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t 30, Jia has launched his own restaurant, Settlers Restaurant
and Bar, in tranquil, histor ic Ar rowtown, near Queenstown,
after spotting the perfect site last year.
On Easter Monday he had his first day off from the
restaurant in four months. “I could feel it when I stopped. It’s tough
on the body,” says Jia. However, when you’ve plunged your life savings
into a business working for close to 100 hours a week to get established
it is just part of the sacr ifice that’s required, he says. “I’m really trying
to tur n out good quality food and service.” His first day off was spent
doing household chores like laundry, then watching movies, and
escaping into the mountains to enjoy the real reason this well-travelled
wanderer chose Queenstown to open his first business.
A qualified accountant, Jia is keeping a close eye on the books, but
he’s pretty happy with how Settlers is going so far, scor ing rave reviews
on social media, Trip Advisor and First Table.
Hospitality is a far cr y from what he studied, but somehow Jia’s life
just keeps enticing him back into his passion for creating great food,
instilled in him as a child. As a pre-schooler his Chinese family moved
to Belgium where they settled in the small medieval-style village of
Huy.This is where some of Jia’s fondest food memor ies were made.
“As a child I remember opening the front door of the cobbled stone
street in our village to go to school and catching the beautiful aromas
wafting from the chocolatier and baker y along the street,” he says. “We
walked past them ever y mor ning on our way to school.”
The family lived in the commercial downtown square with pubs
around them, and as the only young boy growing up there Jia says he
was always spoiled by the sur rounding businesses. “The chocolatier
would always give me some war m, freshly-made chocolate syrup from
the unset chocolate to drink, which kept me war m dur ing winter. It
was one of my favour ite memor ies.”
His parents, who’d sold up their textile factory in Hong Kong to
make a better life for him and his little sister, were among the first in
Belgium to open a traditional Cantonese takeaway business. It was in
Ver r iers, a small town in the mountains of Belgium. “My father was a
great cook and my mother had been a maitre d’.” It was back in the
day when Chinese food was starting to become popular. Soon after that
they opened their successful Chinese restaurant, ‘Chez Song’, in Huy.
“There weren’t many of them around, so everybody was interested in
the flavours and the fragrance and wanted to try it.”
Every day young Jia would fetch the fresh bread from the bakery for
his parents’ restaurant. “I’d taste the fresh bread and croissants, and enjoy
samples of the Chantilly custard, which was still war m,” he says. He
recalls the sweet, buttery smells from the fresh croissants, the fragrance
of cinnamon from the gingerbread and the aroma of yeast.
For years Jia worked after school helping his parents in their
restaurant, but he was raised by a Belgium family. “My parents were so
busy working in the restaurant that they didn’t have the time to take
care of me, so it was a great way to spend time with them,” says Jia.
Back then he had no interest in a hospitality career, instead opting
for accountancy, completing his Masters of Finance and Accounting at
University of Liege in Belgium. It was a short-lived career. “I found a
job with a French hardware store as a junior accountant, then six months
later transferred to Peugot, but I didn’t like it. It was a bor ing life,” he says.
Jia set his sights on travel and ended up tur ning to the one skill he
knew well to fund his two-year backpacking expedition around Europe
and the UK. “I couldn’t speak very good English back then, but I
ended up in Australia. I did quite a bit of cooking, but I held 27 jobs
from forklift and tractor driver to oyster man and fruit picker.”
However, it wasn’t long before Jia was back on the job in the kitchen,
scor ing his dream job at the Bunbury Trotting Club, south of Perth, in
Wester n Australia. The club had three restaurants on site.
“That’s where I lear ned about the senior position stuff like human
resources and the logistics of cater ing for thousands of people,” says Jia.
“It was very challenging and busy, dealing with such huge amounts of
food and coordinating so many people, but that’s where I lear ned about
the hands on of running a business.”
By 2014 Jia was itching to exper ience New Zealand. “I’d always
followed the All Blacks and loved rugby, and I wanted to know more
Hong Kong-born and Belgium-raised, Jia Song,
comes from a strong line of Chinese entrepreneurial
blood, and he’s not afraid of hard work.
BY SUE FEA
Hospitality BUSINESS | June 2017 | 35
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