Take Five with Roy Fong — Educator, Importer, and Connoisseur of Fine Teas

Top quality jasmine tea leaves.

Nobody knows tea quite like Roy Fong.

The 53-year-old entrepreneur opened the first traditional Chinese tea house in San Francisco in 1992. Now, he overseas two Imperial Tea Court locations in the Bay Area — one in Berkeley, and the other in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

A visit back to his native Hong Kong when he was in his 20s, changed his life. As he wandered around the old tea district there, he knew he had found his destiny. Now, he sells about 300 types and grades of teas, priced at $16 to $480 a pound.

Roy Fong enjoying the fruits of his labor.

His two tea houses also are thought to be the only restaurants in the Bay Area that feature an all-organic, sustainable dim sum menu.

With the exception of a few sauces, everything else on the menu is organic and sustainable. The flour used to make the wrappers and the tea oil used to fry the green onion pancakes are organic. The shrimp is wild. The pork is family-raised and sustainable. Even the tea leaves used to flavor the broth for the won ton soup are organic.

Read more about Fong’s organic dim sum — and other purveyers jumping on that bandwagon — in my story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Food section.

I had the chance to sit down to lunch with Fong recently at his Berkeley tea house. He poured cups of jasmine tea, the favorite variety of Northern Chinese.

Dumplings made with wild shrimp, organic flour, and organic jasmine tea leaves.

Before pouring water over the rolled-up leaves, he had me take a whiff. The aroma was very floral. It was an indication that the green tea picked in early spring was quite fresh, because jasmine tea takes on a more citrusy fragrance as it ages. Surprise your guests at your next party by pairing jasmine tea with brie cheese. Fong says the two are an exceptional match.

Q: You’ve won quite a loyal following for your organic dim sum, haven’t you?

A: People drive hundreds of miles for it. We have regulars who come from Monterey for lunch all the time.

Q: The wrappers on the shrimp dumplings are so incredibly translucent. How do you do that?

A: You have to control the water temperature, and roll the dough very thin. The water can’t be too warm or too cold.

Q: I’m guessing you won’t tell me the exact temperature?

A: Nope. (laughs)

Noodles being pulled to order.

Q: What’s the most popular dish here?

A: Hand-pulled noodles that are pulled to order. We sell 100 orders of that every day.

The cooked hand-pulled noodles with savory beef.

Q: You came to tea late in life?

A: I liked tea, but I never thought I’d make a living from it.

I owned a towing company. When you tow cars, people hate you. I came home one day so upset. I brewed a pot of tea, and knew I had to change my life. When I met my wife in my 30s, we decided to do an import-export tea business.

Q: High-quality, high-priced tea was not an easy sell when you opened the original Imperial Tea Court in 1992 in San Francisco’s Chinatown?

A: Some days I only sold $3 worth of tea. People would yell at me for the price.

Q: Did you ever think about just giving up?

A: For some reason, that thought never entered my mind. Every month some sort of miracle would happen so I could pay the rent.

Q: As the years went by, the shop gained quite a following, didn’t it?

A: When we closed that store on Dec. 30, 2007, people flew in from all across the country to visit one last time. We had 300 people in the store that day. And so many people sent emails.

Won ton soup flavored with tea.

Q: How many cups of tea do you drink a day?

A: I never count, but I hardly drink anything else.

I’ve had maybe three cups of coffee in the past five years, mostly for other people’s benefit. I don’t want to be difficult.

Q: Do you cringe when you see people using tea bags?

A: I don’t have an issue with that. If you have only seconds, you can’t argue with using a tea bag. I just tell people to make sure they contain good leaves.

If you want to be an artist or perform a tea ceremony, there’s a tea for you. If you want to quench your thirst, there’s a tea for you. Just make it count, and do the best job you can under the circumstances.

Q: What tea would you most want on a deserted island?

A: Puerh. I grew up drinking it. As a kid, I drank it instead of milk.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about puerh. Most people say it tastes like dirt, but they’ve only had bad ones. It’s really like a compost — earthy, full-bodied, complex, sweet, and with a long finish. It continues to mature and change like a great wine.

It’s used for digestion, too. For me, it’s great for gout. It runs in my family, and I haven’t had it for years.

It’s also called “grandfather’s tea,” because it takes so long to age it. It’s passed down to generations. I’ve been saving mine since 1986. The last few years, I’ve been selling it back to China, too, for a handsome profit.

Q: You have two daughters, ages 13 and 19?

A: Yes. I tell them if they bring a boy home that I’ll be there with a shotgun. (laughs)

Actually, now I say that ‘anyone is fine as long as they make you happy.’

Q: What if the boy doesn’t drink tea?

A: I couldn’t go for that! (laughs)

I guess I’d just have to learn to forgive him.

Serving tea at Imperial Tea Court.

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  • Nice Article. I love tea also. 🙂 Greets from Cologne…

  • I have not been to the original location, but I love this spot at the Ferry Building. You step in and its like a breath of fresh air, you’re out of the hustle and can just relax. The food and tea is a treat. I love suggesting this as a place to meet. My only problem with this place is that they do not do the formal tea on the weekends, only during the week. I regularly host a group of women for tea around the BA and would love to add this place to our list to experience, but its a weekend only event. I get the Sunday paper, and just turned the page when I spotted your article, off to read it now.

  • Someday I’ll get out to California, and I’ll definitely visit at least one of his tea houses if not both. I love tea so much – just brewed my first cup of the day (out of my usual 3-4).

  • OysterCulture: I know what you mean about Imperial Tea Court being an oasis of calm in the busy, bustling Ferry Building, I did a Saturday morning interview there once. In the corridors, it was a rush of people scurrying this way and that. But inside Imperial Tea Court, it was peaceful and soothing as can be.

  • thanks for this wonderful interview.
    There is quite nothing as soothing and comforting and warming as a good cup of tea. I find it so hard to just gulp it down. I want to enjoy every sense of it…the fragrance, the sound of the tea pouring, the warm cup…there is somthing calming about this whole process, even in the middle of a busy street!

  • nice post. Thanks for sharing. I didn’t know about Puerh so I must get some for the hubby.

  • @OysterCulture: This is Virginia at Imperial Tea. While weekends at the Ferry Building are quite busy, we can accommodate group tea presentations on Sunday mornings if you arrive 9:30-10AM. If you’re interested in scheduling something please give us a call at (415) 544-9830.

  • Nice article! A B Street Market in San Mateo would be a wonderful addition, can’t wait…

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