British food critic Tom Parker Bowles talks of his love for Hong Kong, his friendship with Sir David Tang, hunting for aphrodisiacs in Snake Alley and dining out with his famous mum.
“They had these live cobras that were whacking around, looking pretty pissed off. The guy grabbed it, taking the bile duct out right in front of me, and put it in a shot of rice wine.” Tom Parker Bowles is midway through describing his first meal on Kowloon’s Snake Alley, when it occurred to me that he probably has one of the most experienced palates on the planet.
As one of Britain’s top food critics, his weekly column for The Mail on Sunday takes him to restaurants all over the country, from curry houses in Birmingham to fish shacks on the Cornish coast. Being a contributing editor for Condé Nast Traveller and Esquire, he also travels regularly and reviews restaurants around the world.
The author of eight books, in 2007 he published A Year of Eating Dangerously, described as a “global odyssey in search of culinary extremes”. His research led him across Europe, Asia and America in search of adventurous and exotic foods: boiled dog in Korea, blowfish (whose liver, ovaries and skin are highly toxic) in Japan and that aforementioned unfortunate cobra in Kowloon, whose bile Tom consumed as a supposed aphrodisiac before enjoying it as snake soup.
And yes, in the event you recognised his surname, he’s among the fortunate few who’s presumably eaten from royal kitchens in Clarence House, Birkhall, Sandringham and perhaps even Buckingham Palace.
His passion for food isn’t that complicated. He confesses, simply, that it “comes from greed” and stems from his upbringing. “My mother was a great cook, and we were a family that just loved eating,” he says. “We loved going to restaurants.”He reveals that he still dines out regularly with his mother, as it’s an important way for her to keep up with her children despite her busy schedule.
“I remember when the Queen [Elizabeth II] died and my stepfather became the King, I said to my mother, ‘Does that mean we can’t go to restaurants anymore?’ And she said, ‘No, we need to support them now more than ever.’” So which London establishments get the royal seal of approval? “We go to Wilton’s, Mount St Restaurant, 45 Jermyn Street and Angela Hartnett’s Café Murano. We used to go to The Wolseley before Jeremy left.” He means Jeremy King, recently ousted from his Corbin and King empire (The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Colbert), to the dismay of his many loyal clients.
I’m amazed a woman so famous is still able to dine out. “I think people recognise her, but we’ve never stopped going to restaurants,” says Parker Bowles. Clearly the distinguished clientele of Mayfair’s and St James’ restaurants know to play it cool when dining next to the Queen Consort.
Contrary to his seemly grandiose background, he disdains pretentious food, tasting menus and anywhere that feels the need to explain its “concept”. “I’d much rather be on a Bangkok backstreet, under a bridge in Hong Kong, or in Chengdu gnawing rabbits’ heads,” he says. “I’m happiest eating on the street.”
I’m lucky to catch him on the morning before he flies to Thailand for a food festival with David Thompson, his friend and famed chef. Going round Thailand with Thompson is his idea of “utter heaven”, which he likens to “going around the Vatican with the Pope”. Australian-born Thompson, the internationally renowned Thai restaurateur and cookbook author, is also the brains behind Hong Kong’s Aaharn restaurant in Tai Kwun.
For all his experience of cuisines around the world, Chinese food will always hold a special place in Parker Bowles’ heart. Where he grew up in rural Wiltshire, one local restaurant was a typical “American-style Chinese”, with starch-white prawn crackers and yellow lemon chicken. He ate his first proper Cantonese meal at the age of 13 at the now-closed Red Pepper on London’s Fulham Road, which started a “lifelong love affair with regional Chinese food” that also sparked a fascination for Hong Kong.
Although we’re talking via Zoom, his enthusiasm for the city is evident – his face lights up as he recalls bygone memories of old Hong Kong. A frequent visitor to the city for 30 years, he first arrived when aged 18, remembering his earliest “terrifying and exhilarating” landing at the old Kai Tak airport. “You could see people doing their washing and cooking as you came in. You suddenly came out of nowhere and bang: there it was.”
He came to know the fragrant harbour at first through the old colonial staples of “red post boxes, policemen and dim sum trollies”. But what truly captivated him was the “mind-blowing mix between east and west”, a beguiling blend of skyscrapers, markets and street food.
Double-barrelled surname and famous mother aside, it’s becoming quite clear Parker Bowles has a wicked sense of fun and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Previous jaunts to Hong Kong often involved late nights at the Mandarin Oriental’s Captain’s Bar, getting lost in speakeasys and, invariably, hangovers. “It’s a dangerous place if you’re in the mood for a party,” he says. “You can find a drink at any time of day or night.” He laments being too old for Dragon–i, where he admits to spending “too many nights”, but I get the feeling that at 48 he hasn’t lost his penchant for partying, and you may well be rubbing shoulders with him there soon.
Partying aside, his fondest memories are from regular stays with the late businessman and philanthropist Sir David Tang, a “great friend” – and admits that being in Hong Kong with Tang “rather spoilt you”, because of his connections. “He knew absolutely everyone,” says Parker Bowles.
The notoriously colourful Tang, who died in 2017, was known as much for his extreme generosity as his breathtaking rudeness. His address book, which spanned royalty, high society and celebrities, quite rightly earned him the sobriquet “London’s most connected man”. Although possessing the sensibility of an English aristocrat and owning an extensive property portfolio in Belgravia, he always considered Hong Kong to be his home.
It seems that in Tang, Parker Bowles found a kindred spirit who introduced him to classic local restaurants such as Fook Lam Moon and Luk Yu Teahouse, as well as Tang’s favourite Victoria City in Wan Chai, where Parker Bowles credits the mouth- watering hairy crabs as the best meal of his life. Stays chez Tang would involve being chauffeured around Hong Kong in a yellow Rolls-Royce and journeys out to his Sai Kung home “on his amazing old paddle steamer. We’d be waited on by Tang’s staff in white jackets while cruising up through the outer islands.”
One time he even ended up at dinner hosted by Tang in a Guilin rock cave. “We were drinking Chateau Lafite ’89 with a full feast and a whole Chinese orchestra playing. It was just incredible how he did things. When he died, it was terribly sad. Hong Kong lost a magnificent man.”
Recent visits have included signings at Lane Crawford for his books published with Fortnum & Mason and stays at his favourite hotel. “Sitting in a bath at Upper House and looking over to Kowloon is one of the greatest experiences ever,” he says. “There’s this incredible go-get-it attitude to Hong Kong – you leave feeling upbeat and energised. This is one of the greatest cities on Earth and it will always be.” He hopes to return to Hong Kong to promote his forthcoming book, which is currently in the works and he describes as “top secret”.
Moving closer to his home, we briefly touch on the recent announcement that his children – Camilla’s grandchildren – will have a role in the coronation of King Charles III on May 6. Although denying any role for himself, he adds that, of course, he’s “very much looking forward to it and it’s something Britain does very well”. As for the recent influx of immigrants to the UK from Hong Kong, Parker Bowles says “the more Cantonese the merrier. Immigration is what’s made Britain great,” adding that the country can boast some of the finest Chinese restaurants in the world.
Lastly, I ask for his insights on advancing the post-Covid recovery of Hong Kong’s hospitality industry. “It’s our job as food lovers to devote with our wallets to get out there and support our favourite restaurants,” he says, directing his advice to customers. “Go out, eat well and tip well. Use it or lose it.”
Tom Parker Bowles’ Top Tables
Wonderful memories in this true Cantonese classic.
Newman House, Johnston Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
David Thompson’s brilliant tribute to traditional Bangkok cuisine.
1266 Charoenkrung Road, Bang Rak, Bangkok
Serious, tongue numbing, plate searing hot pot.
11 Zhaixiangzi, Qingyang District, Chengdu, China
Probably the best chicken soup I’ve ever eaten. The pig foot’s amazing too.
Da’an District, Taipei
My go-to for high-end dim sum.
40 Baker Street, Marylebone
Exquisite regional Chinese cooking, with two well-deserved Michelin stars.
70 Wilton Road, Pimlico
A Soho Sichuan pioneer – and still as good as ever
28 Frith Street, Soho