How Jowett Yu's childhood experiences helped shape his new restaurant

Jowett Yu' s childhood in Taiwan planted the seed for a career in food. Kylie Knott talks to the chef about his first venture in the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 10:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 April, 2014, 5:42pm

It's not surprising that Jowett Yu wants to meet at a traditional cha chaan teng - its unpretentious surroundings fit perfectly with his down-to-earth nature. Settling on a stool, the chef looks relaxed in jeans and a T-shirt as he orders a bowl of noodles with vegetables. "I love this really honest food and decor," he says.

It's a philosophy Yu will follow when he opens his first restaurant in Hong Kong later this month. Going by the cheeky name Ho Lee Fook (meaning "good fortune for your mouth"), the restaurant on SoHo's Elgin Street will serve Chinese food but the dishes will be modern interpretations of the cuisine on which he was raised.

Born in Taiwan, Yu spent time in Canada - his family emigrated there when he was 10. He moved to Sydney in 2005 where he worked at Tetsuya before conquering the city's food scene with his hip restaurants Mr Wong and Ms G's Asian, the former winning Australia Gourmet Traveller's best new restaurant of 2013 award.

But the pull of Asia and a desire to return to his regional roots grew too strong to ignore, and that's good news for Hong Kong's foodies. There will be dishes such as Yunnan-style steak tartare with hot and sour sauce, fried Brussels sprouts with cauliflower and bacon chilli jam, and clams cooked in pork broth with fennel. The menu will also include fresh seafood options - many sourced locally - such as raw Hokkaido scallop with snow peas, pickled enoki and fish fragrant dressing, steamed cobia with pickled jalapeños and pickled mustard, fennel and radish salad.

"I was coming to Asia twice a year and just recently felt the pull to move back to the region. An opportunity came so here I am," he says.

Tucking into his noodles, Yu, 32, recalls his childhood where he formed his first memories of food. In Taipei he spent many Saturday afternoons making dumplings with his mother and holidays at his grandparents' farm on the east coast of Taiwan.

"For every summer and winter vacation we would visit my grandma's home in a small village in the countryside. There was nothing to do - no television or video games - so I was a pretty bored kid," he says, laughing. "Instead, I'd help with the rice harvest - rake the rice and dry the husks. There was a rice mill on the property and I can still recall that great roasted toasty smell from the mill."

There's really high expectations in the industry, so I'm taking baby steps

While his rice farmer grandfather was a great inspiration, it was his grandmother, who turns 100-years-old this year, who made the biggest impression. "She was a great cook. She didn't cook with gas stoves but had two giant wok burners that used firewood, so I would help gather the wood. There was a stream next to their house and I'd grab some bamboo and string and go fishing for a few hours."

This idyllic lifestyle instilled in him not only a respect for nature but a philosophy about freshness and the importance of farm-to-table living.

"The farm had geese, chickens, ducks and pigs. As a kid I'd see my grandma kill animals and later we'd eat them for dinner - there was no refrigeration. They also grew fruit and vegetables - we'd pick them in the afternoon and have them for dinner that night.

"My grandma has an amazing connection with nature. She'd feel the weight of an egg and hold it under a light and say, 'this is going to hatch in four weeks.' I always wondered how she knew, but she just knew. She was so intuitive when it came to nature. People living in cities today, especially the kids, they are so disconnected from nature. They just don't know where food comes from. It's very sad."

His mother taught him to cook by throwing him in at the deep end, and their dumpling-making sessions kept him well fed when he was studying history at university.

"One time when I was about 10, I told her I was hungry, the first thing she showed me was how to make an omelette. She said, 'I'm going to show you this once and after that, you make your own after-school snacks.'

"I survived on dumplings at uni. She'd make a big batch of cabbage and pork dumplings and I'd help her. On Saturday afternoons we'd make hundreds of dumplings. You know, just hang out - it was a real bonding experience. My sister wasn't into it and mum needed help so I was roped in," he says.

"Looking back, I didn't play video games with other kids, but made dumplings with my mum."

As for the decor, the restaurant will have modern touches. Yu says it will be "informal but fun". Collaborating with him on the design front is Douglas Young, G.O.D founder.

"I've always been interested in the work of G.O.D and what they do. They have a good eye for design, reinventing iconic Hong Kong images and giving old Hong Kong a modern and humorous twist. Douglas and I have been talking about the restaurant and how will it look. He really helped get the ball rolling. He even came up with the idea to call the restaurant Ho Lee Fook. I thought, 'Oh …that's catchy and fun'."

As for the future, Yu says he has no plans yet on expanding in the city or in the region.

"There's really high expectations in the industry, so I'm taking baby steps," he says. "Right now, I just want to get the restaurant up and running and deliver quality food. And I want to have a lot of fun doing it."