Named after Chef Tiff Lo’s beloved grandmother, Jean May is the newest French bistro on the block that will surely make her proud.
As French food in Hong Kong goes, there are a fair few restaurants that offer the fancy stuff on a silver platter. But when it comes to casual dining à la Français, there really aren’t as many. So when a new French bistro landed in my neighbourhood, I was more than excited to visit. Discreetly located in between the flower and fruit stalls of Wan Chai market, Jean May is a relaxed eatery with feel-good dishes aplenty that is lead by a brother-sister duo, with Chef Tiff Lo in the kitchen and her brother Ramon leading front of house.
The lovely bright bistro has a convivial air and offers a simple menu dominated by dishes that focus on produce, which will change from time to time according to what’s fresh. Having trained with the likes of legendary chefs Pierre Koffmann, Michel Roux Jr., Phil Howard and Eric Chavot, to name a few, Lo comes with a whole host of inspired dishes to add to her own ideas and bistro twists. From French favourites to more contemporary items that tell traditional dishes to escargot (sorry I couldn’t help myself), the menu features everything from set menus at lunch, and à la carte at dinner with snacks, starters, mains, desserts and specials on the blackboard.
We took a moment to chat with the chef in question to find out what’s on the menu and how she got to where she is now.
Yes. I was very, very close to my grandmother and was inspired by her and my mother from a young age to show love and affection to family and friends through cooking. They wanted everyone to enjoy food and bond at the dinner table.
I want Jean May to represent a place for a hearty and wholesome meal; and classic cooking done meticulously in a relaxed environment. Hence, I partnered with my designer brother Ramon to create a cosy environment for French comfort food.
I don’t have any signature dishes as such, but a couple of guest favourites are:
Razor clams — an ingredient that the Chinese do flawlessly, to steam with soy sauce, garlic and spring onions. I put a classic French take on it with only a few ingredients to maximise flavour. We use quality ingredients — Scottish razor clams, parsley, confit shallots, roast garlic, fish stock and butter.
Chicken liver parfait — my nod to nose-to-tail eating, to elevate often overlooked ingredients; a classic and flavourful parfait garnished with a seasonal fruit/vegetable.
Razor clams with parsley and garlic
I enjoyed learning the foundations of French cuisine and met some inspiring teachers and friends through this. We have kept in touch after all these years. I made the most out of my time at Le Cordon Bleu, attending classes and going to do stages at some great restaurants in London, and outside of London.
I am most grateful for the friendships that I made during my time there. People who continue to support, encourage and inspire me in life and my career. It was through these experiences that I got to meet many amazing chefs, staples in my life that have also continued to keep in touch and inspire me.
It is my lifelong honour to have trained with chefs that I have worked with and would like to thank each and every one of them for inspiring me and making me the chef I am today. I learnt a lot from each and every one of them. Some of these kitchens are known to be the toughest kitchens, but it was exactly this kind of military/tough training that I was aspiring to experience, to learn the classic way.
Maybe I am old-fashioned but I personally believe that this is the best way to learn. The saying ‘if you cannot stand the heat’ is really no joke. The reason we all go back day after day wanting to do better, despite blood, sweat, tears and shouting is the pursuit to become a good chef one day. The turnover in these kitchens were very high, it is not an exaggeration to say that some didn’t even last a few hours.
You see Gordon Ramsay shouting at staff on TV, but that is just a taster of the everyday reality. In these kitchens, you would get shouted at relentlessly for making any kind of mistake. A lot of times the chef doesn’t even need a reason to shout, with pans and other things flying around, we continued to work hard. I find it fair and justified that if you make a mistake you ‘get the cane’, this kind of environment was what drove me to want to better myself and strive for my goals so as not to disappoint my mentors or myself. Work was tough, and the hours were long. There were times that we couldn’t even spare a minute to drink or go to the washroom during the 16–18 hour days. At the end of the day, I will forever be grateful for the opportunity of having learnt from these excellent chefs, the hardships were worth it all.
There are many tales of blood, sweat, and tears at Pierre Koffmann’s restaurant; no one can escape his watchful eye, not even the head chef. The kitchen’s freezer room also served as our “cool-off zone” for whomever got told off. In tears, we would hide in the freezer room for a minute or two to gather our emotions and relieve the redness in our eyes. There were times that we would walk in and run into the line cook, or even the head chef who had just recomposed themselves in the freezer room.
Work was never easy but we all knew it was part of the experience and it was genuinely worth it. I always remind myself, till this day, to stay focused and never make the same mistakes.
Every restaurant that I have worked in was an invaluable experience. I really admire and respect the chefs, their food, and the different ways they run their kitchens and restaurants. My very first mentor was Pierre Koffmann. I started working with him as a stagiaire and worked with him for three years. It was the most rewarding experience. Koffmann is the most generous and broad-minded person that I have ever met and he treats all equally, front to back of house; he makes no exceptions for anyone in his restaurant, regardless of their race or gender. Koffmann is a true chef of chefs. I am forever indebted to him and his wife Claire Koffmann.
I have had the idea of having my own restaurant for a while. The pandemic happened to break out when we were looking for a restaurant space. After much careful consideration, I decided to keep the plan rolling. If I had put this idea on hold, I might miss the opportunity and regret not having pushed it through. I was determined to open Jean May as planned.