Meet the Australian Chefs Shaking Up Hong Kong's Dining Scene
Australian-born and -trained chefs are making themselves at home in Hong Kong, and the resulting menus are as diverse as they are delectable. By JEFF CHU. Photographed by PHILIPP ENGELHORN.
Published on Feb 10, 2017
SPARKLING, TURQUOISE INLETS. A magnificent natural harbor. Architectural and cartographic homages to Queen and country. Wonky English. A population that comes largely from other places.
Inside Le Garcon Saigon.
Put this way, Hong Kong and Australia have much in common. Both have obvious British links, ever since the British colonial overlords began shipping convicts and tea from Hong Kong to Australia 150 years ago.
Today, the trade winds have reversed, sending a generation of Australian-born and -trained culinary professionals to Hong Kong. They've sought opportunity and inspiration in the city, and they're now transforming the food-and-drink scene. The trend began about five years ago, with third-wave coffee joints like Manson's Lot, in Wan Chai, which uses Di Gabriel beans roasted in Sydney and is owned by two Aussies and a Singaporean. "People came in and said, 'How can you charge HK$40 for a cup of coffee?' They were going across the road to a cha chaan teng and getting a cup for HK$8," says co-owner Davyd Wong. When Wong opened, his shop was the only one of its kind in Wan Chai. Its clientele consisted mostly of expats and Hong Kongers who had been educated in Australia. As interest in coffee has grown, so has the competition: "Now, there are four cafés on Swatow Street alone."
Aussie-style coffee shop Mansons Lot.
In recent years, Australians have been opening some of Hong Kong's most exciting restaurants. The funny thing about Australian cuisine, though, is that if you ask the typical Down Under chef, they'll tell you it doesn't exist. Of course, there has been Australian cooking as long as the outpost has been populated, not that it garnered much respect. In the 1880s, the Franco-Australian geographer Edmond Marin la Meslee wrote that nowhere in the world was the cooking "more elementary, not to say abominable."
But times change. What was once elementary is now diverse, dazzling and profoundly good. "Ask anyone: What's Australian cuisine? You don't really know," says Australian chef Bao La, who cooks his version of modern Vietnamese at Hong Kong's Le Garcon Saigon. Sure, Australia has its Lamingtons, Anzac biscuits and the ever-famous barbie, but a cake, a cookie and a cooking technique, however fine, don't make a cuisine.
Chef Bao La at Le Garcon Saigon.
What Australia does have is seasonal produce, an experimental edge, and "diversity and multiculturalism," La says. In food terms, that translates into freedom, eclecticism and creativity. "Because we don't have our own cuisine, we're born into openness," says Brian Moore, who, as executive chef for Western restaurants in the Epicurean Group, oversees nearly two dozen restaurants in Hong Kong. "There are no real boundaries." Which suits Hong Kong, that freest of free ports, perfectly.
HO LEE FOOK
Only an extraordinarily bold chef would take on Cantonese cuisine in its capital. His name is Jowett Yu. Taiwan-born, Canadian-educated and Australian-trained, Yu telegraphs daring before you even set foot in his restaurant, in a slightly odd basement space just off Hollywood Road. Start with its name: Ho Lee Fook. The Chinese characters translate literally to "mouth," "tongue" and "luck." The English—well, sound it out.
The dish that had me exclaiming something akin to that was Yu's roast goose. "Cantonese barbecue is perfect. It's at the apex of its development," Yu says. "So I don't mess with it." He just makes the goose the best possible version of itself—and perhaps the best I've eaten anywhere: skin crispy, fat rendered, meat juicy.
Chef Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook.
Other dishes are deliciously Cantonese-adjacent. His beef short rib, for instance, partners jalapeño puree and kimchi vegetables; "the short rib is slow-cooked overnight, deep-fried and glazed with a soy glaze," he explains. "It's a non-Chinese dish inspired by teriyaki beef," with the kimchi and jalapeño tag-teaming for a necessary, spicy counterpoint to the glaze's sweetness. Yu also compensates for traditional Cantonese cuisine’s weakness in the dessert department by drawing inspiration from Hong Kong's cultural cross-currents: Horlicks ice cream with oatmeal porridge, dried longan and walnut; milk-tea ice cream with green-tea Kit-Kat brownies.
Such eclecticism is emblematic of both Yu's cooking and prevalent Australian tastes. "We've incorporated a lot of Asian influences—Chinese, Indonesian, Thai, Lebanese—and that's a common language of food that all Australians speak," he says. Ho Lee Fook's slightly louche, upbeat energy is also an Aussie import. In Hong Kong, Yu says, there are "few places that occupy the middle of the spectrum—affordable, decent meals [at a] funky, Chinese restaurant where people can come, eat and get messed up." If there's anything typically Hong Kong about Ho Lee Fook, it's the service—spotty, mercurial and intermittently absent. holeefook.com.hk; meal for two HK$700.
A little ways up the Mid-Levels escalator in Central, you'll spot to your left a six-meter-tall, black-haired woman in a dazzling caftan, her face mysterious but not unwelcoming. She's painted on the side of Maison Libanaise, chef James Harrison's modern Lebanese-ish restaurant, and she's the ideal avatar for his cooking: alluring, not altogether traditional.
Chef James Harrison of Maison Libanaise.
Harrison, who grew up in a small town in Victoria, isn't Lebanese. Hasn't even been to Lebanon. He did cook under famed Lebanese-Australian restaurateur Greg Malouf, though, and if you sit on the roof terrace of Maison Libanaise, dragging his freshly baked pita through warm hummus, questions of authenticity fall away—it took me right back to my last trip to Beirut.
Harrison's cooking really shines when he gets playful with his dishes—for him, as for Hong Kong's other Australian chefs, tradition is inspiration, not dogma. "We're aiming for classic Lebanese flavors and dishes, but putting my little twist on it," he says. His labneh, that magical Levantine yogurt-cheese, comes in numerous variations, from sumac to mint—and his is the best I've had outside the Middle East.
One dish alone justifies Harrison's decision to stray from the Levantine canon: his fried chicken. Brined for 24 hours in the whey left over from making labneh, the chicken is deep-fried and then showered in za'atar mixed spice. With its succulent meat and crispy skin, the fragrant spice balancing the fresh punch of an accompanying pickle salad and the cool, rich creaminess of labneh, this is chicken given rich honors in the afterlife. It's deceptively simple and transporting. maisonlibanaise.com.hk; meal for two HK$500.
Perhaps the most refined of the Australian-run restaurants in Hong Kong is Arcane, chef Shane Osborn's understated eatery tucked away on the third floor of a charmless office block on a Central side street. Sit at the bar where you'll have full view of Osborn and witness the culinary equivalent of the Flash: near-silent yet whirring and whirling with balletic precision, serving up dish after dish of gorgeously plated food to a soundtrack that ranges from The Cure to Jamiroquai.
Japanese fruit tomato salad at Arcane.
Osborn was the first Australian chef in the world to win a Michelin star—at the celebrated Pied à Terre in London. But he laments the false pressure that such ratings systems create—you're cooking for the artificially small audience of professional critics, not for the eating public—and at Arcane, he cooks to a different standard: What he wants to eat.
That means an ever-changing, menu of super-fresh ingredients with an emphasis on produce from Japan. Don't mistake that to mean his cooking is Japanese—his influences range far and wide. You might start with some Japanese fruit tomatoes with housemade ricotta. Next, raw yellowtail with jicama, fennel confit and soy-ginger dressing. Then, perhaps sautéed gnocchi with black truffle and mushrooms—one of the few dishes that stays on the menu; "I'm not a noodle person, but Hong Kong people like noodles, and this is our version," Osborn explains. And you could end with a slice of chocolate tart served with Guinness ice cream.
"I don't think Arcane is a finedining restaurant—I call it refined. We don't do tasting menus, amusegueules, canapés, petit fours," Osborn says. Whatever he wants to call it, he does good food that draws on rich traditions to create something fresh and daring, a through line that connects all of the best Australian cooking in Hong Kong. As he puts it: "Australians have this philosophy: Why not?" arcane.hk; meal for two HK$1,300.
PASTRY CHEF JANICE WONG IS BRINGING AUSSIE INFLUENCE TO HER SAVORY SIDE.
Singaporean chef Janice Wong trained in gastronomic temples including Chicago's Alinea and Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain. But she credits her stint as a student in Melbourne with her passion for produce. Wong crisscrossed the country, tasting cheese in Victoria, sampling veggies in Tasmania, and learning how to make wine at a family-owned organic winery in New South Wales. Her resulting passion for seasonal ingredients is evident at Cobo House by 2am:dessertbar, the Shek Tong Tsui restaurant she opened this spring. Wong is best-known in Singapore as a daring pastry chef who has created edible art installations for brands including Prada, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton, and the "2am:dessertbar" in the restaurant's name refers to her famed Singapore sweets spot. But Cobo House—her first eatery outside her hometown—represents her biggest move into savory. And it's on that side of the kitchen that you'll find the fullest representation of her Australian memories, with dishes like an Australian grade 8 Wagyu, sous vided, seared and served with slow-cooked miso potatoes, beet oil and mushroom. cobohouse.com; set menus from HK$428.
Cassis Plum, the signature dessert at Cobo House.