Grassroots Pantry puts quality over location

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2012, 11:25am

I am disappointed with the Hong Kong dining scene. Food has always been a prominent feature in the city's culture. The best ingredients from around the globe arrive fresh here, thanks to an efficient supply chain and no duty on imports. Hongkongers spend lavishly on dining for both personal pleasure and corporate entertaining.

But in my opinion, many restaurants serve mediocre food that's poor value for money. Compare Hong Kong with New York, Tokyo, Milan, or London; in those cities, for HK$1,000, you have every chance of being served a memorable meal, wine included. It will be a meal where each dish is made with expertise, care, passion, originality and quality ingredients. It will be food that strives hard to be exceptional.

Spend HK$1,000 in Hong Kong, and, in my experience, the chances are you will be served an unremarkable dish from any of the world's cuisines. More money is spent on how the restaurant looks than on its food, or on the people who prepare and serve it.

Then there is the big killer: rent. How can you get good food when rents take up to 15 per cent of revenues, and chefs and staff are unmotivated by low salaries and the pressure of understaffing?

As in any financial investment, the shareholders' goal is to get back as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. But because food is so important, it cannot only be a financial investment. There will always be food lovers who want to set up a small place to cook or bake. It's not always about the money.

I am convinced that many restaurants, such as those in Italy and Japan, are good because it's the owner who cooks the food. These restaurants are family-owned small businesses, where a passion for cooking and a desire for a good reputation are what matter most.

In Hong Kong, the barrier to opening a restaurant is too high for the average passionate chef. Even the world of private kitchens is now full of typical Hong Kong restaurants, posing as private kitchens to differentiate themselves from the fierce competition.

But there are a few food heroes who are trying to make our city vibrant. One of them is Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry Chan broke through the "barrier to entry" by betting that the usual retail credo "location, location, location" could be challenged.

After investing significant time and effort, she managed to find the right place on a small street in Sai Ying Pun, where rent is reasonable and the management company is co-operative."

A lot of people open small restaurants believing that footpath is important," says Chan. "But then they are forced to focus on quantity rather than quality in order to be able to cover the rent.

"I'd rather spend money to create jobs for people who share my food philosophy. I don't want my rent to be higher than a staff member's salary. Rather than spending HK$200,000 for a place in SoHo and serving junk food, I prefer to put the money into providing healthy and exciting food."

Chan aims to set a new standard of healthy living in Hong Kong by creating dishes from scratch using whole, unprocessed, mostly organic and local ingredients. She has created a slogan for her revolution: "Spreading Peas … One Meal at a Time". Chan says that she dreamed of opening her own place because she wanted to prove that she could stand up on her own.

"This is an industry that tests how strong you are. You get screamed at all the time, and it is physically challenging. It is a man's world, where the chefs' egos often take over. Those who are not able to fight back are often bullied," she explains. "I created a working environment that is the opposite. We don't scream at each other here. We work with care and respect."

The beauty of Grassroots Pantry prompted would-be investors to approach Chan to open other outlets around town. She turned them down. "I want to stay little and have a hands-on approach to cooking. I'd rather do that than expend energy on shareholder agreements and lawyers," she says.

Chan also sees herself as part of a community of people interested in sustainable farming and slow food practices. "It is important that we help each other out," she says. "I find it difficult to find a place to discuss our trade. I invite other chefs here, and people who love food."

So if you pass by Fuk Sau Lane, walk into number 12, where you will be faced with a refreshing sight.

If you are lucky, you might stumble upon Chan and her team making organic fig jam.

Fig jam

1kg fresh figs

2 tbsp lemon juice

zest of one lemon

1 tbsp coconut palm sugar

2 tsp grated nutmeg

3 tsp ground cardamom

  • Cut figs in half, place in saucepan with lemon juice, lemon zest and coconut palm sugar.
  • Cook the figs down over a low heat, stirring every three minutes for 20-30 minutes.
  • Add nutmeg and cardamom.
  • Continue cooking until figs have broken up and the liquid has evaporated, leaving a shiny jam consistency.
  • Serve on bread.

Healthy Gourmet is a weekly column by private chef Andrea Oschetti.