Nutrition comes first as Grassroots Pantry returns to its culinary roots
Peggy Chan, the owner of Grassroots Pantry in Sai Ying Pun, always knew where her interests lay. "Throughout business school most of my essays were about food, food systems and sustainable agriculture. I just knew this was something I wanted to fight for," she says.
Her priorities are to create delicious wholesome food and create awareness of where food comes from. Chan, 28, opened Grassroots last year, and it quickly became a place for those interested in sustainable food production to host workshops.
"There is nothing more rewarding than educating the community to create a more sustainable world," she says. "I want Grassroots Pantry to be a source of information for people; where they can learn what organic vegetarian food is, how to cook it, and how to grow their own vegetables. Food production has been corrupted over the past four decades."
Terrence Tsang, a former director of food and beverage at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, reckons Chan is doing groundbreaking work.
"I would say that she is one of the pioneers of a new food movement. I think it might even stick," says Tsang.
"Sustainable eating and the focus on overall health - not just being a vegetarian - have been around in Western countries for a while now.
"Her niche here is her ability to combine Asian and Western menus, and make it delicious."
Chan is convincing because "she is a role model for what she sells", Tsang says. "She lives it, she breathes it and she is dedicated to it."
Pauline Wood, a regular at Grassroots, appreciates the passion that Chan puts into producing enjoyable cuisine without harming the environment.
"She has great knowledge of nutrition, excellent culinary skills, and a gift for bringing the two together in delicious food," Wood says. "Peggy is a leader in minimising food miles and sourcing organically, and is showing what a great job can be done with this here."
Grassroots uses unprocessed, and mostly organic, local foods to create authentic dishes from all over the world.
"We don't do anything crazy to the food," Chan says.
"We use the cleanest ingredients and substitute the not-so-nutritious ingredients with more nutritious ones. For example, we use brown rice instead of white rice."
All dishes are plant-based, and most of them are vegan, although "we don't say that on our website", she says. "It is not necessary. I don't believe in labels, it closes people's minds."
Hong Kong-born Chan planned to study fashion at university. Fortunately for her, a school guidance counsellor encouraged her to enrol in culinary school, where she promptly "fell in love with everything about food".
Following culinary studies in Canada and Switzerland, and some stints in five-star establishments in Hong Kong and then Tokyo, Chan returned here in 2010 and became involved in the "slow food" movement. The result was Grassroots Pantry.
The restaurant is the antithesis of a luxury hotel restaurant, and yet it is luxurious in its own way. The food is delicious and healthy, the atmosphere is inviting and relaxing, and the service is friendly and warm.
The cosy decor and hand-illustrated menus are indicative of the restaurant's attention to detail. During a recent lunch time visit, it was packed.
Dishes on offer included mixed mushroom linguine with white truffle oil, raw calamansi lime pie, and a selection of colourful fruit and vegetable smoothies and juices.
If you visit Grassroots on a Saturday morning, you might find yourself in the middle of a cooking class hosted by Chan or a guest raw-food instructor.
Or you might get a lesson on how to grow your own vegetable or herb garden.
In a city spoiled for dining choices, Chan says Grassroots Pantry fills a void.
"It's a hole in the wall with a family vibe that serves good food, and that is exactly what we wanted," she says.