AS A CHILD, ROBERT Cheung Hon-fai always looked forward to Lunar New Year. "I didn't come from a well-off family, but as a treat my mother used to take me to a traditional Chinese confectionary shop and bought me a block of solid chocolate big enough that I had to break it with my hands to eat it. I only got to try it once a year, but it was so good," he says.
Those memories are so vivid for Cheung that after a 20-year career in quality testing he decided to take a plunge into the chocolate business and set up Haute Chocolat two months ago.
In his Kowloon Bay test kitchen, the youthful 52-year-old feels like Willy Wonka, creating chocolates of different flavours and designs. With a background in material science, he equates making chocolates to that of metallurgy, where the combination of ingredients needs to be precise and the process done correctly. However, chocolate is both a science and an art that appeals to the five senses - something Cheung aims for in his creations.
While he focuses mainly on corporate clients such as Uniqlo and Longchamp, Cheung also has a small stall in Food Garden, a gourmet shop in D2 Place, a mall converted from an industrial building in Lai Chi Kok. There his son Solomon sells freshly made chocolates.
"Chocolate must be eaten fresh, much like tea. You don't drink day-old tea, you make a fresh batch. And with coffee, you grind the beans when you want a cup," Cheung says.
For Haute Chocolat, Cheung sources ingredients from around the world and semi-roasts the nuts for his confections to prevent them from going rancid. The macadamia nuts are golden brown and covered with a dark chocolate shell, while Cheung's latest creation, ganache with rosewater, has a subtle taste similar to Turkish delight, but it's nowhere near as saccharine.
Another creation is the fan-shaped matcha (green tea powder) chocolate, while the cherry bullet is a kirsch-infused wild cherry covered in 65 per cent cacao butter Belgian chocolate.
Cheung loves the feeling of making people happy when they eat his chocolates. "Money can't buy the feeling of achievement. I enjoy adding sparkle to people's lives."
Meanwhile, Yu Wing-hong, pastry chef at Yè Shanghai, makes tea-flavoured chocolates in the kitchen of the Harbour City branch of the Shanghainese restaurant.
"You have to have a lot of patience and most importantly be aware of the temperature and humidity," he says.
Yu makes ganache fillings by boiling the cream and infusing it overnight with tea leaves. He then strains out the leaves and mixes in chocolate, French butter and other ingredients before pouring the ganache into moulds. He then coats them by hand with melted, tempered chocolate. It takes Yu about day to make a single batch because of the time needed to cool the ingredients to the right temperature.
Yè Shanghai specialises in chocolates made with a variety of Chinese tea flavours, such as jasmine, rose, longjing, oolong and pu-erh, as well as Earl Grey and matcha, and Yu is also trying out a lychee red tea.The 29-year-old enjoys experimenting with different ingredients, although not everything is a success. Once his boss, restaurateur Paul Hsu, asked him to make a curry-flavoured chocolate. "They were a disaster, so we haven't revisited that since," Yu says.
At Vero, pastry chef Jack Chua Siu-fung has his roommate to thank for pointing him in the direction of desserts when they were studying at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
"If you focus on the culinary side you need to do butchering and I couldn't deal with blood, so my roommate, who was in pastry at the time, suggested I do the same and I'm so glad I did," he says.
Chua previously worked at Nobu in New York and Maison Boulud in Beijing, and he says he likes the precision and the challenges when making chocolates, especially tempering. "You have to melt the chocolate at 45 degrees, cool it down to 29 degrees and then raise it again to about 30 degrees," he says, adding that this is what makes the shells glossy and gives the chocolate its crisp snap when you bite into it instead of being crumbly.
While Vero uses a machine to temper the chocolate, they are finished by hand. Chua likes to use Asian ingredients such as longan, lotus seed and coconut, and yuzu is one of his best sellers. Other fillings include Earl Grey, Yin Yang (a coffee and tea mix), as well as pralines and chocolate-covered nuts.
"There aren't that many kinds of chocolates - ganache, praline or fruity flavours, that's it," Chua says, although there are endless variations on flavours.
However, that doesn't stop the 30-year-old from experimenting within those parameters.
His latest creation is a whisky-flavoured chocolate that has a smoky taste. "I love chocolates, but prefer dark ones because they are like wine. You can taste different flavours in it and it has more character."
Although Vero is mainly focused on its corporate business, having closed their showroom in Fenwick Pier, the company hopes to open a retail shop soon so that more customers can try Chua's sweet creations, which he hints may soon include a wasabi-flavoured creation.
Where to find them
cha.ke.li by Yè Shanghai
Shop 332 Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, tel: 2918 0093
Shop 134-135, 1/F Prince's Building, 10 Chater Road, Central, tel: 2869 8777, cova.com.hk
Shop LG4b, iSquare, 63 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2758 3878, lucullus.com.hk
B1, Times Square, Causeway Bay, tel: 2917 7220, royce.com
La Maison du Chocolat
Shop 109 Landmark Prince's, 10 Chater Road, Central, tel: 2801 4122, lamaisonduchocolat.com
Shop 1019C, IFC Mall, Central, tel: 2833 5700, pierreherme.com
Shop 1029-30, IFC Mall, Central, tel: 2805 0518, godiva.com.hk
13 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, tel: 2851 0633, jeanpaulhevin.com.hk
Shop 3089-3097B, Podium Level 3, IFC Mall, 1 Harbour View Street, Central, tel: 2805 0798, agnesb-lepaingrille.com
Shop 1001, Miramar Shopping Centre, 132 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2992 0799, thomashaas.com.hk
3/F Ocean Centre, Harbour City, 17 Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2317 7448, leonidas.com.hk
1/F The Landmark, 12-16 Des Voeux Road Central, tel: 2523 4977, sees.com
shopverochocolates.com, tel: 2559 5838