On a Wednesday morning in a shopping centre in Sydney’s Chinatown, as businesses on the lower levels are just opening for the day, a crowd is flooding into the third level. The occasion is the official launch of Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, the Sydney outlet of the noodle shop chain started by Meng Fei, the host of the Chinese dating show If You Are the One, watched by 36 million Chinese at home, and an enthusiastic audience in Australia.
Meng opened his first Australian restaurant with comedian Guo Degang in Melbourne last year, and both of them were at the launch. A second noodle shop in Melbourne, in Glen Waverley is also opening today but, as Meng notes, “I can’t be in two places at once”, so here he is, in this cavernous, and as yet-to- be-finished dining precinct, called 1909 in Market City.
Also here are hundreds of fans of the affable host. A stage is set up next to the restaurant for speeches, and the crowd is held back by a velvet rope and one tall, reedy security guard.
As Meng appears, the enthusiastic fans, arms holding cameras aloft, surge towards their target, overwhelming both. Their mission: photograph Meng at all costs. Meng stands to the side, aware, but not bothered by the attention, watching what must be the umpteenth lion dance opening ceremony. He listens to speeches then addresses the crowd, before sitting at a table and joining some lucky VIPs in a meal.
The menu is identical to what’s on offer at the Melbourne city outlet, except for two dishes, which are specific to Sydney. One of these is cold noodles with shredded chicken. Like most of the noodles on the menu, it’s meant to be spicy, but the kitchen makes it without chilli for me and it’s delicious. Noodles are layered with strips of chicken, cucumber and mung bean sprouts in a subtle, more-ish sauce. Before I know it, I’m staring at an empty plate and wondering where it has all gone. The other Sydney-only dish is a bowl of skewered morsels balanced over a spicy translucent sauce: quails’ eggs, beef and beef tongue, tripe and fungus. The eggs are the star of that dish for me.
While the restaurants in the chain have the same name – and each bears a large portrait of its namesake, smiling down upon diners – Meng is keen for them to have their own flavour. “I am not involved in the menu, but … I choose the partner and the partner I chose in Melbourne and the partner I chose [in Sydney] are different, in terms of taste and style, and I prefer that,” he says. “The main ideas are the same, but I encourage them to add their own preferences. I think that instead of them being the same everywhere it’s good to have a bit of variety.”
This seems to extend to the decor, which has a similar low-fi meets high-tech sensibility, with exposed bulbs and neon lights, and wooden trays and utensils, which are common to the Melbourne CBD and Market city restaurants, although expressed in different ways.
Meng himself usually orders the same thing when he visits because, he says, “I don’t like to try new things.” When suggested that a restaurant owner should probably possess a more adventurous palate, he replies, “That’s why this is a traditional restaurant.” Touché.
Meng says he wants to open another outlet in America, but other than that, his next plan is to take the business online, by converting the noodles into the instant variety that people can prepare at home. “So far the feedback is really good, the only thing is that people say the noodles are really spicy.”
He says he started the online venture because, “I often don’t go to my own noodle shops, I just make my own packet noodles at home” and he thought others might feel the same. So does he cook at home – apart from opening a packet? “Hardly ever. But I can cook. My specialty is a kind of smoked fish which is quite difficult to do. It’s time consuming. I have specialised in some other high-level dishes but usually I don’t do them; if I do, I do it more for performance,” he says with a laugh.
This is the kind of self-deprecating joke that is often on display as host of If You Are The One and has won him so many fans throughout China and the diaspora. He is always keen to play down his fame and popularity, but today is the third time I have witnessed the incredible enthusiasm of his fans in Australia and I wonder how he can possibly walk around in China if it’s anywhere near the same level.
“Because the show has been on television for nine years, I have been everywhere, and people are very familiar with the sight of me,” he says. “By myself on a plane or in a shop, people approach me modestly saying, ‘can I have a photo?’ Other than that, I don’t usually get mobbed. But when there is an event like this, it’s different.”
When he was last here, If You Are The One had just had a massive overhaul of its format, and Meng spoke quite critically about it, saying “Personally, I don’t like the revamp. But I am not the broadcaster and I am not in production, so I need to do what other people want me to.”
Chinese audiences were critical at first, too. But things seems to have settled down: the show is doing well in the ratings and he has become comfortable enough to focus on a new project.
The Sunday before he arrived the pilot of his new show aired and topped the ratings: it’s his version of another dating show called Chinese Dating. Airing here now on SBS as Chinese Dating with the Parents, the twist, as the name suggests, is that the candidates must endear themselves to the parents (and sometimes vice versa). Season one was hosted by the charming Jin Xing. Meng will take over for season three: he says his pilot topped the ratings in China and that a season of 13 episodes has been ordered.
What does this mean for If You Are the One? Nothing, according to Meng. In China, If You Are the One airs on Saturday while Chinese Dating airs on Sunday and he thinks the two shows will complement each other. “If You Are the One will go on, for sure, it will never die. This new show will act as a boost for it.“ The new format of If You Are the One has not gone down very well with some hardcore Australian fans, who feel that aspects of it – especially the part where the women walk down a catwalk while the man ranks them according to their looks – are sexist, and Chinese Dating, which regularly swaps between male and female candidates, seems to redress the balance to a degree. But Meng, who has been thinking of buying a house in Sydney, has another idea altogether: “SBS will have to give me a new show here to attract the audience back.”
Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet is at the 1909 Dining Precinct, 3rd floor, Market City, Sydney. If You are the One airs on SBS Viceland weekdays at 4.45pm and Sundays at 7.15pm.
Many thanks to Jing Han for translating.