Good Business is the New Business

Whilst on holiday in South East Asia, I came across two incredible companies. In each case, the proprietors and I chatted about how customers find businesses – and how businesses could find the right customers. See, in Cambodia, places routinely emblazon TripAdvisor signs in huge font outside their establishments to pull in the tourists. Even if it’s a 3.5 star review, it goes up on corrugated plastic on a sandwich board outside – I found the whole thing very interesting, as both the businesses below chose not to go that route.

Though I am not a big business CEO (yet!) I have been lucky enough to talk frankly with some pretty big movers and shakers in technology, manufacturing and more as part of my job. And tea and good food makes me very talkative. I was particularly intrigued by the places below because there was an extra element to them: the idea of running a small business with a degree of social responsibility built in.

Place 1: Haven, Siam Reap, Cambodia

Haven Restaurant is run by a formidable couple who after holidaying in Cambodia, decided to sell everything they owned, and pack in Switzerland for the ‘wet and sweat’ combo of Siam Reap – beloved home to Angkor Wat and hundreds of smaller temples. Sarah and Paul braved the complexities of setting up a business in a foreign country. They built (and now run)  a chilled-out restaurant that serves tasty cuisine at a reasonable price for tourists – the place also happens to train young adult orphans as apprentices as part of its business model. As well as a salary, graduates gain the skills required for re-employment, and have all their tips saved in a bank account so they also get a lump sum at the end of their year’s training.

The food is good too. So I asked if Haven could make me a fresh Vietnamese roll that I could triumphantly unpack and eat while everyone else looked on with undisguised jealousy. It occurred to me – if I (and other lovers of tasty food) could be discerning enough to seek out good restaurants then clearly we would be prepared to pay for a nice packed lunch. I suggested this to Stef, one of the staff members between mouthfuls of baked Oreo cheesecake.

My business-minded companion added that this is actually a well known strategy – to ‘expand into related revenue streams’ outside a business’s limitations – for example, in a restaurant, you can only sell to people physically sitting in a space, and when they are full of food and drink, that’s it. So, restaurants can offer cookbooks, hampers, packed lunches, food delivery, you get the idea. I’ll update this blog if I hear they’ve decided to do that – because my lunch was indeed triumphant.

Above: Pictures from Siam Reap, Cambodia

Place 2: Reaching Out Teahouse, Hoi An, Vietnam

A beautiful coastal resort, Hoi An is liberally scattered with tourists who forgive the ‘theme park’ nature of the Old Town because of its beauty and tranquility, that is, on certain days when they close the tiny streets off from motorcycles.

Side note: People who spend enough time with me know I have a serious thing for tea – notably pu-erh and oolong as well as good old builders (without sugar), not forgetting what I like to call a Picard (Earl Grey, Hot). These long-suffering types have accepted that passing a teahouse for me is pretty much impossible. They are resigned to the fact that, left to my own devices,  I am happy to consume tea until there is no tea left. Small wonder then, that the Reaching Out Teahouse and I were destined to cross paths. An artisan teahouse, complete with artisan biscuits. As far as I was concerned, this was where I would sit for the rest of the day. And so I watched the sun set, slowly bloating myself with delicious, high-quality tea.

Time passed. After a vast and quite frankly impressive quantity of tea – in many forms –  was absorbed, one of the owners of the social enterprise, Quyen, came to say hello. She explained that the staff here are deaf or speech-impaired, which is why it is in fact a silent teahouse. Everyone communicates with smiles, gestures, or wooden blocks with writing in English on one side for the customer which is held up to summon the staff member.  By the way, it wasn’t just the contentment gained from silently enjoying tea and biscuits which made me fall in love with this place. It’s also that the Single Estate Oolong tea might be among the best I have ever tasted. Readers of the previous paragraph will realise that is a very, very big data set indeed.

Above: Pictures from Hoi An, Vietnam

I like the “Good Business” business model!

Both places were so delightful, I visited them twice. And, in both cases, this was mainly because service and product were outstanding. I came away with the feeling that if places just had a good idea and ethical ‘feel good’ factor it might get people visiting – but repeat custom and earnest recommendations will only come if the product is ultimately desirable regardless of any worthy underpinnings. I wish both Haven and the Reaching Out Teahouse the best of luck in their endeavours.

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Above: Pics from the Heaven & Earth Bicycle Trip, Vietnam

Da Jie making dumplings at Mushu 01

Chinese New Year Resolutions- Less Telly More Dumplings

New year’s resolutions are something I like the idea of, although I’ve never been inclined to depend on a 1/1/20xx date to start new positive habits, or stop old negative ones.

Nevertheless, by a carefully considered combination of masochism and sheer terror, I have been dragging myself to the gym regularly for the past few weeks, starting on that most memorable of dates, the 24th of January.

Anyhow, it was in this spirit of “watch less telly, do more cool stuff” that I hastily typed “Yesssssss Dumplings!!!” and hit ‘send’ as fast as I could in response to an email from esteemed blogger and compulsive shutterbug TikiChris. A last minute cancellation meant that there was an opportunity to take part in a Qype event involving the making and eating of these delectable Chinese delicacies.

So, a mere 2 hours later I’ve arrived to fill the space at one of London’s newer wooden trestle tables for Mushu’s Dumpling workshop – ready to be filled to bursting, much like the dumplings we ended up constructing.

relaxed restaurant

Set deceptively close to both Great Portland Street and Warren Street Tube stations, this is a relaxed open-kitchen gem of a place that not only serves dumplings (made on site!) but also has a spot of sushi and the sort of atmosphere a solo diner wouldn’t feel out of place in.

Thus began our workshop, where (after we washed our hands) we were introduced to “Da jiě” (Big Sister) the Dumpling Deity, who simultaneously encouraged and corrected us while effortlessly making thirty or so dumplings at lightning speed. We watched, hypnotised, before commencing our own slightly slower efforts. Of course it was impossible for us to duplicate the dumpling dexterity on display, but still fun – and we were prepared to eat the results, no matter what they looked like.

We found out that dumplings needed to be squished from the ends a bit after we crimped them to make them look like fat purses filled with money – all eight of us thoroughly enjoyed this activity and knew they didn’t look quite right – not that we minded.

During the workshop, we were given enough information to feel quite confident about attempting to make our own dumplings. I’ve reproduced an attempt at the recipe below – but can make no guarantees about accuracy, or what you want to fill them with, sadly. Any thoughts, please reply in the comments 🙂

I’ll also upload some pictures to Flickr (edit: link here) which should also help anyone who actually wants to have a go at cooking them.

Dumplings at Mushu 04

So, once we were sufficiently covered in flour, Big Sister boiled our questionable bundles while the friendly owner told us they’d settled on boiling rather than steaming those particular ones to keep the dumplings moist and juicy. We were so eager for our first taste, our experimental parcels had already disappeared into our bellies by the time they’d brought us the dipping sauce. Oh well. We’d managed to take pictures first, though (as most of the attendees were that way inclined).

Miso Glazed Aubergine

After the workshop, we were treated to a selection of dishes from the menu including other meaty dumplings that I didn’t try, but the biggest surprise of the evening went to a miso-slicked roasted aubergine which I proclaimed “Auber-genius” among the obligatory groans.

I would definitely return here on a paying visit and take the opportunity to try more of the veggie-friendly dishes on offer.  And if there’s any moral to this strange story, perhaps it’s that saying “yes” to a cryptic email ends up with being dumped in the right place at the right time a few hours after a spontaneous reply. I found myself in great company, and smiled and laughed a lot more that evening than if I went home and watched the telly. I’m even going to try making dumplings the next weekend I find myself in the kitchen (although I may have to prepare for the session Dexter-style).

So, even if I don’t manage to watch less TV, I’ll definitely aim to go out with good people more –  if this is how the Year of the Rabbit’s set to continue, I’m resolving to make the most of it.

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Make the filling first. For the dough, mix together normal flour in a 2:1 ratio with water, leave to rest for 1 hour, roll out in small circles with a dimple in the middle, stuff in filling, crimp the edges, then boil gently in a big pan of water until dumpling floats to top. That sounds a lot easier than it’s going to be, however, and I’m pretty sure that when I try it, my kitchen will look like I’ve attempted to cover every possible surface in dumpling elements.

If you are a dumpling filling expert, please leave some mini-recipes in the comments- thanks!

Expanded upon from my restaurant review on QypeMushu – Fitzrovia

Nom Nom Nom 2009

…is only 10 hours away, and I’m ready.

No, of course I’m not ready, but I did source a particularly effective chef’s hat

The last month has been brilliant, manic and, alas, almost completely sleep-free.

Excitingly I’m going to be on the BBC again next week as my piece on Music Recognition should be cooked by then – first I have to get 2 or 3 internet shots at some ridiculously unsociable hour on Monday morning, before crawling into the Edit with both Callie the Editor and the sort of coffee that causes spontaneous leg-shaking and hallucinations.

But before that in 10 hours’ time I shall be entering NomNomNom 2009, a charity cook-off where the fabulous Jemimahknight and I are charged with making a 3-course meal and serving it to 2-michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens – so no pressure there, then…

Our team is called Bork Bork Bork – will report back with pix and video assuming I survive.

Nowhere is hot anymore when you’ve been to Dubai in July

cooling water fans and overheating passengers

Dubai Airport: cooling water fans and overheating passengers

OK, don’t try this at home, but hypothetically open the oven door on maximum heat, climb in (see, it’s hypothetical, I doubt you could fit unless 1. you’re really small and/or 2. the oven is really big).  Whilst looking out from inside your oven, try and imagine feeling cold again.  You can’t, because it’s so ridiculously hot your shoes are melting.

That’s Dubai, outside.  My body (and possibly yours) would register any temperature above 30C as Stupid Hot, including the 55 degree hit that smacks me in the chest on walking outside in the daytime in Dubai, UAE.   Landing at 11.30pm doesn’t let you off the hook – there’s no escape from the heat as it was a bonkers night time 35C! Just to give you an idea, the airline luggage labels on our cases had effectively melted to the handles in the 1 hour we’d been on the ground. 

“Don’t worry”, our intrepid (and well travelled) host said, “Your blood will thin at this temperature and you’ll be fine.” (EEEEEEWwwwWWW!)

Those first few breaths outside the airport’s fans were unbelievable, but intoxicating.  This place reminds me of Las Vegas a little, full of construction and contradiction.  I want more. 

Here are some piccies:

Back from China Part 2: Chengdu and Giant Pandas

Chengdu Old Village

Chengdu Old Village

After the sprawling civilizationsof Shanghai and Beijing, (previous post) I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Chengdu airport only a month and a half after the terrible Earthquake– but I saw a city that had weathered a tragedy and was on its way back to normality. 


We talked a bit about it with our guide, who told us that he was taking a shower when the earthquake hit – his first thought was to wonder what downstairs was doing.   He told us that although the majority of buildings in Chengdu were structurally sound enough to deal with the tremors, only a few kilometres outside the city were the images that were reported on the world’s news, so horrifying and stark. Our driver lived nearer to the epicentre and was going to register the damage to his place that evening.  How strange, then, that Chengdu (out of all the locations in China I visited) felt the most like London – stylish, sometimes laid back, the old and new sitting comfortably together.  Both tourists and locals would hang out in the same places, another good sign.

Chengdu is wonderful in its own way, with giant pandas, monasteries and beautiful scenery – the relaxed attitude of our guide definitely influenced my view of this city.  In fact, this place turned out to be my second-favourite Chinese destination after Li Jiang.

Dinner was odd enough to photograph:


Eat your greens

... just a glass of water, please

... just a glass of water, please











[food digression: I feel it important to point out this strange pseudo-cuisine was only prevalent in the package-operated parts of our tour in Beijing and Chengdu; most places we found on our own (or our friends took us to) were incredibly tasty.  The above were specific meals laid on for tourists above shops or in hotels – for example, in Beijing, one gets dropped off at a jewellery factory after visiting the Forbidden City, then herded upstairs to eat after (presumably) buying stuff (- a few tours we did in Egypt had a similar “Steer tourist toward purchase” policy as well).  

We got the impression that every single person who visited before us absolutely did not want to try the local cuisine and would rather have chips.  However, once we explained to our guide that part of the adventure of travelling was eating, we ended up at a fantastic veggie-friendly buddhist temple 10km north of Chengdu City Centre, and I ate myself into a contented food coma there among breathtaking views and pineapple juice, so all was well in the end. /food digression]

The hotel we stayed at in Chengdu was very central indeed, and I think slightly disreputable, but that’s another story.  The next morning was Panda day!  Too excited to sleep the night before, I stayed up watching my camcorder batteries and power monkey charge as I chose my panda clothing…

…then at stupid o’clock in the morning, it was off to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base, which is massive, and currently holds around 60 Giant Pandas, and a few red pandas too.  On arrival at the base, we had to walk for around 15 minutes before we even got to an area containing real pandas.  This place is like a gigantic health club for these adorable (if clumsy) creatures, a giant panda spa filled with bamboo and stuff to climb on. 

I quite fancied staying there myself.

Pandas are at their most active when they are being fed between 8am and 10am, and when we got there, we only had to share them with about 10 other tourists, another pleasant surprise!  We shot over 25GB worth of Panda Media (thank goodness for the Archos!), and I got some great footage of two pandas playfighting:

RSS / Can’t see the link? click here

By donating extra money at the base, (and if the pandas are in the right mood), you can meet a giant panda and stroke it!!  If you’re wondering what pandas feel like, the answer is just like you’d expect a panda to feel, all soft, furry and sweet.  The panda was stuffing its face at the time, eating apples, biting into one and holding another one just in case.  I’ll put some pics up when I can.  I think I may identify quite a bit with pandas, what with their fussy and ritualistic eating, their willingness to play and their frequent (and graceless) unintentional slapstick manoeuvres. 

I would like to return to Chengdu one day.

Food 2.0 nom-nom-nom

I finally completed the mammoth task of editing that 10GB of video cooking for charity.  This was a geek “masterchef” competition, where 24 of us competed in teams of 12 to cook a 3 course meal in 2hrs30mins, and be judged on our efforts – a truly surreal experience.

The competition was not just about how the food tasted, it’s also about how it was recorded – very digital/interactive – so consquently I’m also compiling a blog post especially for the food 2.0 nomnomnom site including a Flickr gallery of our team, the “Avocadolls” and a story of the day, and hopefully the recipes too.  If all goes to plan, you should be able to see it here from Friday 30th May – please vote for our video if you like it.

Here’s the Youtube vid, looking shiny and new. I had to re-do the captions at 20pt font instead of 14 so you can read some of the groan-worthy puns at the bottom.

RSS readers / Can’t see the Embedded Video?  Click here for the link

Here’s the Flickr gallery if you want to have a look

Right, must pop off now, I have much work to do, and an Archos Blog to prep – also on telly this weekend, which means time to memorise those techy stats and make sure I have everything I need for Saturday afternoon, evening, and Sunday…

Food 2.0, Lightscribe

As I’m taking part in Food 2.0 this Sunday, I went to do a little research at a place in London called Vanilla Black, perhaps one of my favourite places to eat an unsuitable amount of food.  Here’s the first part of the review I posted:

Gasp!! Gourmet Vegetarian food that even carnivores are satisfied by? Tasty veggie delights that your tongue will treasure for weeks to come? Vanilla Black is out-of-the-way in Chancery Lane, but only 3 mins walk from the tube – a blessing if you’re bored with fighting through Soho and fancy a change. This destinational eaterie is a heavenly escape from the usual bland veggie options that I’ve become resigned to…. check out the rest here:   Vanilla Black

I’m partnered with the lovely Tiara Diamond and we are planning a vegetarian feast of fabulous flavours.  We spent quite some time going through what we ate and didn’t eat – turns out that both of us have a fear of raisins as well as a startling amount of “no-go” food areas.  After writing out a “hate list” followed by a “love list” we decided upon Mushroom Menage on Summer Rosti with Fresh Asparagus as a main course, followed by Toffee Apple Meringue pie.  The starter will be a tricolore salad with Honeyed Balsamic Dressing. It’s going to be mad because I’ll have just finished a 24-hour stint on telly, and will be ravenous.


Burn, Baby, BurnMeanwhile, I got a lovely Lacie Lightscribe drive to play with in the post today, installed like a dream on my Mac, it’s almost enough for me to consider defecting from Vista, all this plug-and-play business… but I must confess, it’s weird not having that right-click for tweakage.  I’m very clearly straddling two camps here, as it were.

This drive is both PC and Mac compatible so happily I don’t have to choose yet.  Now I must fight the temptation to lightscribe a naughty word on to a disc with a laser.  Just like old times – I just remembered programming my ZX Spectrum to “speak” words that were typed in – this was many years ago – and a Derek and Clive sketch was chosen as the ultimate test of skill … but what would you expect from a Red Dwarf fan?*


*only the first 4 series though.

Qype Party Last night

This is a picture of me first thing in the morning, after only 1/2 cup of coffee and a croissant, here at the Social Media Cafe…
Last night was the Qype Party – I met up with Annie Mole, Rob (who was hosting the party), Mr Blue Sky, Lloyd and Darika, among others – all clutching our raffle tickets with undisguised excitement, as prizes ranging from the biggest Chupa Chup in the western hemisphere to posh chocolates were up for grabs.
I was incredibly chuffed to have my restaurant review selected as “London Review of the Day” on Qype’s site yesterday, and I’ve just been Qik’ed around the croissant table (as it were), involving video phones and a chance to talk about this very blog, so hello, if you’ve come from Qik!
Around the croissants, I’m sitting with Judith, Robert and Gondul chatting about whether Stargate Atlantis is better than Stargate SG-1, or vice versa. This conversation stemmed from an email I received a week ago from a viewer – and it appears to be more complex than first thought – the general consensus is that post-O’Neill, Atlantis is better, but the discussion rages on…


Mac Pro update: My lovely new Mac is going to be suitably “pimped” after the chassis arrives at the depot on Monday – it’s also been suggested that along with the indecent amount of ram and hard disk space, I actually add some serious bling in the form of big gold chains and Swarovski crystals around the optical drive, but that might be going a bit too far, what do you think?

See you on telly tomorrow evening! lots of love, LJ x