FOR THE LOVE OF FOOD
7 million people. 10 million mobile phones. 10 universities. 15 degrees Celsius on most air- conditioned buses. 17 cups of tea per week. 30 country parks. 72 shopping malls. 106 buildings standing taller than 180 metres. 224 thousand domestic helpers. 1000 square kilometers. 1800 species of fish around our shores. $6,000 spent on designer brands every three months. And 11,500 restaurants.
This is Hong Kong, in numbers. A city with more mobile phones than the population itself, a city with the coldest buses, the longest working hours, the most unlikely percentage of countryside space (three quarters of its land!), and the most memorable Sunday street scene with Filipinos overtaking Central. This is the city with more Mercedes Benzs than Toyotas. But this is also one of cities with the highest consumption of instant noodles in the world, and probably in their most innovative concoctions too. In short, Hong Kong is a city full of crazy ideas. And at the centre of all of this madness, is food.
From $25 fish ball noodles to $3000 prix fixe menus at Michelin-starred restaurants straight from the left banks, your palette cannot be further tantalized and teased in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is also one of the major financial centres of the world. Hong Kongers thrive in an environment with a perfect mix of traditional Chinese discipline and Western-infused capitalistic ideals. Hong Kong parents typically plan their children’s lives for them even before they were born. Kindergartens are registered before birth, and those with a “single dragon” service tend to be more popular as that means a secured placement for primary and secondary schools. Children learn at least one instrument (and those who opt out of it often have to bargain with something else in exchange, like “abacus” or “French”) and are often expected to become doctors, lawyers, or, most fittingly, bankers. Few parents stop to ask their children, “What do YOU want to do?” In the end, the children become confused themselves. They go on to become successful doctors, lawyers, bankers and usually feel pretty smug about it with their mid-levels apartment and MINT membership. Then, one day, while nibbling on their chocolate cake on Graham Street, they look up at happy banker turned pastry chef Jennifer floating around her dessert bar and think, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”
Luckily, or unluckily, the thought does not linger. Work prevails, life goes on, and there is always, ALWAYS, something more important to do than to live your dreams. Taxes to be paid, parents to be pleased, the new Balenciaga handbag that must be purchased… So what exactly separates you from those who do stop to admire all the food works going on in Hong Kong, to make a little sacrifice, and then to take it one step further - by pursuing, food?
Jennifer is probably living the dream of every sweet-obsessed girl in Hong Kong. Harvard graduate, ex-investment banker, tall and beautiful, and now – successful pastry chef with a dessert bar and two patisseries under her belt. I hate to admit it but I am sure getting a little jealous of Jennifer – can life be any more perfect?!
Jennifer approached her culinary affair with much the same cutthroat resolve as an investment banker. Upon graduation from college Jennifer returned to Hong Kong to work at Deutshce Bank, the typical route every parent would have loved to see their children pursue. However, one year at the investment bank was enough to convince her that it was not for her.
“It’s just not me. I was putting in 100 hours per week for something I am not passionate about.” So Jennifer left her job and very quickly decided to enroll on a six month pastry training course at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York.
“Back when every girl was playing with dolls and what not, all I ever wanted to play with was a cookery set. I used to love mixing and whisking anything I could get my hands on,” reminisced Jennifer. “So the decision to focus on pastries came very naturally to me. It was more artistic, more aesthetic, but in a way more scientific and precise because a teaspoon of difference in ingredients can change the end product completely.”
Six months later, Jennifer found herself working in Per Se and dreading it. As expected, the floors of a three Michelin-starred kitchen can be very demanding and challenging. However, the faint memory of a chocolate cake in France saved Jennifer.
“I will never forget the taste of this crunchy hazelnut meringue I had when I was a kid. I knew it was the beginning of a long love affair. Now I love anything with a chocolate and hazelnut combination, as well as something with a bit of a crunch.” It was this thought of chocolate and hazelnut that pulled her through Per Se, inspired her to open the dessert bar Sift in Soho, and to create her first signature dessert – the ever chocolatey, hazelnutty, creamy and crunchy Sift chocolate cake.
It was the fair sight of a good-looking man in a rather tight-fitting shirt cooking patties on a grill, eyes glued to the meat in all attentiveness, sweat trickling down face et al that first attracted me to Shake’em Buns back in 2006.
“Have you checked out the new burger shop down the street? Apparently the owner’s pretty hot and used to be a model!” exclaimed my colleague. A hot guy? Down the street? Impossible sight in Hong Kong. And so just to prove my colleague wrong (or right) I went for a burger that same day and could not have been less disappointed (with the burgers, of course). That was the start of my relationship with Shake’em Buns.
Today, three years down the road and owner of three hugely successful Shake’em Buns along with various other food & beverage outlets, Timothy Lau sports the same baseball cap and simple white T-shirt. He greets me with the same big smile and motioned me to sit while he tried to fight the lunch crowd pouring into his Wanchai shop.
“It must be my lucky day,” said Tim while he tried to collect himself over a can of mountain dew as we sat down to lunch. Tim grew up in Hong Kong but moved to North Carolina when he was 11, where he obtained a degree in Marketing and IT. He came back to Hong Kong to work in the dotcom industry in 1999, and when the bubble burst immediately the year after went on to work in furniture manufacturing in Dongguan in China. Tim then dabbled in modeling (shhhh!), chemicals manufacturing, and sports management for a few years before he realized that none of what he was doing ever gave him a sense of satisfaction in life. He wanted something more.
Hence, having braved two weeks of thumb-twiddling idleness upon his return to the Hong Kong office of his sport management company from Beijing, Tim decided, with almost Churchill-like resolve – that that was it. Considering his options, Tim recalled the good old days from North Carolina where he regularly helped out at his aunt’s range of Chinese and Western restaurants doing anything from busting tables to waiting and cooking. It was tough work, but nothing quite compared to the sheer joy Tim experienced when he would see a customer’s face light up with delight at a dish well cooked.
“Unlike furniture manufacturing where you have to ship the product all the way to the US, wait for the retailer to sell the product and finally for the customer to maybe give you feedback, in a restaurant environment, you harvest your effort (or lack of it) almost immediately. You can see the reaction on your customer’s face, or ask for direct feedback. In this manner, the improvement process is quick.”
Tim thought about all the foods he loved and decided on opening a burger joint. “Burgers are simple and yet so delicious. There is also a lot of variety when it comes to flavour. If I can keep the cooking simple, there is room and time for marketing and packaging, which is what I am also good at,” smirked Tim. That was the birth of Shake’em Buns.
You need only spend a minute with Margaret to understand what chef Ricky Cheung meant when he claimed her “crazy” in his foreword for Margaret’s book, “Yin Yang Restaurant Cookbook”.
Sporting her signature newsboy cap, Margaret came bouncing down the green stone steps of her small three table private kitchen, “Yin Yang”, on the afternoon of our interview, apologizing for being ten minutes late. “Can you please move the stone mill away, there is no space here,” said Margaret in a very authoritative tone to her waiting staff. Then, almost immediately, she turned to me in amazement and exclaimed, “I remember you! We had dinner together with Chaxiubao!” Margaret’s quirky enthusiasm resembles the rare demeanor of a young girl in her teens.
Margaret started cooking at the age of three. When most kids were happy squandering pocket money on the latest Hello Kitty stationary, Margaret chose to spend hers buying freshwater fish in the wet markets of Hong Kong. Her first big cooking project was whipping up a wedding-banquet-esque meal for up to forty guests for her Form Six friend (FORM SIX? Yes, I double checked, her classmate married at the age of seventeen) who then obviously did not have enough money to host in a luxury hotel. Then, like most confused, under-counseled, and disenchanted Hong Kong students, Margaret thought that there was no future for her if she had progressed into cooking school in HK. “It was not like I had a wealthy family who could have supported me to open a restaurant. I did take a look at the Chinese Culinary Institute in Pokfulam, but all I saw were guys with big fat bellies holding a huge wok.” That, obviously, put the petite-framed Margaret off. Margaret went on to study Communication at Baptist College and after a few years in advertising, started her own creative consultancy. However, life likes to play little jokes on people once in a while.
“One day when I came home to my new mid-levels apartment, I was shocked to see that the plants growing in my back terrace were dying. I eventually found out that it was because they were not used to the humidity there. So, since I was already traveling to Yuen Long regularly during the weekends for qigong and Chinese medicine practice, I thought, why not rent a house there to accommodate my plants?”
Spending the weekends at her new retreat in Yuen Long Margaret started learning age-old cooking methods from her Hakka neighbours, including grounding using a heavy stone mill.
“But isn’t that really hard work?” I gasped.
“Not at all! It’s really fun! Plus, you can lose some weight doing that!” giggled Margaret. Sometimes, you forget that this woman sitting in front of you is the godmother of the slow food movement in Hong Kong.
From there, everything happened sort of serendipitously. One day Margaret decided that she got bored with traditional rice cakes for Chinese New Year and made purple ones using fresh ground purple rice straight from the mill. A journalist friend of hers wrote about it in the press and before she knew it, everything was sold out. Handling requests from customers who also wanted to eat at the farmhouse Margaret started taking reservations for the weekends under the name “Cuisine X”.
Margaret did not give up her advertising career immediately after that. She continued to run her creative consultancy from her Sheung Wan office while offering take-away service by appointment only during weekdays. During the weekends she returns to Yuen Long to run her private kitchen. However, coming across the heritage-listed property on Ship Street in Wanchai Margaret thought that there was so much potential with this space and boldly decided to focus full time on cooking. She hated to see precious space go to waste. Margaret named her new restaurant Yin Yang – in part to commemorate the famous half-tea-half-coffee Hong Kong drink, and in part to denote a perfect union of urban and rural cooking.
With purple hair, dangling earrings, tattoo on arm and cigar in hand, Alvin Leung cannot resemble less of your typical Chinese chef. Yet this man, sitting self-assuredly in front of me in his Ship Street restaurant, is only one of two self-taught chefs (the other being Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck in the UK) in history to have received any stars (and he received two) from the notoriously selective Bible of restaurants – the Michelin Guide.
Raised in Canada and educated in London as an acoustic engineer, Alvin did not come from a family with a mother who inspired her children with delicious home-cooked meals.
“Quite the contrary, my mother never cooked. We also did not have a maid, so I had to learn how to cook myself. Living in Canada and England, you do not always get the fresh Chinese ingredients you want. So you have to improvise with what local ingredients you have. This mixing and matching of ingredients is probably what inspired me to create this kind of nouveau Chinese cuisine.”
So Alvin went on to experiment with his two seemingly contradictory minds - scientific and culinary. By day Alvin worked at his family’s acoustic engineering firm, by night it would be the Chinese Gordon Ramsay at play. Alvin hosted a string of successful dinner parties with much shouting going on in the kitchen (at his Filipino maids) and verbal abuse (at his own creations) at the dinner table. Guests were required to join in the criticism. Finally Alvin received so much encouragement from his guests that he decided to take over his friend’s failing private kitchen business in order to be the true “head chef”. This was 2003.
Alvin’s illustrious culinary career thus began with a small private kitchen on Gillman Street, which then expanded and moved to Ice House Street, and then eventually to Ship Street last year as a full-fledged restaurant, seating 58 and employing 10 in the kitchen. He claims to be screaming much less now having learnt that the stick does not always work - instead he chooses to dangle an enticing carrot by taking members of his staff on tasting retreats to restaurants in Europe.
Great stories, but these people are superhuman. It must have been easy for them.
Reading the stories of these inspiring people may very well resemble the experience of sitting face to face with the Dalai Lama – it makes you want to put down whatever it is that you are doing and meditate into transcendence. However, to think of this transcendence as taking the easy way out would be looking at the situation through rose-coloured lenses. The decisions these people made were not easy ones, and even if they were, their roads to success were certainly not.
Asking Margaret if she had any regrets for her full-blown dive into chef-hood, she caught me by surprise by letting out a high-pitched squeal and tumbling face down into her palms.
“OH MY GOD… Are you kidding me? I was regretting almost every day for the first week! I kept on asking myself – what the heck am I doing?”
Turned out that dealing with professional kitchen staff is a big lesson in itself. Experienced staff will have bad habits inherited from elsewhere. Most Chinese trained chefs also have a very different mentality from that of Margaret’s – cooking based on passion. In Hong Kong, the majority of those working in kitchens do it “as a job” while the minority work in Western kitchens as opposed to Chinese ones. So when Margaret first hired her Chinese trained kitchen staff she had to deal with issues such as aubergines soaked in oil (what the Cantonese call 托油 – deep frying in oil so as to preserve colour) and a week’s supply of ready-chopped garlic.
“I was laughing my head off! After all we only have 20 to 30 seats, do we really need this huge supply of garlic?” mused Margaret. “I almost felt like I’ve become a man! I was always shouting in the kitchen.”
Tim, on the other hand, had to overcome a barrage of sarcasm and discouragement when he told people that he wanted to open a burger shop in Hong Kong. 80% of the people he spoke to told him not to waste his time.
“They told me that people are used to paying less than $20 for a combo at McDonalds. Why would they want to buy from you?” reflected Tim.
With all the negativity around him, it is easy to imagine Tim just giving in and giving up. Yet he chose to believe in himself and in the research he did. He saw a gap in the market and went for it. To everyone’s surprise, Shake’em Buns took off in no time and started a whole new burger trend in Hong Kong.
Alvin, on the other hand, insisted that his rise to international stardom was not that hard. His view is that professional level cooking does not require a culinary degree or years spent sweatshop-ing in a famous restaurant dicing onions. "For me it’s easier to learn than playing golf," he says. "You chop food, you pan-fry it - what else is there to it?"
So now we know that our heroes and heroines are normal human beings after all (maybe apart from Avin), the next question is, how did they overcome their anxiety and doubts? Who or what was there to support them?
For both Margaret and Alvin, it is their love for food. Having babbled on for almost half an hour about her once hopeless staff Margaret mellowed into a sigh and said, gently, “But I love cooking so much. Even on Sundays when I’m supposedly on my day off, I wake up and the first thing I want to do is go to the market. I will think: What should I buy for myself today?” Margaret’s obsession eventually moved her kitchen staff so that they too have come to appreciate the beauty of food.
“They love my home grown vegetables so much I once even caught them stealing it!” laughed Margaret. “But then again, this change in mentality also meant that they now know how to handle produce with care.”
Asking Alvin whether juggling between a full-time engineering job and running a private kitchen was tiring for him, Alvin said, “I am a hyper-energetic person so I almost need to be busy. But no, I don’t think it would be tiring for anyone if you really have the passion for it. If you really love something, nothing can stop you from doing it.”
As for Jennifer, she was lucky she always had the support of her family.
“They always supported my decision. They were firm believers in the theory that in order to do something well, you have to be passionate about it.”
This theory sounds perfectly logical. If you are to spend at least a hundred hours a week on one thing; if you are to make that one thing in effect your life, why not make it something you love? However, the lingering doubt I have always had about this theory comes from very much the same place as men’s fear of marriage – if I bring this beautiful, intriguing girl back home, is she going to turn fat and ugly? Am I going to get bored of her? Is everything going to change?
Margaret has the best answer for this. She uses the analogy of a plant, “If you want to grow a plant, you have to nurture it. You have to provide it with water and adequate sunlight, and even a little bit of fertilizer. You can’t just bring it home because you think it’s pretty but not take care of it. The same thing goes with relationships and career. You have to actively think of ways to maintain the passion. It takes effort, but it’s worth it. Trust me.”
To maintain this passion, Margaret goes back to her retreat in Yuen Long every night to relax, or take trips to Naples to seek out the best pizza in the world. Tim does so by actively looking for expansion opportunities and by walking his Tibetan Mastiff around in Sai Kung. Alvin finds inspiration from fellow chefs around the world during his Masterchef tours (cooking exchanges amongst heavyweight chefs around the world), the last one of which brought Alvin to Napa with Heston Blumenthal, Sydney with Kylie Kwong and Beijing with Mark Best, Stephane Tremblay and Peter Kuruvita.
Jennifer, on the other hand, goes back to the drawing board and thinks about new creations for her patisseries. As Margaret said, there are endless ways to nourish your love and passion. All it takes is a little effort.
OK, now is probably a good time for me to play the role of a typical Hong Kong girl and help us assess the damage.
Passion – I am sure we have… I think. Come on! I was up making egg tarts till 1am in the morning, what more do you want?? – check
Opportunity – check
Resolve – hmmm… whatever – check
Support from loved ones – We Hong Kong girls are all spoilt by our parents and boyfriends and husbands, aren’t we? – check
Willingness to nourish passion – hell ya! – check
OK, so I think we have it all.
Then what are we doing still sitting here? Why are we not out there enrolled on a culinary course or interning at French Laundry or creating the most coveted fried rice in the world or something? What is still missing?
Alvin, for the first time, had a very sympathetic take on this. “At the end of the day, it depends on how you define happiness. Your happiness should not be dictated by what society believes to be important.” Then, realizing my confusion, he very helpfully added, “At the end of the day (this is obviously Alvin’s pet phrase), it’s about not lying on your deathbed and thinking, ‘I wish I had done that.’”
Tim reckons that the belief in oneself is most important. However, this comes with strings attached, “You have to be ready to do your homework. It took me 6 months of planning and research before I built enough confidence to open the first Shake’em Buns. I literally spent a whole week sitting there on Star Street with a lunchbox in hand and doing headcounts. It was worth it. Star Street appeared to be quiet on first sight, but after the research I realized that traffic wasn’t bad at all.”
Margaret puts it very simply, “Life is too short. So at least give it a try. Otherwise how else will you know what’s on the other side of the rainbow?”
Advice from New York
I am writing the last of this article in New York and for some reason, the cold and the rain seem to make the perfect weather for self-reflection. Taking a rather unpleasant stroll in Central Park, thinking about the words of our four pioneers, I try to look inwards towards myself and towards the hearts of the entire Hong Kong population. I figured, perhaps what is missing is this – perhaps we have lost confidence in ourselves and in the judgments we make. Perhaps we have become so jaded that we cannot believe in dreams and in the simple pleasures of life anymore. Perhaps we are functioned by society to believe that we have to stay in our boring, pointless jobs without even having sought the opinion of those whom we believe are keeping us from leaving those positions.
Perhaps – it is all in our minds. So take a minute, join me on this freezing park bench, and think about what makes you happy?
Time to go home and bake some more egg tarts.