Hong Kong runs on rules. Visit Nan Lian Garden, across from the Chi Lin Buddhist temple, and you’ll find a sprawling park filled with Koi ponds, sculpted trees, quiet, contemplative rock gardens—and a three-by-four-foot sign posted with sixteen distinct rules and regulations: No feeding of fish, no releasing of fish, no climbing of walls, no paddling, no running or frolicking. Take your kids to the local pool and you may be told that there’s no running, no shouting, no diving, no jumping, no splashing, and—strangely, in a tropical climate—no sunscreen.
This is what happens, I suppose, when you cross a Confucian insistence on social order—without hierarchy, the master said, there is no harmony—with 150-plus years of British law and order. All the more striking, then, that the hottest trend in Hong Kong dining these days is the private kitchen.
Though the term can be used with a wide-range of venues, generally private kitchens are situated in someone’s apartment in a residential neighborhood and are unlicensed, unregulated, and—supposedly—under the radar. Most of them claim to have risen up organically—“I liked to cook for my friends and they liked it so much that I thought ‘Why not start a restaurant?’”—but many of them seem to have been purely commercial from the start, for all practical purposes resembling an ordinary licensed restaurant, down to the signs on the street and glass doors bearing the legend Visa Accepted Here. Some of these places are around for years; others appear and disappear in a matter of weeks.
I’d been to several private kitchens, with mixed results: sometimes the food was good, sometimes it was only okay. So I wasn’t expecting much when my friend Valerie and her husband told me to meet them at the corner of Nathan and Haiphong Roads, just below Kowloon park on the mainland side of Hong Kong harbor to try what they swore was the best private kitchen in Hong Kong.
At this point, I suppose I should warn you that though what I’m about to describe is definitely one of the top five meals of my life and arguably the best in an adulthood filled with gastronomic overindulgence, I won’t be able to tell you the name of the chef who made it. Further, I won’t be able to tell you the exact address of the restaurant, the floor of the building it’s on, or even the number of the apartment. And while I will be able to give you the name of the restaurant, you should know that it’s from Chinese characters, and therefore not exact. Or even close, really.
Partly, this is a matter of translation: private kitchens aren’t really set up for foreigners, and as such, their menus and businesses cards are notoriously inaccessible. But partly, it’s also kind of the point of the whole thing: it’s a private kitchen after all, and like a private club or a private jet, it’s small and intimate by design. If you want a big happening, a giant venue where you can see and be seen, go to Maxim’s City Hall.
From the noisy rush of Nathan Road, Valerie leads us into the marble-lined foyer of an apartment building and a small elevator. We rise several floors, then follow her down a quiet hallway lined with gated apartments. Rounding the first corner, Valerie rings a bell. The door opens, a woman with glasses and silver hoop earrings looks us over, then the gate is pulled aside and we’re ushered into exactly the kind of living room you would expect to find in a midtown apartment on the Hong Kong peninsula: tile floors, a dropped ceiling, hollow-core doors with aluminum handles. The only hint that the place is anything more is the counter to one side with a cash register.
We’re seated at one of two round tables—two others are off in the “bedrooms”—and immediately my knees hit something: tucked beneath the tablecloth are massive bags of rice, beans, dried mushrooms, the typical fair of a Hong Kong restaurant. The other table consists of three generations of native Hong Kongers: the grandmother with neatly permed hair, the granddaughter looking bored and itchy for her iPhone.
Beers are ordered. The doorbell rings. The ear-ringed hostess opens the door and gate, allowing in a young man in a nylon jacket who scuttles past our table. Going into one of the bedrooms, he releases a burst of conversation that disappears the second he closes the door behind him.
The meal is eleven courses, following a set menu determined by the chef—whatever the hell his name is—that morning as he wandered through the markets, looking for the freshest, tastiest ingredients. According to Valerie, the descriptions of each dish weave into a sort of poem.
“Can you translate it?”
Her eyes dart back and forth across the menu. Cantonese is a notably difficult language, with eight or nine tones depending on how you count, and tens of thousands of traditional Chinese characters. As a result, basic literacy in Hong Kong generally occurs a year or two later than in the States. Valerie, a native, is no idiot. “What do I look like,” she asks, “Dante?”
It doesn’t matter. The first dish comes and we settle in: lobster salad in the shell with cashews, pomelo, and water chestnuts. We’re impressed. Very. But in the end, it’s just lobster salad, right? Is that the best you can do?
Apparently not. Course #2: Lychee stuffed with cuttlefish paste, topped with fish roe and smothered in a light egg-white bird’s nest sauce.
You heard me.
I can’t tell you the last time I had a good cuttlefish-stuffed lychee with bird’s nest sauce. Mainly because I’ve never had one before. No one has. Which is a pity: the sweet fruit, the light crunch of the roe, the resistance of the cuttlefish, the briney taste of the bird’s nest. Hard to beat. As we eat, Valerie’s husband Chris gives the backstory, which you may well already know, of bird’s nests as a food item. They are fantastically expensive, ounce for ounce. They are made by swallows that use heavy doses of saliva to hold their homes together. There are several kinds of swallows, and several kinds of nests—some from deep in caves made almost entirely of spit, many more now from concrete nest farms—and the price of the nests varies, red nests being up to five times as expensive as white nests.
The next few courses are equally impressive: first, a lightly breaded eggplant seasoned with salt, pepper and five-spice that have been dry-fried in a wok. Then abalone in pumpkin sauce with okra, done to a perfect degree of tenderness. The sauce, we’re told, is the chef’s signature taste, and indeed we encounter variations on the theme throughout the meal, including in one of the last courses, a brilliantly orange pumpkin soup hiding a black sesame rice ball.
This last is an intriguing dish, unlike anything any of us had had in our combined decades of travel and living in Asia. Later, I’ll ask the chef—a round-faced man with a thin mustache and a dusting of chin whiskers—where he came up with the idea and he’ll explain that pumpkin is a traditional dessert for the Chinese, who shy away from dishes that are too sugary. “Only,” he says through the waitress, who kindly translates, “not pumpkin in soup form. Usually, steamed or mashed. And glutinous rice is very common. I just put them together in this way.”
After that, it becomes easy to see how almost everything he makes is less about whole-cloth innovation than providing a clever twist on traditional approaches: the soup, for instance, has pork and sea snails, cooked into a rich stock, only with the addition of apples and pear. And though the duck course is “simple,” cooked only in very salty water, it is served with a side dipping sauce made from spicy pepper vinegar.
And at times, as often happens in Asia, the dishes rub against western tastes in challenging ways.
“Don’t tell him what it is,” the waitress tells Valerie as she places the eighth course before me, bite-sized rolls with tofu wrapper and small wedges of something gelatinous. All of it rests in a bath of chicken broth and steamed broccoli. “Let him taste it first.”
Instructions like these always give me pause, especially in Asia. Taking out my camera, I buy myself a few moments by snapping some photos. Then I glance at Val and the waitress. Both grin. I pick up my chopsticks and lift a piece of whatever it is into my mouth. The taste is slightly earthy, slightly meaty. An organ of some sort? I chew. The broth is flavorful and salty, thickened slightly with cornstarch.
“What do you think?” asks Valerie.
“Good,” I say, chewing. It’s not my favorite dish, but it’s interesting, like the first time I had abalone, or tongue. “What is it?”
The waitress, a thirty-something friend of the family who is helping out while the normal staff is on vacation, pantomimes a swimming tail and a large fin on her back—a very, un-Hong Kongy way to behave, I might add.
“Shark fin!” says Valerie.
Throughout the meal, we quiz the waitress: how old is the restaurant? Ten years. Is the place always this busy? On weekends and holidays, yes. And most other days you’ll need to reserve three days in advance. How do they advertise—how do people find them? Word of mouth. Is the cook the owner? The co-owner, actually. His partners are on vacation in France. Does he work here full time—is this his only job? Yes. Why did he choose to run a private kitchen, why not just work at a traditional restaurant? She doesn’t know.
The dishes keep coming: Mandarin wild rice stem sautéed with carrot and ground pork; spicy and sour crab. Everything is excellent, interesting, not too rich, not too overwhelming. Then the tenth dish comes and I decide I’ll take a pass: it’s a simple plate with a circle of sliced apples and Anjou pears. I’ve never been one for sliced fruit, so I jot down a few more notes, observing the accordion suitcase the chef wheels to the market each morning, and the way his wife and the waitress pile the dishes in plastic tubs right outside the kitchen door.
“Have a pear,” says Valerie.
“Paul,” says Chris, “have a pear.”
“No,” I say. “I’m not a big fan of fruit.”
“Paul,” he says again. “Taste the fruit. Really.”
I look at him. He nods, very serious. I take a slice of pear, put it in my mouth.
“What is that?” I say. It has a salty, sweet taste, rich and dark, almost like . . . a prune?
“Salt plums,” says Chris.
“Wah mui,” Valerie says. “They must have soaked the plums in water along with the apples and the pears.”
“Holy shit,” I say. I take a slice of apple this time. It is unlike any apple I’ve ever tasted in my very long life, actually sweeter for being laced with salt.
“I know, right?” says Chris.
After this comes the cold pumpkin soup I mentioned before, so good that we beg the waitress to ask the chef to come talk to us. She looks at us like we’re slow: Of course, she says. He always does. He always talks to his customers.
When he arrives, he smiles at us, indulgently, kindly. Originally from Guangzhou, he started cooking when he was nineteen, then moved to Shanghai before arriving in Hong Kong. We ask about some of the dishes, learn that he thinks that being a chef in China is more difficult than anywhere else because of the necessity of fresh ingredients. I make an ill-timed joke, asking how old he was when he learned he was a genius and he replies with insistent modesty: he’s not a genius, he just takes his work very seriously.
Finally, one of us asks what—to us, at least—feels like the obvious question: why a private kitchen? Why not go to work at one of the big famous restaurants? Why, in a city known for some of the best food in the world, where culinary greatness can mean instant stardom, does he choose to cook out of his home for a single setting of twenty-five people a night?
He doesn’t even pause. “I worked in those other restaurants,” he says. “I know what it’s like. All those chefs. I suggest something, they might not agree, they might not cook the way I do.”
We nod. We understand. It is Hong Kong, after all: there are rules; they must be followed.
Or not. Thank god.
Paul Hanstedt is the author of Hong Konged: One Modern American Family’s (Mis)adventures in the Gateway to China and a professor at Roanoke University.