Private kitchens face a fork in the road
Private kitchens: a secret history
Eating at private kitchens used to have the frisson of an underground experience.
Amanda Cheung, an associate director at Edelman PR, recalls her first such experience a decade ago. "We were excited about being somewhere outside of Central that no one had been to. We felt like culinary pioneers," she says.
At the now-defunct Shanghainese place in Wan Chai, she and her friends enjoyed a five-course feast for HK$300 each. The ambience was memorable too: the interior was filled with antique rosewood furniture and tiled floors reminiscent of a tong lau. "It was part of the original wave of private kitchens - it felt like a secret place."
Cheung visits private kitchens less often these days, although venturing to one recently - CulinArt in Aberdeen - she found the food "quite good" but the setting restrictive. "It was packed with other diners so you missed out on any intimacy, and that's the point of going to a private kitchen."
Nor did the "mediocre" service match the HK$1,000 bill. "In comparison, I went to Il Milione in Central recently where for the same price I had one of the most amazing meals in years, in terms of skill, quality of ingredients and excellent service in a gorgeous environment."
Private kitchens - fully or semi-illegal culinary hideaways, often established by self-taught chefs - emerged in the late 1990s and have exploded in number since. However, the latest have taken a big step away from the intentions of the founders and the intimate places they created.
Can the new generation of highbrow and expensive kitchens keep the trend going?
Lau Kin-wai, who ushered in the era with the opening of Yellow Door Kitchen in 1997, says the venues helped foster a closer connection between diner and chef. In hotel venues, Lau claims, "the relationship between human beings is too cool, too distant".
Private kitchen operators were also looking at ways around two of the main obstacles facing restaurants: a lack of funds, and licencing laws; and compliance requirements that were considered too onerous.
Lau certainly found licencing laws a burden: "For a restaurant with 200 tables and a restaurant that seats only 30 people, the requirements are the same."
He says it's impossible for a small restaurant to meet the criteria and keep its cosiness.
The gregarious Lau, who was an art critic back then, set up Yellow Door with friends and local personalities such as singer Wang Xiaoqiong, and painter Wang Hai and his wife.
Lau also ran a bar on Aberdeen Street. One day a neighbouring furniture shop owner asked him for ideas on how to repurpose the shop space. "I thought: let's start a restaurant."
"I set up the private dining formula first: diners book in advance with a minimum of at least 10 people - one table - and everyone pays HK$150 each," Lau says. "Later, people followed us in doing it this way."
It was a hit. A cult following and media buzz ensued, and they have never looked back.
Yellow Door Kitchen has since found a permanent home on Cochrane Street, where it finally went legal. "I believe you can't run a restaurant forever without a licence - it's not fair to the competitors," Lau says.
Yellow Door was once fined HK$200 by government inspectors, who politely reasoned with them. "They said, 'We really like to have good food, but please have a licence so we feel more comfortable about having the food here,'" Lau says.
But private kitchens are becoming victims of their own popularity. Jason Tse, the food blogger behind jasonbonvivant.com says there are unscrupulous operators who use the term to piggyback on the trend's success. "Private kitchens have become a label these days," he says.
Now diners have to decipher if it's a genuine private kitchen or not. "Years ago, people differentiated traditional versus private kitchens by the environment and atmosphere - a space upstairs in a building instead of a ground floor retail space, for example," Tse says.
He thinks rising property prices have forced many conventional operations into smaller venues. "Now, a more focused menu is what differentiates these private kitchens," he says.
It is why the menus must have an edge over what's available in the mainstream, otherwise there is no point for diners to go, Tse says. "Diners don't care if the place is illegal or not. They care if the food is unique or new, as Hong Kong people love new stuff to tell other people about."
Recent openings include Fa Zu Jie in Lan Kwai Fong which serves contemporary Shanghainese dishes with a French flourish. Traditional favourites such as drunken chicken are adapted into a quail version marinated in rice wine, and served on Japanese noodles. KimChi Private Kitchen, meanwhile, boasts a Chinese-Western molecular fusion menu.
Much has changed since the early days of private dining. But the trend, as it evolves, has outlasted many others.