Five of the best Hong Kong hidden private kitchens
Did you know you can eat Afghan in Clear Water Bay, French in Fanling, or Hakka in Sha Lo Tung? We talk to five culinary entrepreneurs about why they like to serve others and what's involved
In the world of private kitchens, it's often whom - not what - you know that matters. While a great number of these cosy dining venues have mushroomed across the city in industrial buildings and walk-up flats in old urban areas over the past two decades, there are still some that fly under the radar. We track down five of these hidden gems, all located in far-flung corners of the New Territories that serve fresh, delicious home-made food.
Nanroku Club, Sai Kung
Sitting on a tatami mat in his Japanese-styled dining room, Alan Lam Wai-shun talks enthusiastically about eating kaiseki ryori. He explains the finer points of the culinary art form and how it developed into the haute cuisine of Japanese gastronomy.
"Traditionally, a host would prepare some food for guests to appreciate with their tea. So kaiseki ryori consists of food in small portions. Soup is just two mouthfuls and rice comes in tiny amounts."
Despite the tradition, however, the fare offered at Nanroku has expanded to a 13-course feast that includes tomato with shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol), surf clam sake jelly, deboned tilefish tempura, shrimp with hairy cucumber and green bean soup.
Lam trained at a local kaiseki ryori restaurant as a teenager before opening his own Japanese eatery in Jordan. When high rent forced him out of business a decade ago, he opened the private kitchen with his Japanese wife in their village house at Nam Wai in Sai Kung.
He visits Japan five times a year and comes home with fresh ingredients. "While a few of the dishes can be prepared in advance, most have to be made on the spot," he says. "This style of cooking requires meticulous attention to detail. With the rice, for instance, we only use the grains cooked in the middle of the pot, the rest if discarded. And as most of the dishes are assembled while guests are eating, a meal can take up to three hours," he says. "Don't come if you're in a hurry. This dining experience is all about chatting with friends and savouring the delicacies."
Nanroku Club, Sai Kung, tel: 9382 6787. No menu. Minimum four people; maximum eight, HK$750 per head. If clients bring their own alcohol, they should inform Lam as the menu will be adjusted accordingly to match the wines
Choy Choy's Kitchen, Yuen Long
Located inside a village house on Kam Sheung Road, Grace Choy's private kitchen has racked up 200,000 Facebook likes since opening six years ago.
For the former office worker, the kitchen is her first entrepreneurial move.
"I knew nothing about business when I started out. I just sold breakfast at first - sandwiches and steamed rice rolls. Business was bad then. Later, after noticing many office types walk around Kam Sheung Road train station looking for a place to eat lunch, I decided to run a private kitchen."
For HK$400 per head, you get as many as eight dishes, including pan-fried Hokkaido scallop with caviar, spicy tiger shrimp, and black pepper soy sauce chicken thigh.
Choy buys most of her ingredients from neighbouring farms in Yuen Long and everything is made from scratch. Her next goal is to launch her own brand of sauces.
"Even though we've become popular, I'm not tempted to open an ordinary restaurant. Rents are just too high. I'm happy to serve customers at my own place."
Choy Choy's Kitchen, www.facebook.com/2choy. Minimum four people. Kitchen is also available for rent
Café F39, Fanling
Yearning for his Chinese roots, chef Alain Pang Chun-lung moved back to his home village of Fanling Wai in 2004 after 30 years in France. Since their return, Pang and his wife, Lee Hay-lan, and their two children have operated a French private kitchen which has become something of a destination for foodies.
Their three-storey village house serves rustic French-Italian dishes.
It was in the 1970s that 16-year-old Pang left his Fanling clan to move to France, in the hope of a better future. He studied aeronautical engineering in university, but after graduation decided to pursue a job in the food industry instead.
It took a three-year cooking course, followed by five years of working in various kitchens before Pang became a proper chef.
Pang met his wife, then a fashion student, when she was working as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant. Deciding to make a life together, they pooled their money in 1990 to buy a small space in the hill town of St Claude in the Franche-Comté region, bordering Italy and Germany, and turned it into a Chinese restaurant. Back in Fanling Wai, Pang has kept his business a private kitchen despite offers from investors to turn it into a full-service restaurant. Pang says he would rather spend his time fussing over a dish of buttered frog legs or coq au vin, discussing food and culture with diners and making friends.
Lee says of her husband: "He's quite stubborn. He doesn't really talk to anyone until all the dishes are prepared."
She adds that they just don't want the hassle that comes with running an official business, such as government red tape and licensing.
"We also don't have to pay commercial tax with our current operation mode," Lee says.
For HK$500 per head, customers get salad, four appetisers - including oyster with spinach and salmon bread with lime cream - seafood soup and a main dish of fish or lamb.
Café F39, tel: 2672 7550. Minimum four people
Masala Bay, Clear Water Bay
When fabric paint artist Vandana Anand moved to Hong Kong with her engineer husband a decade ago, she had to learn to how to cook.
"Back home in Delhi, we had helpers who cooked for us. But here, I couldn't find Indian help as most helpers are from the Philippines and Indonesia," she says.
With recipes from her mother and aunt, Anand worked on her cooking skills through trial and error. She eventually got so good, friends suggested she open a private kitchen.
And so Masala Bay, serving north Indian and Afghan food, was born four years ago.
With a spacious front yard and a large dining room, Anand's house has become a hotspot during Diwali, the Hindu autumn festival.
When it's not peak celebration season, she only does two or three private meals per month.
"I like the niche market and the exclusivity. I don't want more than that. There's a lot of preparation involved, like setting up the house and preparing food from scratch. I need to sort out the ingredients three days in advance. The Australian meat is ordered from a deli in Hang Hau as expatriates don't want any local meat."
At Masala Bay, diners can choose from two starters and four mains. "My father is from Kabul, so some food, such as an eggplant dish called bulani, are Afghan. North Indian dishes include yellow lentils, which are pressure-cooked and mixed with lots of tomato, curry leaves and tamarind."
With an emphasis on lean meats and many vegetables, Anand says north Indian cuisine is light and healthy.
"It's basically all tomato- and onion-based with lots of ginger and garlic. Only a few dishes have cream and butter, such as the butter chicken and black lentils."
Masala Bay, Clear Water Bay, tel: 9306 3967. Minimum eight people. Offers late lunch or dinner
Cheung Wai-kok's Private Kitchen, Tai Po
Cheung and his wife are the only inhabitants in the largely deserted Cheung Uk Village in Sha Lo Tung in Tai Po. The rest of his clan moved to the city, but Cheung and his wife stayed o enjoy the fresh air and operate the Hakka private kitchen.
"We have lots of customers on weekends who are hikers (there is a trail leading to Pat Sin Leng) and others who drive here to enjoy dining among ponds and farms."
A former seafood trader in Vietnam, Cheung left the business eight years ago and returned to his ancestral village to open the private kitchen.
"Sha Lo Tung is a protected ecological area with butterflies, fireflies and dragonflies. Developers want this the land, there have been many plans mentioned over the years, such as the construction of a golf course and a columbarium. Some of my clan members are considering moving back here to revive the village."
Compared to other private kitchens, Cheung's offerings are a bargain, costing only HK$130 per head for six dishes. The Hakka fare includes braised pork with black fungus, Hakka stuffed tofu and pan-fried sweet and sour fish. Diners can also enjoy many home-made products, such as plum wine and spicy sauce made with habanero chillies that are grown on his farm.
Cheung Wai-kok's Private Kitchen, Tai Po, tel: 9854 5156. Minimum 12 people. There's no public transport to the area so diners have to drive or catch a taxi (it's a 15 minute ride from Tai Po Market MTR station)