In a city long regarded as an epicentre of culinary diversity, it’s easy to take Chinese food for granted. However, as a representation of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and community, our native cuisine’s importance goes far beyond a bowl of rice. With restaurants able at long last to serve dinner, we visit some top establishments to find out how they coped – and how they plan to bounce back.
Hong Kong Restaurants Rebound
Since the pandemic hit, Hong Kong’s restaurant scene has endured some of its most challenging times ever, with scores of businesses having little choice but to close – either temporarily or permanently. With a two-person-per-table requirement and a ban on dinner, restaurants that normally serve big plates and sharing dishes for family meals were left in the dark. Would they be able to overcome that obstacle too?
To get a well-rounded view of how Chinese restaurants have been doing, I visited three venues and talked to executive chef Adam Wong of the three-Michelin-star Forum Restaurant, Yvonne Kam of the historic Yung Kee, and chef ArChan Chan of the recently revamped modern-Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook.
Forum’s chef Wong divulges the restaurant chose to close temporarily from February to April, limiting exposure and prioritising the safety of guests and staff members. A big part of Chinese cuisine is sharing plates and for a restaurant that serves traditional Cantonese food in a sophisticated setting, this was obviously going to be difficult. “There’s a big difference between Chinese and Western cuisine,” says Wong. “Western cuisine usually allows you to enjoy dinner with just two people, but when it comes to Chinese cuisine, meals are prepared for at least three or four. So, with restrictions only allowing two people to sit together, this was a big problem that affected us greatly.”
Chef Chan of Ho Lee Fook agrees. “These kinds of meals are a family experience and the restrictions strongly affected this. Many diners, and especially those used to large sharing-style meals, had to rethink how they dined.” While choosing to offer a dinnertime delivery menu, Ho Lee Fook also remained open for lunch. “Lunch is interesting and has its own benefits,” says Chan, “but dinner is really where we shine and showcase the work we do. The Ho Lee Fook experience comes alive at night … even the way the restaurant is illuminated in the dim of the night speaks to how much it needs to be experienced after 6 pm.”
Yung Kee, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, also remained open for lunch with a limited menu served only on the ground floor. Having revitalised its concept last year, Yung Kee was able to offer more options. “Our concept is diversified with casual dining, light meals and takeaway, in addition to fine dining, so our guests were still able to come in small parties,” says Kam. “We also rolled out various sets for home dining and redesigned dishes and dine-in sets for two people.” In Yung Kee’s case, its location also added to the struggles. “Since we’re located in Central, we were affected by the work-from-home policies, and during the peak of the fifth wave, there were barely any people on the streets, office workers or not.”
Fortunately, Hong Kong’s hardcore gastronomes continued to show support during this time by eating lunch and ordering takeaway from these restaurants. Wong gushes at the support the Forum received on its reopening. “As long as we had tables for them, our guests were happy and willing to come in and support us. They said they’d missed our food – and for that, I’m forever grateful.”
That support was also felt at Ho Lee Fook. “We’ve seen guests coming to the restaurant, again and again, many of whom we’ve now had the chance to get to know,” says Chan. “We’re very lucky to be here in Hong Kong and have that support.”
Perseverance enabled Yung Kee to continue dishing out good food. “The support is mutual,” says Kam. But it’s dinner that makes the biggest difference to all these restaurants. “Dinner gatherings are so important for bonding with loved ones, and given how disconnected everyone has felt, it’s time to gather around the dinner table like normal again.”
So what have we learned from all this? “One of the great things this last wave has taught me is that we’ll survive,” Chan says confidently. “I don’t want to dwell on what has or could happen in the future, I’m really focused on making sure that we, as a team, are ready to give our best.”
Yung Kee remains positive too. “Hongkongers are very resilient and disciplined,” says Kam. “Despite having to adapt to ever-changing policies, the situation has bounced back and we’re in a much better position to face any challenges that may appear again.” Notwithstanding this optimism, Kam does have concerns about staffing. “There’s an extreme shortage of hospitality staff in the city at the moment,” she says, “and current policies make it difficult to attract foreign talent to come help revive our vibrant dining scene.”
Wong puts his hopes on less stringent dining restrictions. “It’s something we can’t control, but I really hope it doesn’t affect business hours or ban dinners again. Maybe we can manage with fewer guests and vaccine passports will be enough to give us peace of mind. Just as long as we can continue serving customers.”
For these three Chinese restaurants, the need to redefine themselves has been the key to survival, but this goes hand in hand with the wholehearted support of the local community. Still, with restrictions beginning to ease and dinner service restored – at least until 10 pm – there’s a renewed sense of excitement and energy wafting in the air.
Is this an indication of, dare one say it, the city’s recovery? We can’t know for sure, but what we do know is that we’re probably more prepared to tackle adversity than ever before. So for now, let’s continue to support Chinese restaurants the best way we know how, by enjoying good food – together.
(Top image: Yung Kee’s charcoal-roasted goose)