Restaurateur Howard Cai brings his modern approach to Chinese cuisine from Guangzhou to Hong Kong
Celebrity chef stays true to his principles of using only local ingredients and serving the finest whisky, writes Tracey Furniss
The opening of Howard's Gourmet in mid-November last year caused a buzz. In addition to being a whisky columnist and a respected food critic, restaurateur Howard Cai is known in Guangzhou for his modern approach to Chinese cuisine.
Celebrities David Beckham, Carina Lau and Karen Mok have visited the new restaurant in Hong Kong, and gourmands including Lai Sun Group chairman Peter Lam have travelled to Guangzhou to eat at Howard's Gourmet Workshop.
"The restaurant in Guangzhou opened 10 years ago, and more than half the customers came from Hong Kong," Cai says. "So I started to think about opening a restaurant in Hong Kong."
Lai Sun F&B Management has partnered with Cai in his first restaurant venture outside the mainland. It is located on the fifth floor of the plush CCB Tower on Connaught Road Central.
"The first time someone asked me to open a restaurant outside China, I was thinking London, Paris or New York. I never thought the first step would be Hong Kong. I was preparing for overseas because I lived in the [United] States, so I wanted to bring the idea back to the States, but finally I found Hong Kong a more suitable place for my set-up," Cai says.
He admits the next few months will be important. "In Guangzhou, my customers are my friends and they trust me. The restaurant there is more like a private kitchen. A lot of people are curious to try my cuisine, but some still have their own ideas of what Chinese food should be. Because this restaurant is new, I will spend more time here trying to explain my ideas."
Cai's ideas are simple. "Ingredients are number one," says the Shantou-born restaurateur. "I use fresh, local ingredients, and that's why the menu here is different from Guangzhou. I use less seasoning to bring out the natural flavours."
The self-taught chef explains that he stays true to traditional Chinese flavours but does not mask the flavours with seasoning.
"There are only two ways to prepare a dish," he says. "Either with a sauce or a soup. It is easy when using a sauce. That means I can bake or pan-fry the ingredients, which allows the flavours to be stronger. When using soup, the flavours are light and delicate."
He adds: "When I opened the restaurant, I had to calculate the distance from the kitchen to the dining room. The servers cannot waste a second, as the temperature of the food is very important. When the diner sits down, they need to smell, to see, to taste. I could put a lot of flowers and make the plate pretty, but we don't want to serve a cold or warm dish. The temperature of the food makes such a difference to the taste."
Howard's Gourmet serves set menus only for lunch and dinner. This is to maintain the quality. Some of his most notable dishes are fish maw soup, hot and sour noodles, and crispy sea cucumber. "The sea cucumber has two layers," Cai says. "The inside is very soft, like Korean rice cake, and the crispy skin gives you something amazing."
Cai started out as a civil servant before moving to the US to further his studies. He began cooking for himself there because he was not satisfied with the restaurants.
"I like eating and I didn't like how the other restaurants cooked, so slowly I started cooking for myself," he says. "I also like drinking whisky, so I would make some food to pair with whisky. Eventually, I shared my food with friends and they liked it." That is when he decided to open up a speakeasy in Guangzhou for his friends.
When Cai returned to China, he became widely known for his whisky column. "I would write about which foods would pair well with whisky," he says. He is the pioneer and authority on whisky pairing with Chinese cuisine on the mainland and is a life member of the prestigious The Keepers of the Quaich, an international society for those who have shown an outstanding commitment to Scotch whisky. His enthusiasm for whisky took him to travel extensively through Scotland, where he learned the intricacies of the industry. Diners at Howard's Gourmet can experience Howard Cai Selected Cask whisky at the restaurant's Phoenix Bar. The Selected Cask is distinctively his choice, with a taste that's dignified and clean yet rich and malty. "It is mouth-coating with multiple layers and a complex presence," he adds. At the Phoenix Bar, patrons can enjoy the single-malt 1990 Bunnahabhain and the Glenandrew single-malt Highland whisky.