Travel and Lifestyle Journalist

The Cook's Nooks

Originally published in SCMP, March 2012.


The Fame Game

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, Mar 29 2012.

Where do chefs go to grab a bite when they’re not at work? Pavan Shamdasani asks five to name their favourite haunts.
It’s Friday night and you and the significant other are stuck with the weekly dinner dilemma: settle for the same old SoHo staple, or try somewhere new? With an estimated 13,000 to 18,000 restaurants in our fair city, finding a fresh restaurant shouldn’t be as difficult as it usually feels.
With endless openings, closings, renovations and menu revamps, it’s a challenge to discover a new dining experience that truly satisfies. Why not go straight to the source, to the people who spend most of their lives surrounded by food – chefs. After hours, every chef has a restaurant they like to escape to. We talked to five of them. Under the radar Finding a gem among the hundreds of restaurants hidden away among the nooks and niches of our city can be more trouble than it’s worth. But when your entire day revolves around food, you get to know some of the best.
A chef’s day often starts at dawn – David Lai of On Lot 10 heads to Ap Lei Chau’s market every morning to source fresh fish. “It’s full of stubborn, no-nonsense old ladies who know a thing or two about quality and value,” he says. “Near the market is a canteen, Chan Sun Kee, that’ll cook anything you bring them.”
Vicky Cheng of Liberty Private Works prefers the seafood sellers of Tuen Mun. “I was fortunate to be brought to Kwan Choi Kee by a helpful server,” he says. “His family runs it and it’s just a sight to see all the beautiful seafood.
Then it’s off to the kitchen confines for the day – but when lunchtime rolls round, the search for a quick, hearty meal can be challenging for those at the chopping board. Kenny Chan Kwok-keung of Dong Lai Shun heads out for a late lunch at either New Shanghai Spot, where “the dishes are traditional and creative, but suitable for a quick meal”, or Delicious Viet Bistro, where he digs into a plate of sweet-and-sour pork.
Vinny Lauria of Linguini Fini prefers some spicy Sichuan dishes to keep him going. “Chilli Fagara is one of the establishments in town which consistently delivers a great meal at a great value,” he says. “The different levels of heat in the food make it an exciting and challenging meal.
Lai grabs a cheap hot dog loaded with mayo and relish at local favourite Wing Lok Yuen. “They sell these cheap, generic wiener hot dogs, loaded with thick, sweet mayo and relish. It’s next to my doctor’s office, so I always get a couple to reward myself after every visit,” he says. Alternatively, Lai heads for Hop Yick Tai for what he says are the best rice noodle rolls in Hong Kong. “It’s the only place where it tastes remotely like how it used to in my childhood,” he says. “Food is a lot about memories and nostalgia – I understand how fast food has become a symbol of evil, but for me it’s plain old comfort food.”
Don Zhao Qingmin of Sha Tin 18 shares the homestyle frame of mind, and opts for some Beijing cuisine at The Courtyard. “I always miss the food when I’m away from home, and I take my friends from Beijing there when they visit,” he says.
Clocking out after midnight makes it hard to find some late-night nosh. Cheng often finds himself at Kozy: “It’s a little okonomiyaki restaurant that’s open until 4am,” he says. “I often go with a friend, and always seem to bump into other chef friends hanging out there.
Chan prefers something a little more old-school. “Hing Kee serves fried crab in shelter style,” he says. “Their chefs are very detail minded: they prepare every single ingredient in a perfect way with precision, and you can imagine their attitude towards their fried crab.”Hitting the trendHongkongers love a good trend and chefs are no exception. At present, New York’s dining culture is holding sway with chefs such as Cheng, who used to work in the city under Daniel Boulud, and his time there shows in his liking for both Cafe Gray Deluxe and Angel’s Share.
“I especially love Cafe Gray’s egg white omelette. Eggs are one of the trickiest things to do right and they do it very well there on the brunch menu,” he says. “And Angel’s Share because it is a bar and in the area; I tend to go there quite often for the fresh handmade pasta – the pomodoro is amazing.”
Hailing from New York, Lauria shares the Big Apple-inspired enthusiasm. “I love Yardbird for its use of fresh and local ingredients, and Lily & Bloom for its great cocktails and late-night bar snacks,” he says. “They’re always open late and are great places to hang out with chefs and other people in the restaurant industry.”
Closer to home, Zhao likes the idea of high-quality cuisine in a cooked food market. “Tung Po is a famous dai pai dong that provides inexpensive fusion regional cuisine that’s surprisingly delicious,” he says. “They keep changing their menu, adding innovative dishes.”
A devotee of Asian cuisine, he’s also tapping into the city’s Korean trend at Sam Mok Korean Restaurant, which offers “tasty, traditional dishes and warm, efficient service”. He also has a passion for the hotpots at Budaoweng which has “a great variety of ingredients and soup bases available, and, of course, most ingredients are fresh and in season”.
But some trends are built to last. Kenny Chan never tires of all things classic at the Carnarvon Road branch of Tsui Wah.
“It’s the most famous chain cha chaan teng in Hong Kong, but it’s also good quality food in general,” he says. “I like the bun with condensed milk and the curries the most. You can experience how efficient Hong Kong service is in Tsui Wah.” Hitting the wallet The Michelin Guide added cachet to Hong Kong’s restaurant scene, and just as many chefs would give their chopping hand for a French star, they also like to indulge in the country’s cuisine whenever they get a chance.
Lai’s love affair with French food (see his own restaurant) often finds him enjoying Caprice’s classy surroundings. “Their cheese programme probably makes up one of the three Michelin stars,” he says. “It’s one of those money-losing prestige things only fine dining restaurants can pull off. At Caprice, the selection and thoughtful wine and condiment pairings make it a special meal of its own.”
But Japanese cuisine is catching up with French in the number of stars awarded, and Asian restaurants are also on the favourites lists of most chefs. For some, it’s a balance between the restaurant’s food and ambience.
“What’s there not to love about Japanese food?” says Lauria. “Nobu is my personal pick as the best; it has the freshest sushi and sashimi in town and a great vibe.”
Zhao feels a restaurant’s setting plays an important role. Inakaya’s Victoria Harbour view adds a stunning backdrop to its fresh fish and wagyu beef.
Chan, meanwhile, goes for the more authentic atmosphere of Kenjo, where its eponymous chef offers the freshest seasonal items. “Most of the time, I will order their omakase,” he says. “It’s similar to the chef’s table concept, where the chef prepares sushi and sashimi according to your budget and the season.”
Cheng likes it a little more modern at Sushi Sase; the contemporary flavours keep him coming back. “And they’re open on Sundays, which I love because that’s my day off,” he says.
But there’s no place like home, and, Lai loves the city’s top-class Cantonese cuisine. “Fook Lam Moon is famous for tycoons and their bodyguards, but the service is sharp enough that they remember your name after just a couple of visits,” he says. Try the fried wonton and you’d never relate this Chinatown staple to any other Chinatown again.”