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City Weekend

Meet the Italian chef who is cheering up Hong Kong’s needy children, one cherry pie at a time

So far, 3,000 have been fed, with cook seeking to expand initiative that started last Christmas involving volunteers who bake and donate cherry pies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 12:09pm

Ermanno Lelli left his native Italy aged 19 with just 40,000 lire (HK$175), two boxes of cigarettes and a plane ticket to London in his back pocket – and he has never looked back.

The 40-year-old chef has since lived all over the world, spending the last nine years in Asia, six of them in Hong Kong, running various cooking enterprises and marketing consultancies.

Born into a large Neapolitan family, where meals were always made from scratch, he is justifiably passionate about traditional Italian food. He believes being able to cook is not only an important life skill, but also a hugely adaptable talent which meant he has never been short of work.

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His hometown of Napoli also has a huge baking tradition: during the 17th and 18th centuries, nuns in the town’s monasteries would often bake for social events, partly for their own enjoyment but also to earn money and curry favour with influential people.

Last year, the exuberant Italian felt inspired to use his skills to support some of Hong Kong’s needy children. Baking for a Cause sees volunteers cooking up delicious cherry pies for children in the city’s orphanages and hospitals.

For a large part of their time in hospital, these children are alone
Ermanno Lelli, chef

Lelli, who lives in Happy Valley, started the charitable initiative last Christmas after his friend Gloria Wong was left bereft when her daughter was taken ill.

During a visit to see her in hospital, he took his signature cherry pie as a gift, but was overwhelmed by the number of other children to whom he felt compelled to offer it. He remembered one orphan in particular appeared desperate to integrate with families as they visited their children.

“It was really heartbreaking,” he said. “She was trying to take advantage of the other mothers. For a large part of their time in hospital, these children are alone.”

Lelli put out a rallying call on Facebook for anyone who could to help him bake more desserts. Within two days, his baking brigade had made enough pies and cakes to feed 800 children.

“It was very successful,” he said. “It was very welcomed by the community. Some people joined in just to learn how to make pies.”

The response prompted Lelli, whose private kitchen Easy n’ Tasty will soon move from Wan Chai to Lan Kwai Fong, to arrange another bake-off for the following Lunar New Year. “We baked for three days non-stop,” he said. “Some people stayed until 2am in the morning. It was very friendly – there was a lot of happiness.”

Baking for a Cause has so far collaborated with the likes of charity Angels for Orphans, English language organisation The Nesbitt Centre, food delivery service Deliveroo and Hong Kong-based food distribution company Bright View Trading to feed about 3,000 children.

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The initiative is slowly attracting sponsors and Lelli hopes to expand the enterprise over the coming months. He said he is particularly keen to offer support to Hong Kong’s often neglected young refugees, some of whom are cared for by social welfare charity Caritas.

“These kids are not responsible for the actions of the world,” he said. “You just have to support them. I was very touched [from] meeting them. They are small – some of them do not know why they are refugees and they should not know.”

Some of them do not know why they are refugees and they should not know
Lelli, on the children he helps feed

Baking for a Cause has also helped the Jockey Club Rehabilitation Complex, a charity which supports people with disabilities. He said the inhabitants of the centre in Aberdeen appeared completely overwhelmed by the donation of baked goods.

“When I arrived with the pies, I had to stop myself [from] crying,” he said. “They were so happy. It was like I was giving them something else entirely ... No one had ever done that for them before.”

The enterprise continues to rely on Facebook to coordinate its activities, and currently, Lelli only has the capacity to organise large-scale bake-offs about four times annually. He hopes to encourage local restaurants to show their support for his charity work, which he largely funds from his own pocket, together with any charitable contributions.

But why has he chosen cherry pie, a dessert which comes from North America, not Italy or Asia?

“It is easy to bake,” he said. “It’s also easy to transport and kids just love it.”

Eventually, Lelli, who trained as a pizza chef in Napoli and then as a pastry chef at the renowned Blades Hotel in London, would like to offer more formalised cooking classes to children as part of Baking for a Cause. He said he felt compelled to offer others the skills he learnt from his family.

“Cooking helped me as a kid,” he said. “My family as far back as I can remember were cooking — even my grandma was still cooking at 89. It helped me to travel around; I could find a job wherever I wanted. I cook for love, I like to put passion in it.”


Pie secret

Chef Ermanno Lelli shares his cherry pie recipe:

For the pastry:

500g of flour

250g of unsalted butter

4 egg yolks

120g of sugar

lemon zest of half a lemon

pinch of salt

1. Mix the flour with butter (room temperature) very well and fast until it develops a sandy texture.

2. Add salt and lemon zest

3. Add sugar and the eggs (slightly beaten), until very smooth and soft

4. Make it into a ball, cover with cling film, and set in the fridge for a few hours to rest

5. Take it out half an hour before use, in order to work it when soft.

For the cream:

1 litre of milk

12 egg yolks

280g of sugar

120g of flour

lemon skin

vanilla

1. Beat the eggs, sugar and flour until it gets foamy

2. In a pot, boil the milk with the lemon skin and vanilla

3. As soon as the milk is boiling, add it to the egg mixture and mix it vigorously

4. Put it all back in the pot and on very low heat, stir non-stop until it becomes sticky, but smooth

5. Add a thin layer of wild cherry jam to the pastry after working it into a round tin. Decorate with cherries before baking at 150 degrees Celsius for about 45 minutes, or until the pastry turns golden.