Australian chefs take on Hong Kong
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance
Food is a huge part of Australian culture – eating it, making it, talking about it.
With the countless cultural cuisines available to Australians, an increasing amount of hospitality connoisseurs are taking their skills and scattering themselves around the world, depositing their expertise and experience into many different international cities. This is particularly pertinent in Hong Kong, where some of the most popular restaurants in the region have Australians at the helm.
Advance spoke to three (very in-demand) executive chefs hailing from Australia, who are behind three (very in-demand) restaurants. If you’ve been to Hong Kong, it’s very likely you would have visited at least one. And if you haven’t, it’s very likely they’d be at the top of a recommendation list.
BAO LA / LE GARCON SAIGON
Brisbane-born Chef Bao La has Vietnamese cooking in his blood. Growing up inside his parents’ restaurant, he acquired many trade secrets from his mother in the kitchen, and then went on to cement his skills at Sydney’s popular Mr Wong and Ms Gs. Now Bao is running his very own Vietnamese grill house in the Star Street Precinct, Le Garcon Saigon, where pho is most certainly not on the menu.
How has your experience been, living and working in Hong Kong? How would you describe the culture, and what’s your favourite thing about living in the city?
Coming from Brisbane, Hong Kong has been very big culture shock for me. Moving from a very laid back, spacious place full of greenery, to a dense, fast-paced, concrete jungle has taken some getting used to. There are some benefits to this as a chef, though. As apartments in Hong Kong are so small (and have almost non-existent kitchens) people rarely entertain at home, and eat out frequently. In some ways, it makes the task of being a chef a little easier as there a more people to cook for, but the flip side of that is that the audience here is very well educated when it comes to dining, and there is always something new opening in town. You have to be on your toes. My favourite this about the city is how convenient it is, everything is easy to get to by public transport, and travelling in the city is fast and easy, unlike Brisbane where I’d have to get in the car to go anywhere.
What is the best thing about Vietnamese food, and how ubiquitous is it in Hong Kong? Do you have to work hard to break through the stereotype of it just being a “bowl of pho”?
The best thing about Vietnamese food is simply that it’s delicious – full of fresh flavour sensations, and it’s light but filling at the same time. There hasn’t been that much Vietnamese migration to Hong Kong, so while there are Vietnamese restaurants here, it’s unlike some parts of Australia where there are large Vietnamese communities. Breaking the stereotype that Vietnamese cuisine is just pho is a huge part of our mission at the restaurant, we don’t actually serve pho (we’re a Saigonese grill house) and even a year and a half after being open it’s a challenge, but no cuisine can be defined by a bowl of noodle soup!
Where do you look for inspiration to create new dishes? Did living and working in Australia have any influence on your work?
I get a lot of inspiration when I travel, it’s so easy to get away on short trips around the region from Hong Kong. My mentors and my mum are still big sources of inspiration for me. Australia has definitely influenced my work; I think a piece of home came to the Hong Kong kitchen with me. Australian kitchens are so easy going, not that we don’t work as hard, just that we appreciate the importance of being able to laugh in what can be a very tough industry. And although the interiors of the restaurant are in the style of a French brasserie, something about the casual airiness of it I think is quite Australian.
What have you learnt about Hong Kong that you wished you had known before moving?
I wish I had known about the weather! I thought Brisbane was hot and humid, but you haven’t experienced humidity until you’ve done a Hong Kong summer. Another thing that I’ve learnt about living in Hong Kong is that the attitude towards being a chef isn’t as prestigious as it is in Europe. You have to prove yourself a lot in the kitchen, you have to work harder with the staff to make them realise that this career is real, if you want it to be.
Besides Le Garcon Saigon, where’s your favourite place to eat in Hong Kong?
I like eating at dai pai dongs, stir fries and seafood dishes mostly. For me it is important to immerse myself in the culture here.
JOWETT YU / HO LEE FOOK
Taiwanese born, Sydney raised Jowett Yu has garnered international acclaim for his SoHo-based restaurant Ho Lee Fook. Serving Chinese flavours best enjoyed with an open mind and strong appetite, Yu takes his inspiration for Ho Lee Fook from the spirit of late-night Chinatown hangouts in New York, circa 1960s. Yu spoke to Advance about how the culinary scene in Hong Kong differs from Australia, his favourite dish to cook at Ho Lee Fook, and his biggest culinary inspiration.
How would you describe the culinary scene in Hong Kong? Are there any food trends specific to the city?
Hong Kong’s culinary scene is probably one of the most dynamic and comprehensive in Asia. Hong Kong is quite susceptible to new global dining trends and open to new restaurant concepts. I’ve recently seen some Nikkei cuisine emerging which is an interesting addition to existing dining scene.
How does the culinary scene in Australia differ or compare to that of Hong Kong? What transferrable knowledge did you acquire in Australia that you could bring to Hong Kong?
I think the dining scene is more competitive in Hong Kong than it is in Australia, and the need to be profitable from opening is crucial due to high rental charges in Hong Kong. I think an acute awareness in business acumen certainly goes a long way here.
What’s your favourite dish to cook at Ho Lee Fook, and what’s the most popular dish ordered?
I like making dumplings because it reminds me of my mum (they are called: Mom’s “mostly cabbage, a little bit of pork” dumplings). I would say the most ordered item would probably be the Roast wagyu short ribs with jalapeño purée and green shallot kimchi.
What’s the best part about living in Hong Kong?
For me it is the array of excellent Chinese restaurant options, I believe Chinese cuisine is the best in the world so I’m lucky to live and work in a city where there is so much variety.
Who’s your biggest culinary inspiration?
JAMES HARRISON / MAISON LIBANAISE
Growing up in Melbourne, James Harrison spent much of his childhood at his grandmother’s home, where weekends were reserved for family and food. Through Maison Libanaise, Harrison shows the diversity of Middle Eastern flavours to Hong Kong diners, putting emphasis on in-house preparations and premium ingredients.
What is unique about Maison Libanaise, and what is the restaurant best known for?
Maison Libanaise’s location is truly one of a kind. We’re situated in one of the most iconic buildings in SoHo, one of the last of the small walk-ups with access to all three levels. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people pass by our front door on the famous SoHo escalator. Our design is very colourful, inspired by Beirut in the 1960s. On the ground floor, we have a takeaway counter where people can come in and pick up a Lebanese wrap or salad. At our restaurant on the 1st floor and rooftop, we serve Lebanese wine and mezze made to share with a big group. The roasted cauliflower with spicy Harissa sauce has been very popular lately. So much so that I even added it to our ground floor takeaway menu!
Australians are spoilt for access to great food, and often seek out that caliber around the world. Do you notice Australians coming to your restaurant for this reason?
I think we’ve built up enough of a reputation here at Maison Libanaise where people expect amazing Lebanese food when they visit, and know that we can deliver. However, I do believe that this place offers a vibe and level of quality that make Australians feel like they’re getting a slice of home. Any Aussie who knows good Lebanese food would appreciate the quality of ingredients and the level of skill and technique that goes into our dishes.
What’s one thing about Hong Kong that only a local would know? Are there any misconceptions about living there?
I’m a bit of a sneakerhead, and Mongkok in Kowloon is the best place to hunt for great deals and special edition kicks. While we’re on that topic, a big misconception for folks new out here is that everything fun is in Central, when there is actually a lot more to discover. For example, there are all these awesome late night joints in Causeway Bay that are great for an after-service unwind. I like to go to my buddy’s place Bakudanya Den for Japanese fried chicken and potato salad, and sometimes even tap into the Sochu.
Have you noticed an increase of Australians in the hospitality scene in Hong Kong? What does Hong Kong offer that other international cities don’t in that regard?
I think it’s safe to say that more and more Australians are coming here to work in hospitality. For a chef, the pay is significantly higher, and that alone drives some people to move. There are also more and more operators like Black Sheep Restaurants where they really invest in young talent. You have more opportunity to head up kitchens as a young chef, whereas back home it would take a lot longer to come across a big gig.
What food trends should we be keeping an eye out for?
Within Hong Kong and also internationally, there’s growing interest in Middle Eastern culture and food. There have been new restaurants popping up in major food cities around the world and I see that happening in Hong Kong as well with the demand growing for this type of cuisine. People are starting to understand that there really isn’t such a thing as Middle Eastern cuisine, Turkish cooking is different to Arab cooking which is different to Iranian or Lebanese.