai but remain 21st century cosmopolitan. To walk through the door is to think China but experience something exciting and new.
The whole design concept is a drum roll for the main event: innovative dim sum. At Ping Pong, we serve it from noon until very late for people whose lives will never be nine-to-five, and there you have the final component
in my dream establishment, people.
A great restaurant must mirror and even influence the way people eat. That means acknowledging a revolution in home cooking – the foundation of our dining experience. Previous generations were happy to be home cooks. These days, everyone wants to be a home chef. Bankers take sushi classes. Travellers hunt the globe for exotic cuisines. Domestic kitchens resemble professional set-ups. One thing amateur gourmets lack is time – and this is where I come in.
By creating food with the same passion, inspiration and skill we aspire to enjoy at home – and serving it in an evocative space – my dream restaurant does more than provide a good night out. It bridges the gap between reality and fantasy.