OUT TO LUNCH

Fashion designer Erbert Chong talks about his work over lunch at French restaurant Ivy

Designer Erbert Chong discusses how his career path led to Paris over Riviera-inspired dishes at Ivy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 November, 2015, 10:30pm

Walking into Ivy at IFC Mall is like being transported to the French Riviera. The restaurant evokes daydreams of the sun-drenched shores of southeastern France, where the Mediterranean shimmers in tones of emerald and turquoise, umbrellas in nautical blue and white stripes line the beaches, and stone cottages dot the hillside.

Newly opened on the second floor of the mall, Ivy is one of Gaia Group's latest innovations along with eateries Greenhouse and Townhouse. The restaurant's rust-coloured floor is like sand under your feet. The white marble tabletops and soft cushioned chairs in shades of blue and green match the colours of the ocean. With floor-length windows overlooking Victoria Harbour, Ivy is bright and airy, bearing all the hallmarks of a luxurious beachside resort along the Mediterranean coast.

Up-and-coming luxury leather designer Erbert Chong takes in the setting and says: "I haven't been to the south of France yet. I really want to go to Marseille and Lyon." He splits his time between Paris and Hong Kong.

Chong, whose work has taken Asia by storm and is now sought-after around the globe, hasn't always wanted to be a fashion designer. As a child, he only knew he wanted to make an impact in the world one day. He met Spice Girls singer Emma Bunton at her first CD signing in 2001 and told her that he wanted to one day become as famous as Baby Spice, her musical persona.

"She wrote on the CD, 'To Fame'," he recalls, laughing. "But I didn't know I was going to be a fashion designer - not until I was in my early 20s. I never touched Vogue before that. I never did sewing. It came a lot later."

Chong embarked on his career in fashion after a chance encounter with legendary pants designer Alvin Valley. Under Valley's mentorship, Chong's passion for everything fashion and design grew. He enrolled in Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York before staying in Germany for a year and finally completing his degree in Paris at the world's oldest fashion school, L'Ecole Superieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode.

Having learned from three different schools of fashion, it was Paris that captured Chong's attention and where he found himself for the next five years.

"In America, the education was very much about the basics, about the business. In Germany, it's about precision ... the curve of the sleeves, there's a formula for that," Chong says. "But in France, it was like, feel the curve. It's fun and liberating at the same time."

His latest collection features costume jewellery inspired by the marble and concrete buildings in Hong Kong, handmade in France by an artist.

"They're passionate about everything," he says of the French. "I think it's very much in their culture [to] express their thoughts [about] how things should be made, how it's supposed to be beautiful [through] some sort of emotion. It's about being intellectual, and [for] everything we do, there's an explanation, there's a story behind it. I think that's what made me stay in France for so long."

Chong's description of the French touch translates perfectly to the way the chefs at Ivy prepare the food. Everything placed in front of us had been carefully thought out and beautifully presented.

When we arrived at our table - in a semi-private corner separated from the rest of the dining area with latticed wooden panels - we were given a tray of whole cherry tomatoes in place of a bread basket. The golf ball-sized tomatoes were still attached to the vine, and came with a small bowl of sea salt, a whole lemon and a bottle of olive oil.

We were told that all of the ingredients are sourced from the French Riviera, with the lemons flown in from Menton. The trio of flavourings - considered the holy trinity of Mediterranean cooking - was supposed to awaken our taste buds for the upcoming feast. Cutting into the plump and juicy tomatoes kept us entertained, and the fragrant oils of the Menton lemon lingered on our fingertips throughout the meal.

Our bread did come later, but in a paper bag rather than a basket - again, a well-thought-out gesture that allows guests to bring the baked goods home. Opening the paper bag, Chong says: "I love French croissants. [The French] cannot do wrong with any pastry stuff. Maybe it's the air, it fluffs it up."

The croissants at Ivy were still warm to the touch and extremely flaky. "Or maybe it's the butter," Chong adds. "They must put lots of butter in it. These are good."

Our appetisers arrive: a platter of six oysters on the half-shell, beautifully laid out on a bed of black and white pebbles; warm prawns lightly dressed in olive oil, basil and lemon; and a steak tartare with an organic egg yolk cooked sous-vide style so it coated the beef like a thick mayonnaise rather than a runny mess.

"One of my favourite dishes is steak tartare," says Chong, who calls himself an adventurous eater, not afraid to try anything and everything at least once. The best version Chong had was in a small Parisian café in the 11th Arrondissement near where he lived.

For mains, we shared the truffle fettuccine - with the creamy strands of pasta cradling thinly shaved slices of truffle - and roasted duck legs with a delicious orange glaze and braised Belgian endives, and a spring chicken herbes de Provence. The chicken, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, was well-spiced with Espelette red pepper powder and was easily Chong's favourite.

"This chicken is better than the ones I've had in France," he says.

Despite already feeling full from the meal, Chong could not resist dessert. "I used to ask my mother if I could have dessert instead of dinner," he says. At buffets, "I can stay entirely in the dessert section."

Ivy's signature dessert is a soufflé for two, but the portion that arrived looked large enough to feed four. Tall and fluffy, the soufflé was light as air.

"Next time I'm here, I'll just order this," Chong says. "All mine, all for me."

Stephanie Ip