Café Deco chef Martin Kniss gets nostalgic about pioneering oyster craze in Hong Kong
Executive chef Martin Kniss is proud of the restaurant being a household name not only for Hong Kong residents but for overseas visitors too
After Café Deco announced on May 30 it was moving from its current location on The Peak to The One in Tsim Sha Tsui, reception manager Laida Caagbay has received numerous calls from regular customers expressing their sadness that the restaurant will shut its doors on July 24.
The two-storey dining establishment with stunning views of Victoria Harbour and beyond, is the place where many have celebrated birthdays, marriage proposals and wedding anniversaries for the past 22 years.
However, Hang Lung Properties, the owner of Peak Galleria, plans to renovate the entire mall, and despite months of negotiations, no agreement was reached, and Café Deco had to move.
A statement from Hang Lung Properties says it is “committed to increase the appeal and attractiveness of The Peak Galleria through asset enhancement initiatives” that will “give a facelift to The Peak as the most popular tourism destination in Hong Kong”. It adds the project is expected to be completed in phases from 2018 onwards.
Caagbay has worked at the restaurant since the day it opened and considers the place more than her home, as she says her co-workers have been very nice and accommodating. “When I first started working here, I was single, then married and then had kids,” she says with a laugh.
Since Café Deco announced it was leaving its location on The Peak, she reports many regulars have made reservations to come back, including a couple, who married in 2004 and have come back again a few times in the past few days to relive memories.
“We also have another couple, who married in 2006 and come here every year on their anniversary and request the same menu at the same price,” Caagbay says. “They have two kids now… they are really sad we are moving. Everything is a memory for our customers. Some even request drinks that aren’t on the menu anymore.”
She also lists the numerous celebrities, who had dined at Café Deco at one time or another – Jacky Cheung Hok-yau with his wife and daughter, Leon Lai Ming, Andy Lau Tak-wah, George Lam Chi-cheung and Taiwanese crooner Jay Chou, who brought his mother with him.
Other notable personalities include Sylvester Stallone, Rod Stewart, Grace Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Travolta, who came in 1999, and Caagbay recalls he arrived very late for drinks and dessert. “He was a very nice guy and said hi to everyone.”
Executive chef Martin Kniss has also been at Café Deco since the beginning and is proud of the restaurant being a household name not only for Hong Kong residents but for overseas visitors too.
“I have seen two generations of families coming through the restaurant. They had babies who grew up to be toddlers, and then teenagers. One recently celebrated her 18th birthday at Café Deco and it makes us feel happy and special that this is their favourite restaurant,” he says.
When the restaurant opened, Kniss says Café Deco was the first to bring the oyster bar concept to Hong Kong. “Before, oysters, only French ones, were sold in hotels. We pioneered the oyster craze, bringing in oysters from the United States and it was amazing to see oysters flying out the door.”
The restaurant has since had a reputation for having a good selection of bivalves, and even organises the Hong Kong Oyster Shucking Championship annually since 2011.
He also fondly remembers the various special events held at Café Deco, inviting singers, mostly from Australia to perform at the restaurant, and diners paid HK$450-$800 to dine on exotic dishes like ostrich tandoori and kangaroo pie, sip on drinks and watch performers such as Jimmy Barnes, Johnny Farnham, Margaret Urlich and band Acoustic Alchemy.
“In the early years, Café Deco was very special in doing something new and different, and the events had glitz and glamour,” says Kniss. The restaurant was also a venue for many fashion shows and product launches.
Kniss says he’s stayed this long with the restaurant group because of the variety of projects, and the 400-seat restaurant on The Peak kept him busy. “We were operating like a hotel, where the space was like a ballroom for exclusive events so it was very interesting.”
When the Peak Tower was being constructed, he recalls having to evacuate the restaurant twice because bombs from World War II were found on the site, and they were worried they were still live, but in the end they were safely diffused.
While both Caagbay and Kniss will miss The Peak location, they say they are looking forward to moving to Tsim Sha Tsui.
“The environment there will be better for us, as the business will be more consistent and less vulnerable to weather changes,” admits Kniss. We see it as very positive. Life goes on.”