(See here for Ho Lee Fook review)
I recently sat down with Jowett Yu, the Taiwanese-Canadian chef heading up Ho Lee Fook, a restaurant which has done more than anywhere else in Hong Kong to revitalise and modernise Chinese cuisine.
The interview for Tasting Kitchen hears about his time growing up in Taiwan, his numerous influences including the legendary Tetsuya Wakuda and also looks at some of the new dishes on his menu.
The Tasting Kitchen piece is here, while here’s my longer version:
Directly opposite one of Hong Kong’s last remaining street dai pai dong sits a ground floor restaurant kitchen. The base of the pass is covered in mahjong tiles while to the right, a whole wall of auspicious fortune cats, the left paws beckoning customers in unison to head downstairs to the basement dining room of Ho Lee Fook – ‘good fortune for your mouth’ in Cantonese.
Chef Jowett Yu is prepping for dinner by carefully folding and crimping dozens of dumplings and placing them on to a metallic tray. To his right vegetables are being topped and tailed, while meat is the focus on his left, where cuts of beef are being sorted and skinned ducks are hanging from hooks.
The location and the ongoing prep for service may suggest this is a classic Cantonese restaurant, but the quirky design and cheeky name show otherwise. Yu is in fact Taiwanese but also something of a global citizen, having lived much of his life in Canada before moving to work in Sydney. Taiwan is clearly where his heart lies, however, judging by the passion with which he recalls his childhood on the family farm in Yilan province.
Every holiday would be spent there, with no distractions like TV to interfere with the rhythm of life. Rice, watermelon, guava, burdock, ducks, geese, chickens, pigs and much more was grown and tended. Yu’s grandmother grew up on the farm, ‘an intuitive cook’ as he calls her, cooking on wood-fired woks. He recalls her ‘Making pickles, slaughtering chickens, knowing when an egg would hatch by looking at it”. Above all it was the aromatic mountains of rice husks drying out, used for fuel and to feed chickens, which stayed with him the most.
Although it sounds idyllic, 33 year-old Yu explains that, “Unless you’ve been to a farm it’s hard to understand the connection to what you eat – the life cycle – it takes nine months to grow rice.” This mix of practicality and an innate appreciation of produce, along with his extensive global influences and experiences, has made him one of the foremost faces of a new paradigm of Chinese cuisine that continues to win fans in Hong Kong and around the world.
It’s not easy to label, however, as Yu explains: “Taxonomy is important in our profession, be it molecular gastronomy or nouvelle cuisine. People interpret in in their own ways, but my cuisine is a combination of everything I’ve eaten, learned and cooked – my inspiration comes from everywhere.”
Yu’s time in Sydney, for example, saw him work under Japanese master Tetsuya Wakuda who taught him “A zen connection, to make one ingredient a star of the dish. Also consistency, running a restaurant as a well-oiled machine.”
He moved to Hong Kong and opened Ho Lee Fook last spring, under the direction of Black Sheep Restaurants, to immediate critical and public acclaim.
Yu’s passion for his work is plain to see. As he explains it “Few professions offer such different levels of emotion throughout the day, it’s an addiction to adrenaline. Going to the market, prepping, sitting down for the staff meal then boom! There’s a lot of hungry people, you reach peak of service with everybody in, there’s things cooking, the smells. Then things die down, people are satisfied, fed – it’s that crescendo and descendo.”
With his energy, creativity, knowledge of and dedication to quality ingredients, one person would doubtless be especially proud of his work – his grandmother.
Here are some of his dishes show why Ho Lee Fook is still one of the most sought-after tables in town:
- “Prawn toast is a very classic Cantonese dish, but one rapidly disappearing from cha chaan teng menus”, he explains. The okonomiyaki topping was inspired by his trips to Osaka where shaved cabbage, kewpie mayonnaise, Bulldog tonkatsu sauce and nori are everywhere. “I just decided to make them friends”, he explains with a smile.
- “Drunken Clams is a classic Taiwanese dish. It doesn’t matter what you do with it, it’s tasty. Normally it’s just barely cooked but I decided to cook the clams a little bit more in Qingdao beer, Shaoxing wine, Thai basil, garlic, lemongrass and chilli.”
- Arguably Yu’s most well known dish, especially beloved of carnivores, is his roast wagyu short rib with jalapeño purée, a green shallot kimchi and soy glaze. “It’s like a beef teriyaki. Sweet, salty, fragrant roasted jalapenños with fish sauce, the green shallots that you get in kimchi from Korean barbecues goes perfectly alongside and cuts that richness and fattiness.”
- Yu’s take on Kampachi melds Japan and Taiwan through soft, pink fish, pickled cucumber, herbs and dressing. The last element is the critical one, “A marriage between Taiwanese fermented plum vinegar which has a sweetness to it, toasted coriander seeds, some Japanese soy sauce and coriander fruit – like the seeds before they’re dried.”
- Finally Yu’s tartare reflects a dish from his time at Mr G’s in Sydney, the funky Asian fusion spot that he founded with Dan Hong, having been inspired by Momofuku’s David Chang. “Wagyu beef is chopped coarsely and seasoned with fish sauce, chilli oil, shallots, Thai basil, sautéed coriander and fresh coriander. The flavor profile is straight from Yunan province, zingy and spicy at the same time.”