After working as a consultant in NY, Charles Zeng moved to Shanghai to help his parents run American bar and grill Piro. Despite having practically no experience in the industry, he not only helped make Piro a Shanghai institution but is now a prolific restaurateur, creating concepts like Dos Locos and more. We caught up to him to talk about his latest project, vodka-fried chicken and craft beer concept Captain Rooster, which holds its grand opening this Friday.
Tell us about yourself and how you ended up in Shanghai.
I came to shanghai three years ago. I hated working as a consultant back in New York so I quit my job and moved back here. I got into restaurant industry because my parents started Piro restaurant and wanted me to help out. I helped and I worked out well, so I decided to open more restaurants.
What inspired Captain Rooster?
I dreamt it..the logo! Literally I woke up one day and was like “that’s an awesome logo.” I think it was because I was reading comics with Flash Gordon and his logo was lightning. I guess I was like watching that and went to sleep. Then in my dream there was a Captain Rooster logo. So I drew it out and opened the store.
What is the concept?
It is just fried chicken and alcohol really, but focus more on craft beer. I am going to have craft beer, wine, champagne, and whiskey. There might be wine cocktail like sangria but no cocktail, gin, and vodka. The concept is just for people to come in to eat fried chicken, drink, and have fun. It will be a relaxing atmosphere.
Describe vodka-fried chicken.
It is a vodka batter. A lot of people use water in their batter but I will use vodka because vodka evaporates faster so it makes the chicken skin crispier. The skin becomes airy with a lighter texture, not really heavy.
What’s been the reception among Chinese customers?
It’s pretty good because of the Korean drama, “My Love From the Star.” Now everyone wants to eat fried chicken and beer. Actually because of the Korean drama, am going to have a snow blowing competition on opening day as well.
It must be hectic opening Captain Rooster and Dos Locos within a week of each other. How do you handle the pressure?
A lot of eating. I eat when I am in under pressure.
What’s the most challenging part about being in the restaurant biz in Shanghai?
The long hours. I work seven days a week, and on holidays.
How has the Western food scene changed since you’ve been here?
A lot! Three years ago there weren’t a lot of options for western foods. But in just the last two years its exploding. There are restaurants everywhere. Everyday there’s new restaurant opening. Spanish food is growing expecially fast.
Do you feel like Chinese customers are more receptive to small, craft beer concepts like Captain Rooster than they were before?
Yes definitely! Three years ago it was so hard to find craft beer in Shanghai. Now you go anywhere, and there’s craft beer. Craft beer is really picking up in Shanghai.
Where do you see the Western scene heading in the future?
You have to be really good to make money. It is getting hard, more competitive. Before, people just came here, opened a restaurant, and made some money. But now lots of people who open a restaurant have partners who are experienced in restaurant business. It is hard for new players to come in.
Favorite food in Shanghai?
Sichuan food and hotpot. I also like any food that’s smelly.
Oh yea many! My plan is to open two more restaurants this year.
Captain Rooster – 75 Changshu Lu, near Julu Lu (常熟路75号, 近巨鹿路). Tel: (0)21-5456-2050. Hours: 11am-12am. Closest metro stop: Changshu Lu, Lines 1/7.
By Kate Tantita
Kate is a contributor for Shanghaiist food desk. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates to [email protected]!