Professional Dublin chef Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire was one of a delegation of Irish food industry people in the former Portuguese colony of Macau trying to develop food and drink exports.
These are challenging times in Macau: casino revenue fell for the 18th straight month in November, down 32.3 per cent to 16.4 billion patacas (€1.87 billion) as the anti-corruption campaign in mainland China eats into the high-roller gambling revenues.
This means Macau, the only place in China where casinos are legal, is having to reinvent itself and focus more on tourism and resort-style offerings, which is good news for Irish food companies looking for new markets such as Macau and Hong Kong.
So while the casino floors are a little emptier than before, the focus now is on getting people into the shopping malls on Cotai Strip, a piece of reclaimed land which is home to billions of dollars worth of hotels and casinos like the Venetian Sands.
The key is to compensate for falling gambling revenues with mass tourism, more hotels and shopping malls, and even products aimed at families.
However, one thing would-be exporters need to be aware of is the scale of Macau. Although the place is small, just 31km sq, it has nearly 30,000 hotel rooms spread over 73 properties.
“The scale, the opulence and the wealth is amazing here, and to see that some of those at the heart of it are actually Irish, it’s very revealing,” said Mac Con Iomaire, who teaches the culinary arts at Dublin Institute of Technology.
Mac Con Iomaire gathered a group of students in the restaurant at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau to cook a meal that was later served to casino executives and other senior businesspeople in the school’s restaurant.
“Irish hospitality is appreciated and there is a huge amount of goodwill towards our products – shellfish, the beef, the whiskey, the craft beers, it’s really excellent,” he said.
"What we need to be aware of is the scale of the operation here and the scale of the demand. There is shellfish in Ireland that we don't eat in Ireland, such as whelks, for example. One executive chef here said he could take a ton of whelks. So now it's a question of getting back and talking to guys about getting in here with serious volume, and you have to be able to deliver on that volume. So it's starting to think on a completely different level," said Mac Con Iomaire.
"There are wonderful openings for training too. There are 22,000 staff in this establishment here," said Mac Con Iomaire, referring to the Galaxy resort where we have met, and where the vice-president of Culinary F&B operations is Dubliner Brian Cleere.
Also popular among the executives was a talk by whiskey expert Fionnán O'Connor, author of A Glass Apart: Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey.
The event was co-ordinated by the Consul General, Peter Ryan, who also covers Hong Kong, and the Irish Chamber of Commerce in Macau, which is under the stewardship of Niall Sean Murray, and Robert Flood, head of international affairs at DIT.
“DIT is uniquely placed in Irish higher education to provide advice and guidance to the food industry, its customers and our partners as how best to prepare and combine what is unique about Irish food,” said Flood.
“It was also a great opportunity to meet and connect with industry partners in hospitality industry to identify potential placement opportunities for our students in an international environment,” he said.
“This plays a key part in DIT’s strategy to internationalise the curriculum and provide international opportunities for all students who seek them,” said Flood.