At 2pm on a grey autumn Sunday afternoon, a crowd of people is gathering in a laneway near Melbourne's Chinatown. Wiry security men block the open door of a new restaurant behind a Gloria Jean's. A big red sign is half-erected; soon it will be complete, telling people this is the site of Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, the Chinese noodle chain's first Australian restaurant. The people are here to catch a glimpse of – and, if they are lucky, a photo with – the eponymous Mr Meng, who will be attending the opening.
Meng Fei is known to millions of people in China as the host of dating show If You Are the One, which began in 2010. Screened on SBS, the show has become popular for its brutal truths and for giving insights into Chinese culture. As its host, Meng is beloved for his keen observations, quick wit and a well-timed kind word.
On his last visit to Australia, I saw him mobbed by Chinese locals when he made an appearance organised by the Confucius Institute. Nothing much has changed. The show's ratings may not be what they once were, but Meng is as popular as ever.
In 2014 he opened his first noodle shop in Nanjing. Meng was born in Chongqing in south-west China. His family moved to Nanjing in the east, where If You Are the One is filmed, when he was 12 years old. Chongqing hotpot is relatively well known across China, but the city's spicy noodles were not so famous until recently, and Meng had a desire for people to love them as much as he did. Given he left the town when he was so young, could it be that the noodles are more to him than just a meal?
"They are kind of a recollection of my early life, of my childhood," he says. "People have different types of memory about their childhood; for me the smell, the taste, the flavour of the noodles, stays in my mind, so that's the reason why I want to do the noodles."
Meng says there are 11 noodle shops operating under the Mr Meng name (some are franchises), and he also opened a hotpot restaurant with actor and former co-host Huang Lei. The Melbourne restaurant is a partnership with comedian Guo Degang, and is the first of many in Australia: they plan to open another in Sydney within three months, with Brisbane and Adelaide to follow.
The opening was a long time coming and also rushed: the restaurant has been in the works for some time but Meng Fei has a busy schedule, and he was difficult to pin down. Word got out the week before, sending fans of the show into a spin.
The restaurant fit-out features exposed ceiling beams and cables – whether it is intentional or unfinished is hard to say. The design is a hodge-podge of textures and colours: a charcoal honeycomb divider; a pink and orange glass wall around the L-shaped kitchen; vertical white iron railings with exposed light sockets; wooden tables, cups and utensils. On the back wall is a silhouette of its namesake.
This is the interior that greets the lucky 60 people wearing gold stickers that grant entrance. Once inside, the neatly dressed manager quickly allocates us to a table for eight. Waitstaff arrive immediately and our noodles not long after that. Drinks include watermelon frozen iced tea, lychee sparkling and mango popping 'pearl' tea, and are served in over-sized Harry Potter-style butterbeer mugs. The lilac-coloured taro milk tea is foamy and delicious.
As we tuck into our noodles, lion dancers enter, thrashing wildly to booming drums and gnashing cymbals.
Chongqing noodles are renowned for their spiciness, and the menu offers ratings of zero to five chillies. There are not many dishes with zero chillies but I find one: stewed chicken and mushroom noodles. The broth is rich and full; the mushrooms are plump and the noodles are buttery, not greasy, but the chicken pieces are gristly and bony.
Many at the table have ordered one of the most famous chongqing dishes, noodles with chickpeas and pork mince. A companion declares it "spicy but balanced" and rapidly demolishes it. Burning dry noodle with a two-chilli rating is Meng's favourite and too hot for one diner at the table.
Meng does the rounds while everyone is eating. Wearing his trademark black-rimmed glasses and a casual long-sleeved black T-shirt, he stops to chat in Mandarin. One of the reasons Meng is so loved is that despite his huge level of fame, he still makes time to say hello and take a photo with fans. There are two sittings today and he will take photos with many diners, as well as staff.
Meng is always keen to downplay his status – not so surprising given his humble beginnings as a handyman who worked his way up to journalist, then host, for Jiangsu Television, the station that makes If You Are the One. When asked what his actual role is with the restaurants, he makes air quotes and jokes, "big boss", before adding: "it's not really a big business, just a noodle shop, but because of my involvement, people make a big deal out of it".
Says his partner Guo, "the only connection is after recording the show, he needs to go to the shop to eat".
"In other words, there is no connection," Meng says with a laugh.
With less than 15 minutes of interview time and many questions and answers lost in translation, there is no time left to discuss the radical revamp the show has undergone recently; with the first of these episodes airing on May 13 to many unhappy viewers in China. The episode on Jiangsu Television's YouTube channel has twice as many dislikes as likes. Many popular aspects of the show have been discarded for lengthy new segments that mean there are now only three male contestants per episode (previously there would be about six, sometimes more).
Surprisingly, Meng is happy to weigh in with criticism of the new format.
"I know that Australian fans are concerned about the revamped show and personally, I don't like the revamp. But I am not the broadcaster and I am not in production, so I need to do what other people want me to. We feel the pressure of the revamp because after seven years of the same format, audiences get so used to it, and then it's really a big pressure for audiences to get used to the new style. The big consolation [for fans] is that I am still there."
Mr Meng Chongqing Gourmet, 382-384 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne (enter via Little Latrobe Street), open daily 11am-10pm. If You Are the One airs Mon-Fri at 5.35pm and weekends at 7.20pm on SBS Viceland.