Peking — The young men at the table next to ours were obviously curious about the stew we had just been served in an earthenware pot. "Do you mind if we come over and take a look?" asked one.
My wife and I were delighted to oblige. They sniffed the soup and looked somewhat apprehensively at the small chunks of meat with odd-shaped bones that my wife and I were holding in our chopsticks.
"That's tortoise," said the restaurant's owner, Mrs. Liu, as she bustled up with a sizzling plate of fried duck. "And if you order it, you can have it next time, too."
Mrs. Liu's restaurant is tiny -- it has only four tables and seats a maximum of 20 persons. Her kitchen, which sports a gleaming white refrigerator and a glowing coal stove with just one burner, is also tiny. But with this modest equipment, Mrs. Liu performs her daily miracle of turning out tasty home- cooked meals from a repertoire of more than 120 dishes, hot and cold, boiled, baked, fried, or steamed.
Peking, the ancient imperial capital, has many famous restaurants with cuisines ranging from those of the former imperial household to spicy Sichuan, rich Shanghai, sweet Cantonese, and regional dishes. Hardly any businessman visiting the city has failed to be honored with a Peking duck dinner or to give the semi-obligatory return banquet at prices that range as high as $40 or $50 per person.
Mrs. Liu's restaurant is well-known but different. Most restaurants in this collectivist economy are owned by the city of Peking and operated by the city's First Commercial Bureau. But Mrs Liu Guixian owns the restaurant she operates on a quiet lane just off one of the city's busy downtown streets. It is part of an experiment by the municipal government in allowing individuals (as distinct from cooperatives, collectives, or state- owned enterprises) some leeway. The double aim is to relieve unemployment and to provide goods and services for which the demand is greater than the public sector can meet.
Individually owned shops coexisted with cooperatives and state-owned enterprises even during the Cultural Revolution. But individually owned restaurants are a novelty; individuals are still forbidden to have employees. In Marxist terminology, they are not allowed to exploit the labor of others.
Mrs. Liu's restaurant is a family enterprise. A superb cook who has worked in hotel restaurants and in the homes of high- ranking party cadres, she decided to apply to start her own restaurant largely to train her two youngest sons in the business and to give them a means of livelihood.
She submitted her application to the commerce and industry department of Dongcheng last April, she told me recently. The approval came through in September. Her restaurant opened its doors on Oct. 7.
The restaurant is housed in two of the four rooms that Mrs. Liu, her husband, and their five children occupy. At night, after the last guests has left, it reverts to a private bedroom.
"I needed about 2,100 yuan [$1,400] to get going," said Mrs. Liu. "We had to break down one wall, buy a refrigerator, a coal stove, tables and chairs, kitchen equipment, and dishes. Aside from my own savings, I took a 500 yuan [$ 332] loan from the Dongcheng construction bank, which specializes in loans to small businesses. I pay 0.42 percent interest each month and expect to repay the loan in five months."
Mrs. Liu was reticent about her total earnings but said she took a 25 percent profit margin. She started out serving both lunches and dinners, but this was so hectic that she now serves dinners only -- reserved and paid for in advance.
Her prices are moderate. One can get a very good meal for 10 yuan ($6.67) or less per person. The young men who sniffed our tortoise were apprentices in a construction company and probably paid half the amount we did.
"Our wages are 40 yuan [$26] per month, plus a few yuan for transportation and food, so we can't afford to eat in the famous restaurants," said one. "But we heard about this place through an article in a newspaper and came right away to see what it was like. We had to wait 10 days, though, to get our reservation."
"It's good to have a place like this, where ordinary Chinese like us can meet foreigners freely," said another. 'You are the first foreigners we've really talked to."
Other private restaurants have opened up since Mrs. Liu's, one specializing in hot curries. Our next project will have to be to see how it compares with the one we h ave dubbed Mother Liu's kitchen.