Step into Kamling at Churchgate, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Mumbai, and you are bound to notice the septuagenarian proprietor, Tulun Terence Chen, seated at his favourite table, buried in his papers and quietly observing the happenings at the restaurant.
Running the show of the 78-year-old restaurant single-handedly for the past 50 years, being at Kamling for Chen has become a routine.
As a young boy, who grew up in Mumbai after his family came to India from China in the 1940s, Chen dreamt of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, the flying club in Juhu did not enrol him as he was Chinese.
During this period, one evening in 1963, on his way to Rex Cinema, to watch the film The Guns of Navarone, Chen, then 16, helped an elderly Chinese man who met with an accident and rushed him to a hospital. Along with his friends, he even collected ₹4,000 to enable the man to go home to Hong Kong by ship. A month after the incident, Chen received a solicitor’s letter stating that the restaurant Kamling at Churchgate Mumbai had been bequeathed to him. “I was taken aback. It took me four to five years to get the necessary papers made as I was still underage, and finally in 1968 I got the court receivership and stepped into Kamling. This is what I was destined to do I guess,” recounts Chen.
Kamling was originally started in 1940 and ran successfully till it was closed for a few years during the Indo-China War. Chen re-opened it, joining hands with a partner Tham Mouyiu, in 1968, and is actively involved in the day-to-day operations of running the restaurant.
Although he was young and did not have a background in the food industry, Chen feels “running a restaurant is all about discipline, hard work and common sense”.
With 200 dishes from the Hunan province of China on his menu, Chen re-opened Kamling. “Our food has always been simple, without frills, but authentic and tasty. I am particular about hygiene too.”
From 80 covers, the restaurant has today grown to 150 covers, with both indoor and outdoor seating. He has done away with cabins that were used as separators earlier, and has an open-seating format now.
Over the years, the menu has evolved. “We have increased our menu to 400 dishes today, but no compromise on taste, quality and authenticity,” he declares with pride.
New dishes are introduced every year, depending on the worldwide trends, as Chen and his family travel extensively and keep themselves abreast of what is popular globally.
Chicken fried rice, sea-food soup, Mandarin fish, crab fuyong, roast pork, are among the popular dishes here.
Décor and ambience are not something he attaches importance to. “Your food should speak for itself. The rest is inconsequential as long as the restaurant is clean and comfortable,” he states matter-of-factly. Apart from minor repairs and modern equipment in the kitchen, he has changed nothing.
Staff, an asset
He relies on his staff, which he says is his asset to run the restaurant, as his health is failing today. “I am fortunate to have responsible staff who are old-timers and know how I function. I can blindly depend upon them,” he says with gratitude.
He has some second-generation staffers too. Robert, his manager who efficiently manages Kamling, is the son of his former chef Wong Moon Phoon.
He gives his staff 20% bonus as opposed to other restaurants, helps them to go abroad and gain exposure if need be, and treats them like one big family. “Even if they leave for better prospects, they are welcome to come back and join us,” states Chen affectionately.
Chen depends solely on his loyal patrons and their word-of-mouth publicity. “We have been serving people graciously for 50 years and have loyal customers. I do not feel the need for any marketing. From Shashi Kapoor and his family to Rekha, Kajol and Krishna Menon, Kamling has always had illustrious guests too,” informs Chen with a smile.
He then recalls how 30 years ago, Deng Pufang, a paraplegic and the first son of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping, came to eat at Kamling during his visit to Mumbai and enjoyed the home-style authentic food and chatted with Chen in their language.
Chen secretly hopes his son, currently in Canada, will come and run Kamling after him, but does not compel him. “He has his own life and can do what he wants to,” says Chen, who quips, “Kamling will not stop running. My staff and my partner, will ensure it continues to run even after I go.”
In this weekly column, we take a peek at some of the country’s most iconic restaurants