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BB & Friends: A Conversation with Cliff Chan

Cliff Chan is an Amsterdam-based restaurateur, whose connection to Berg & Berg runs deep. A friend of our founders – Karin and Mathias – for more than 20 years, Cliff has become a well-known fixture on the Amsterdam food scene, running the two famous Nam Kee restaurants alongside his brother. We recently caught up with Cliff to discuss the perfect dining experience, leaving the corporate world behind, and how Nam Kee’s steamed oysters inspired a novel.

Words: Nathan Sharp. Photo: Jeroen van de Gruiter

Has food always been a big part of your life?

Oh yes. We run a family business, and the family business has always been there, all my life. My parents opened their first restaurant when I was one year old, back in 1981. They’re from Hong Kong, and food is a big part of the culture.

Were you always set to take on the family business, or did it come as a surprise?

It was more of a surprise. I run the business together with my brother these days. We knew that he wanted to [run the business], even when we were teenagers, but for me the story was a little bit different. I went to law school in Amsterdam, then worked as a tax lawyer for nearly five years before I figured out that the corporate life was not for me. My brother always kept me involved, kept me up to date, and at some point I had to choose between the two things. I’d always liked being involved with the family business, but my day job became too much. I chose the restaurant, and my parents retired about the same time. That was 2007. 2008, maybe. I have to say, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

For you, what’s the key to a great dining experience?

I’d say, first and foremost, good company. There aren’t a lot of things to me more fun than a nice dinner party with friends, some drinks, and a lot of laughter. The food comes second, even, for a great dining experience. Of course, the food has to be good as well, but I think the company is even more important.

How do you like to dress for dinner?

Depends on the occasion, obviously, but mostly I’m quite casual. I tend to go for a sweater and chinos. It’s been a long time since I’ve worn a suit, but I do appreciate a classic dress shirt and some quality knitwear.

Do you have a lot of regular diners that visit the restaurant?

Oh yes, we do. There are so many guests that come in and ask about my parents, and say things like, ‘I’ve been coming here now for three decades!’ And I hear stories like, ‘The first time I came here must have been 50 years ago!’ I told you that the first restaurant now opened just over 40 years ago, but I never correct them! It’s their experience, it’s their memory. That’s so nice.

And what about the style of the restaurant interiors. Is that something that you’ve kept pretty true to what your parents opened in the ‘80s, or has that evolved?

That has evolved over the years. When my parents started out, they did things out of practicality. They didn’t think much about a concept, or an experience, they just focused on the food. The only requirement for the interior was that it should be easy to clean, so the walls were covered with, basically, bathroom tiles, and you see that all over the place in China and Hong Kong.

But then in 2010, I believe, we renovated the restaurants, and we were thinking long and hard about how to give them an update, an upgrade, without losing sight of where we come from. So, in the end, we chose to go the direction of the old tea houses in China: more brick, more wood, a little bit more decorated. We still have an authentic feel, and we have a small open kitchen in both restaurants that are covered in the bathroom tiles. It’s like a nod to the past.

Could you tell me about your personal favourite dish on your menu?

There are a couple. It’s hard to pick one, but our steamed oysters, that’s our signature dish. It’s a dish that actually inspired a Dutch novel, and that novel was eventually adapted into a movie, so yeah that’s our signature thing.

Cliff Chan

"There aren’t a lot of things to me more fun than a nice dinner party with friends, some drinks, and a lot of laughter. The food comes second, even, for a great dining experience."

What was the name of the book, and the movie?

They both have the same name. The Dutch is Oesters van Nam Kee, which translates to Oysters at Nam Kee’s. Actually, just last month, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the movie, and we did an open-air cinema night outside one of our restaurants. We had 400 seats, and we gave oysters away and watched the movie together. The writer of the novel, the director of the movie, they all showed up, it was a great night. 

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