Profile: Nomad no more: Kazahk restaurateur's seeds of success

Source: Xinhua| 2019-08-03 13:21:51|Editor: mingmei
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URUMQI, August 3 (Xinhua) -- Music cuts the conversation of content diners as dancers dressed in traditional Kazakh and Uygur costumes invite the restaurant's customers to down cutlery and dance. The waiters and waitresses put down their trays and join in.

Backstage, restaurateur Hellat Deleilikhan watches. It is the highlight of his busy day.

"I feel happy watching my customers join in. They enjoy themselves, and I'm satisfied. I have worked for so many years to build a place just like this. It is the wheat that I reap," says the 49-year-old man.

It is not unusual for Hellat, an ethnic Kazakh from northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to drop farming terms in this way. In fact, it's in his blood.

For centuries, the Kazakh people were nomadic herders, who drove their cattle and sheep across the pastures of Xinjiang. They shunned the idea of commercial activity, even going as far as regarding business as disgraceful.

"Fifty years ago, it was shameful for a Kazakh to even sell a cup of milk tea to someone else. If someone ate at your house and you charged money for that meal, other Kazakhs would look down on you -- it would be worse than death. But the times have changed, it is okay to earn money from your hard work," says Hellat.

Today, more and more Kazakhs have left their flocks and yurts, to lead modern lives with access to education and health service.

Growing up in a city, young Hellat had excelled in the arts, but he took his parents' advice and majored in Russian at college. This led to a respectable job in the local administration for foreign trade.

The job meant travel. A lot of travel, to far-flung countries where he developed an obsession -- restaurants. He drank up the exotic atmosphere, admired the unusual decorations, and reveled in the amazing performances. The more places he saw, the more he knew that he wanted a career that he was really passionate about.

There was nothing else for it -- in 2001, Hellat quit his job and opened his first venture, a Kazakh-style milk tea shop in a tiny 43-square-meter space in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang.

He decorated the shop like the cafes that had impressed him, and named it "Father of Apples" after the saying; "The three apples that changed the world -- The first one eaten by Eve, the second falling on Isaac Newton, and the third created by Steve Jobs."

Hellat was determined to find his own apple that would change his world.

In 2007, the tea shop was transformed into a restaurant, and singers and dancers were hired to perform.

"It's not about making more money. For me, my restaurant is a like container, which houses all my hobbies, from decoration design to singing and dancing. I've realized a childhood dream," he says.

The restaurant soon moved to a 800-square-meter space, then 1,600-square-meters and again to 2,800-square-meters.

"I often joke that we Kazakh people traditionally lead a nomadic life. We live in a place for just a few years and will then migrate to pastures new. In my catering business, our moves are about business. The need to expand," he says.

The entrepreneur says instead of taking classes or reading books on management, he mainly relies on his intuition. "I stick to just one principle -- Follow my heart," he says.

After a decade of expansion, Hellat opened a second restaurant. Both restaurants are now household names in Xinjiang.

Diners sit in opulent, characterful surroundings to enjoy some of the best food on offer in Xinjiang. And then, of course, there is the traditional singing and dancing.

Dina, also a Kazakh, studies dance at Xinjiang Arts University and works part-time at Hellat's restaurant.

"It's my dream to become a dancer. This job allows me to improve my movements and learn how to interact with the audience," she says.

"Sheep and cattle are inseparable parts of our history and culture. But we need to keep up with the times and lead a modern life. We Kazakh people can put down the whip and live modern lives. It's a good thing," says Hellat.

The busy restaurateur still loves to travel. It is the exposure he has had to many different cultures that means that he believes all ethnic groups should be inclusive.

"Cultures don't have boundaries. As long as it's good, we like it. So, I believe cultures can blend. It's like pollen. Cross-pollination can make the flowers bloom so much more beautifully."