The chef behind one of Hong Kong’s first private kitchens talks to Robyn Or about the ups and downs of his culinary journey.
My passion for cooking began as a primary 3 student. I got bored of what my mother cooked and one day I tried to add an egg to her pork pie. I found that cooking is like a magician’s hat: it can turn something bland into something flavoursome.
While other boys played card games after school, I stood in front of restaurant kitchens staring at how the food was prepared. When I was 16, I worked part time at a wonton noodles shop and a siu mei shop. I once worked at a clothing factory as a Quality Control Officer but only for an hour – I missed the smell of food and the sound of chopping in the kitchen.
When I interned at Gaddi’s The Peninsula as a pot washer, I was able to taste the sauce when the chefs threw me the pots. That was when I started to build up my senses.
I wanted to see the world so I took a year off from Gaddi’s to backpack around Europe. I joined a bus tour for the first month after which I stayed in Switzerland and tried to find restaurant work. It was an unforgettable experience, although I was robbed in the hostel. After winning several culinary competitions, I flew to Canada – but I was an arrogant person back then and no one wanted to talk to me.
When I opened Poison Ivy, it was the first ever private kitchen in Hong Kong. People said I was crazy, but I was confident that it would mark a shift in the restaurant scene. Running it marked some of the lowest and highest points in my life – I learned a lot.
Poison Ivy was a big hit. Shortly after the opening, my partner and I decided to branch it out, but suddenly SARS ruined our plans. It took over my restaurant, my property and all my money.
Years later, I wanted to start a workshop in a factory area and I spotted Wong Chuk Hang with its middle to high-end customer base. I could say it was the first private kitchen there.
Success in my culinary life is measured by public recognition. Do customers come back again for my food and service? Do my partners and staff respect each other? Protection of privacy is especially crucial in running a private kitchen. When guests and celebrities visit my restaurant, they want to enjoy their private time. I ask their permission before sharing any photos on social media. This is why people love to visit my restaurants.
Hong Kong customers are more picky nowadays. They have tried many nice restaurants so if you mess up once, you will never get them back. This drives us to perform well. To win their loyalty, I have gone back to basics, using real food instead of adding flavouring, treating everyone with equal service and listening to their opinions.
When I meet hardworking kitchen staff I teach them everything I know – like my former head chefs did for me. In the kitchen, I am a serious and straight talking person. Outside of work I like to talk with my staff, share their burdens and find out what they want. It is important that the team is walking on the same path.
These days I am really busy with my new restaurant, Chez Ed. I spend mornings with my wife and my nine-year old daughter before going to work. My daughter loves to cook and she is a picky diner as well! Once she eats something nice she will remember the taste.
I was a mad, arrogant and stressful person before my daughter was born – she has changed my life and made me a stronger person!