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Diner's Diary

Why Hong Kong chefs are collaborating, and what’s in it for diners

Chefs in the city are increasingly working together on joint food promotions that provide not just increased marketing buzz, but learning and bonding experiences too

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 3:01pm

Restaurants in Hong Kong bringing in celebrity chefs to spice up their menus – and generate more business and media coverage – is nothing new, but these days, the guest chef could be from a restaurant down the road instead of New York, Paris or London. And now, it’s as much a collaboration as it is friendly competition.

One of the first such events this year was Lily & Bloom’s mac and cheese competition, “The Mac Attack”, in which five Hong Kong chefs created their interpretations of the popular comfort food, and were judged by diners on social media. Participants in the contest, which ran from January until the end of last month, were Billy Otis from the host restaurant (his entry was lobster mac and cheese); Vinny Lauria of Posto Pubblico and Stone Nullah Tavern (with egg yolk and black truffle); May Chow of Little Bao (an Asian version with steamed rice rolls and Shaoxing wine-laced foie gras); Tiger Curry’s Satoru Mukogawa (with scallops, mountain yam and salmon roe); and Fabrizio Napolitano of Nom (with wagyu beef and eggplant). For the record, Otis was voted the winner, and 10 per cent of proceeds from the event were donated to his charity of choice, the Foodlink Foundation.

Collaborations are becoming more popular as restaurants see them as a way to not only test their creativity, but also to promote themselves to guests who may not have eaten there before.

Viet Kitchen & Bar’s Peter Cuong Franklin says collaborations are a global trend. “You see chefs and bartenders doing pop-ups in different cities,” he says, citing PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a New York bar that set up shop in January at MO Bar in the Landmark Mandarin in Central and featureed a collaboration with Hong Kong-based chefs to create gourmet hot dogs.

“When guest chefs come, I don’t need to go to Spain or Tokyo to eat at their restaurant. And with collaborations, you can do something different, have a different approach,” Franklin says.

Last year Franklin teamed up with Sai Ying Pun tapas restaurant La Paloma for an unusual pairing of Vietnamese and Spanish cuisine. “Some people try to do fusion and it doesn’t work because they don’t understand the culture or the ingredients,” the Vietnamese-American chef says. “But [La Paloma chefs] Alex and Vito [Chiavacci] have been to Vietnam.”

The two-night promotion, one day in each restaurant, drew in customers who could try something new for a limited time. “It was worth taking a bit of a risk, though monetarily it wasn’t a boon. For me it was a look at a creative, learning approach, a chance to learn about other cooking techniques. You almost get into the mind of the chef,” Franklin says.

He learned more about making paella, finding that the most important ingredient is the stock and developing new respect for the dish.

This month,Viet Kitchen will collaborate with Causeway Bay Japanese restaurant Shiki Zen, best known for its house-made udon noodles. Originally, Franklin was interested in learning more about ramen. “Every time a new ramen place pops up, they are full. It’s my mission to get pho to the level of ramen. People don’t complain about paying HK$80 for a bowl of ramen so I find this fascinating.”

When he first met chef Norihisa Maeda of Shiki Zen, Franklin watched him spend 20 minutes making udon. “It’s the Japanese way of trying to reach perfection. They imported the machine and flour from Japan to make the udon. They blanch it and ice it right away and then they cook it to order. They are very careful.

“But for Vietnamese food, it’s on the fly and Viet Kitchen has that street food kind of approach. You throw in the ingredients and it’s ready to go. It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition. While it doesn’t change how we do things, maybe we will adjust slowly, as the Japanese are so meticulous at what they do. It’s not something we normally think about.”

Lauria is no stranger to collaborations, having participated in events such as Home Grown Foods’ Harvest Feast, a pasta battle at Doppio Zero, and the burger takeover at The Butchers Club Burger.

“It’s a good way for us to get together because we have such busy schedules,” he says. “It builds camaraderie between chefs in the city. For us it’s fun to hang out, have laughs and share food and business ideas. It gives me a better understanding of other chefs’ philosophies.”

For example, for The Mac Attack competition, Lauria was able to spend time with the Lily & Bloom kitchen crew, which he says has inspired him with new ideas.

He will be competing again in The Battle of the Balls – a quest to find the best meatballs in Hong Kong on March 9 and 16 at Linguini Fini. The other participating restaurants are Butcher’s Club, Pirata, Jamie’s Italian, NOM and La Paloma.

Calvin Ku, food and beverage director of Buzz Concepts, which owns Lily & Bloom and Tiger Curry, agrees with Lauria on the fun factor. “It’s fun for the kitchen guys to get a glimpse of how other chefs work and think. Marketing-wise it’s a good way to get our name out.”

The logistics ofthese events can take time and effort, which is why Ku says they require a lot of organisation. He says collaborations are not big moneymakers, but they crunch the numbers so that they don’t end up in the red either.

For Chow, collaborating with other chefs is a great way to learn from others who are more experienced.

“The Mac Attack was a competition to see which mac & cheese would be Instagrammed the most, and it made me realise that I needed to think about the presentation of the dish. Then it made me think I should redo all of my dishes at Little Bao,” she says.

Previously, Chow focused more on collaborations with fashion brands, but now that she has a production kitchen to handle catering and test out new ideas, she is able to venture into more culinary partnerships.

She says The Mac Attack was a fun exercise. “It doesn’t have to make sense, but for a few weeks it’s cool. We should do more random combinations like ice skating with hamburgers. People will talk about it.”

A Culinary Journey from Tokyo to Saigon (until March 31)

Shiki Zen

29/F Soundwill Plaza II - Midtown, 1-29 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2970 3218

Viet Kitchen

Lobby, Nexxus Building, 41 Connaught Road Central, tel: 2806 2068

The Battle of the Balls (March 9 and 16)

Linguini Fini

49 Elgin Street, SoHo, tel: 2387 6338