In just this calendar year alone, so many new talents have touched down in Hong Kong, braved a quarantine spell and brought along with them Japanese knives, age-old heirloom recipes and a burning excitement to get a little dirty, a little sticky in the kitchens of restaurants you already love. And, as Joey Wong learns, most are also really excited about hiking in Hong Kong on their days off…
The maître d’ is just doing his job with the requisite “How was everything?” query post-dessert, but an effusive “Compliments to the chef!” response might just get you an audience with the person of the hour. The back of the house, for a casual customer simply out for a meal, is a place of mystery; where hot ceramic, balanced masterfully on the waiter’s fingers and forearms, is sent out with a flourish. Where sumptuous, sumptuous bites that solicit closed-eyes “mmm’s” were first julienned, marinated, sautéed — and whatever else fancy-worded way of preparation exists.
After all, the kitchen of any respectable dining establishment sets up stage for a well-oiled operation. (And if Hulu’s recent hit The Bear has taught us anything, anything lesser will result in screaming tantrums, a debilitating relationship with vocational hierarchy and, spoiler alert, rage-quits mid-service. Several rage-quits mid-service.) These kitchens — no place for casual passers-by — are often led by chefs you might only know by dish. And these newcomers, brand-new on the pass, are also brand-new to Hong Kong. So be nice. Recommend something hyper-local after your obligatory chef’s kiss.
Executive chef, Cantina
“Pasta. Pasta is my life,” gushes Cantina’s new executive chef Luca Schiavone, who escaped from the gloomy skies of London – where he was head chef at Cecconi’s, Zafferano and Shoreditch House – and the not-so-gloomy skies of Mykonos before touching down in Hong Kong this past year. (He’s particularly excited about trekking out to Sai Kung’s Tai Long Wan beach, which he’s just recently learned about, on a day off.)
Cantina – “It’s the Italian word for ‘canteen’,” explains the chef – is stationed in what was once the mess hall in Tai Kwun, with the spirit of the space kept well and alive through dishes meant to be communal; meant to be shared.
Devout pasta man at heart, Schiavone recommends the cavatelli al sugo di carne — cavatelli complemented with the meaty notes of braised pork ribs, beef and fennel sausage ragu — as a first-timer must-order. “This pasta dish takes me right back to my childhood,” the chef says. “The recipe is my grandmother’s. It’s exactly how she used to make it for me when I was little.”
Make your reservations for Cantina here
Executive chef, Castellana
For Castellana’s new-to-town executive chef Romeo Morelli, the kitchen is as much a fortress of solitude as it is a place rife with inspiration.
“I’m usually the first one in the kitchen because I like the sounds of a kitchen when it’s empty,” he muses. “It’s relaxing in a way that reminds me of when I was a child, when I used to hide where the vegetables were stored. It’s like my own little space where I feel the most comfortable.”
Formerly of Relais San Maurizio 1619 in Italy, Morelli found himself planning a culinary getaway to Peru before being approached about the role he currently occupies; a decision he said took a few days to accept, intrigued by comparisons of cooking in Hong Kong to “playing with the big boys in Serie A”.
If he had to choose, grandma’s quail pie and ravioli del plin are his must-tries on Castellana’s menu. “Both dishes are inspired by my hometown,” he says of his upbringing in Monferrato in northwest Italy, not at all homesick. “I like how diverse Hong Kong is,” says the chef. “You can go to the sea, take a walk through nature and feel so small and humbled walking among the city’s towering skyscrapers – all in one day.”
Make your reservations for Castellana here
Sous chef, Arbor
“This is my first time working in a fine-dining restaurant, which I’m finding very exciting,” says sous chef Tsukasa Uraguchi, who arrives from the hustle-bustle of Osaka and Tokyo — where he spent the past three years as a freelance chef — to the hustle-bustle of Hong Kong, joining chef-owner Eric Räty in the kitchens of two-Michelin-star Arbor.
Arbor’s Nordic-Japanese thesis has always been something of a gesture of love. Finland-born Räty recounts hours upon hours spent at a lone Japanese grocery store in Helsinki, learning, discovering and feeling such a deep affinity for these special ingredients hailing from halfway around the world – and, in the same breath, feeling such a deep affinity for the Japanese people, whose simple, quiet lifestyles Räty feels reflect those of the Finnish, too.
Uraguchi, already impressed with Räty’s prowess with seasonal Japanese ingredients, names the Genmaicha & Caviar dessert on the tasting menu as a favourite. “I was impressed that chef Eric used a lot of Japanese ingredients, such as genmaicha, wakame, kinako and Yame green tea,” says the chef. “It struck me as an incredibly creative combination because that is not how the Japanese typically use these ingredients – especially in a dessert.”
The pigeon dish is also a firm favourite. “It’s so cleverly curated and quite different from what other restaurants are serving,” the chef says. “Ever so slightly torching a layer of Okinawa black sugar creates a crispy crust on the pigeon breast with a bit of sweetness that balances out the gamey flavour. The inclusion of Sichuan pepper is also remarkable.”
Of his own creations, Uraguchi is intrigued by gai lan (Chinese kale). “I constantly see chefs using this ingredient in Hong Kong,” he says. “I’d like to try it in my future recipes.”
Make your reservations for Arbor here
Head chef, Mosu Hong Kong
Mosu Hong Kong’s head chef Shim Jungtaek has done this before.
Previously of Mosu Seoul as sous chef (and, as chef-owner Sung Ahn’s protégé), Jungtaek brings with him a heaping wealth of culinary experience working at Michelin-awarded restaurants in Japan (12 years, in fact, three of which were spent at Tokyo’s incomparable Quintessence) – and an ineffable weakness for Mosu’s abalone tacos.
“Mosu Seoul’s grilled abalone taco is the best I’ve had in my life, which inspired me so hard,” the chef says, raving about the innovative Korean restaurant’s signature dish: a grown-up crystallisation of Ahn’s adolescence spent walking to Tijuana from San Diego for tacos. Eschewing the conventional corn or flour, Mosu’s taco shells are made from yuba.
“I’m proud to say the one here in Hong Kong is just as great as the one in Seoul,” says Shim.
And while he now calls Hong Kong, South Korea is never far from his mind. “I’d love to collaborate with Mingoo Kang of Hansik Goo, because we’re from the same country but we have such different styles and ways of cooking,” the chef says. “One day.”
Make your reservations for Mosu Hong Kong here
Executive chef, Sushiyoshi
Colourful rimmed eyeglasses galore behind the counters of Hong Kong’s own Sushiyoshi, with the appointment of executive chef Kazunari Araki – a moustachioed complement to chef- owner Hiroki Nakanoue’s always exuberantly dyed locks; this summer, it’s a vibrant blue-purple tint – a welcome addition. Prior to Hong Kong, Araki spent eight years in Nobu New York, adding up to a total of two decades of sushi- making experience.
Araki-san attributes his expertise to a past master, who once told him: “The dish you just made for a customer may just be one of the many dishes you’ve made today, but it could be very special and memorable for the customer.”
“My master meant I should try to make every single dish to the best of my ability,” says the chef. And at Sushiyoshi, where omasake menus consistently breach 10-plus dishes per customer, per meal, that’s a whole lot of dishes. But chef Araki-san is perfectly happy to deliver – especially if the dish in question concerns his favourite: a huge toro roll, served at the very end.
Make your reservations for Sushiyoshi here
Executive chef, Chutney Tandoor House
Virender Kumar, who remembers being mesmerised by his grandmother’s cooking as a child, always knew he was going to be a chef. From, first, a local cooking school in India to Jakarta, then Singapore, Toronto, New York, Turkey, Germany, a whopping 12 years spent a ferry ride away as chef de cuisine at Galaxy Entertainment in Macau, and various stints at Shangri-La’s litany of kitchens from Malaysia to Abu Dhabi, he’s cut his teeth, virtually, everywhere he seemingly could. An international man of culinary chops.
Now executive chef of Chutney Tandoor House on Wyndham Street, Kumar brings with him more than two decades of experience, which makes his palpable excitement for the restaurant’s achari beef short ribs all that much more endearing.
“It’s not common to have a beef dish in an Indian restaurant,” the chef exclaims. “We slow-cook top-grade US prime beef short rib for a good 12 hours, before finishing the dish at the tandoor to achieve a lightly charred flavour. It’ll melt in your mouth.”
Also uncommon at an Indian-focussed establishment, continues the chef, is octopus, which makes Chutney’s tandoori octopus – garnished with chargrilled corn chaat and mint yoghurt chutney – another must-try.
And on his days away from the tandoor? “I’m excited to go hiking in Hong Kong,” says the chef, eagerly. “Growing up in the hilly areas of Delhi, I’ve always appreciated nature. I’ve been told Hong Kong is a trail walker’s paradise.”
Make your reservations for Chutney Tandoor House here
Víctor Caballé Molina
Executive chef, The Optimist
To answer your question: no, Stanley Tucci, while he does make an impressive Negroni, is not currently moonlighting as The Optimist’s brand new executive chef. Although certainly a convincing doppelgänger, chef Víctor Caballé Molina – he touched down in Hong Kong from Singapore; and, before that, London, where he worked under the tutelage of chef Jean-Philippe Patruno at Quo Vadis; and, well before that, Ulldecona, Spain, where he spent childhood summers working at a bakery, where he first fell in love with food and hospitality – is appointed to revamp The Optimist’s northern Spanish tapas spread.
To share, Molina recommends his favourite on the menu: crispy octopus croquettes, garnished with bonito flakes. “I have a deep affinity for Japanese cooking and culture and, hence, I have created the octopus croquettes in the Japanese takoyaki style for a texture that’s crispy on the outside, and smooth and creamy on the inside.”
“Besides, I’ll also be overseeing the culinary programme of Pirata Group’s upcoming brand-new Spanish concept, Candela, which opens in November,” the chef teases. “Stay tuned for that.”
Make your reservations for The Optimist here
Javier Perez Freire
Head chef, The Bayside
“We have an open-fire space, so I’m excited to grill food over the fire and cook barbecues and huge paellas on the terrace,” says head chef Javier Perez Freire, fresh from Spain, who now leads the kitchen brigade at The Bayside, a brand-new Mediterranean tavern seated on the ground floor — with panoramic views of Victoria Harbour — of the Harbour Grand Kowloon Hotel.
“My favourite dish on the menu is probably the crab cake, which will be one of our signature dishes,” recommends Perez. “We make this with real crabs, which we steam and turn into tasty patties, then serve with a homemade tartar sauce.”
“First-timers have to try our Italian pasta collection – everything is made fresh daily in our kitchen,” the chef adds.
A man of excellent taste, he’s already nibbled his way through Yardbird, Tim Ho Wan and Yat Lok Roast Goose, all of which he now counts as must-hit favourites. And there’s nothing more immersive than eating like a local. “I love Chinese black vinegar — there’s so much depth of flavour and tastes amazing in salads,” the chef says. “I actually use it to replace balsamic vinegar sometimes.”
Learn more about The Bayside here
Head chef, Maison Libanaise
If you haven’t yet been to Maison Libanaise, Black Sheep’s all-day Lebanese canteen roosted on the slope of Shelley Street, set an entire evening aside, bring with you several friends (the more the merrier – it’s the Lebanese way) and stop by to say hello to new-in head chef Teya Mikhael.
“Everything I put on the menu is inspired or derived from something that I’ve been enjoying since I was young,” says the chef, unable and refusing to choose a favourite dish from the menu; most of which with recipes directly passed down from Mikhael’s own mother and grandmother. “The menu at Maison Libanaise is also based on how we as a family would eat back at home. You start with a few cold and hot mezze followed by large sharing plates, all accompanied with flowing wine and ending, of course, with a few house-made sweet desserts.”
Mikhael led the kitchen at The Lebanese Bakery in Beirut – the popular manousheh- focussed bakery also has outposts in Bahrain, Cairo, Riyadh and, fancy-schmancy, in London’s Harrods department store – before calling Hong Kong home earlier this year.
“I’m excited for our guests to learn about Lebanese cuisine and our underrated, dynamic wine culture,” she says.
You heard the chef. Have a glass of red; then, a glass of white. Rinse, repeat and – why not? – have another before digging into sharing-sized portions of mashawi and puffy hearth-baked pita bread.
Make your reservations for Maison Libanaise here