How Hong Kong's frustrated home cooks are renting fully fitted kitchens

Frustrated with a lack of space at home, Hongkongers are turning to renting kitchens, even if cooking isn't always the top priority

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 May, 2015, 10:52am

Some feminists used to say, "You start off by sinking into his arms, you finish with your arms in his sink." These days, Hong Kong's frustrated cooks and lovers are apparently content enough just to find a sink.

Young couples seeking kitchens larger than the city's typical minuscule spaces are turning to companies that hire out large fully fitted kitchens with comfortable dining areas attached. Many are finding that the spaces also provide private time away from the families with whom they are often forced to share accommodation. The result isn't just more cooking - some women are finding that a night at such a venue can result in a proposal of marriage.

The main appeal, however, remains with home cooks whose culinary ambitions are thwarted by the lack of space.

Calanthia Wong started the private kitchen space Rent-A-Kitchen in November and says her most frequent customers have been 20- to 30-year-olds. She offers a fully fitted kitchen with a dining room, and while the weekends are taken by friends or families, on weekdays it's dating young couples who use the space.

"There are lots of couples - a guy books the venue and prepares a meal for his girlfriend," says Wong. The venue has seen at least three marriage proposals to date.

Customers are not only renting a kitchen but buying themselves privacy and space, precious commodities in a crowded city with a strong family culture.

"It provides a little space and privacy for couples to enjoy their own time without using mum's kitchen," says Wong.

In fact, the space seems more important than the cooking with some couples, judging by their menus. Wong says most guests don't cook anything complicated. The amateur cooks have access to a wide range of pans, a wok and steamer and an oven big enough to fit a turkey, as one customer did last Christmas. There's also a three-pan hob and extra induction plate, yet quite a few cook mussels in white wine. "It's a simple and delicious dish," says Wong.

Nolan Ledarney, founder of Umami Concepts - a kitchen space on Bonham Road - says that although his two-year-old facility can accommodate 20 seated or 35 standing, it's also often used by couples and that "gentlemen will sometimes cook to impress their girlfriends." Some of that cooking must have been very impressive. "Five people have proposed in our space," says Ledarney.

It's not only the lovestruck who use the Mid-Levels venue. Bosses sometimes use the space to show appreciation for their staff by cooking meals for them and other companies use them for team-building exercises. There are two big ovens and two separate gas cooking stations, making competitive cooking an option.

The kitchen also offers plenty of countertop space in a variety of different materials. (Umami Concepts can also hire you a chef so you can collaborate on creating an event together.)

It's definitely lack of space rather than lack of romance that frustrates enthusiastic home cook Emily Au-Yeung. Even in a space only big enough to fit one person at a time, the hobby cook can still turn out dishes from Chinese, Western and Korean cuisines. Au-Yeung has also picked up some dishes from her Thai aunt and can turn her hand to a tom yung goong, a green curry or pork spare ribs.

Cooking at the weekend, leaving the weekday kitchen chores to her mother, Au-Yeung might also turn her hand to a Shanghainese dish such as drunken chicken, sacrificing precious room in the refrigerator to marinate the poultry in wine overnight.

It provides a little space and privacy for couples to enjoy their own time
Calanthia Wong, Rent-a-Kitchen founder

Her repertoire of dishes may be big, but she's hampered by having nowhere to put the sort of equipment that could take her cooking to the next level. There's no space for a pasta machine and no space for a stand mixer. There is frustration in her voice as she explains that she took a baking course so she could make better cakes. She'd now like to make bigger cakes to help her friends celebrate special occasions. It's possible to make those cakes without a stand mixer to beat eggs and cream together with butter and sugar but it's also a chore rather than a pleasure.

If Au-Yeung wants to knead bread or cook anything remotely more ambitious, she has to move to the dining room table with all her ingredients to work. A big fan of fresh pasta, especially ravioli, the lack of space means making that is also a hassle.

For many it's the lack of a large oven in many flats that proves most frustrating. Adrianna Archer Ross last lived in New York, with a galley kitchen so small that she couldn't open the dishwasher and the oven at the same time. Yet, she finds her Hong Kong kitchen even smaller.

While Archer Ross appreciates she is lucky to have an oven at all, she points out that she was born in Texas and grew up in Louisiana.

"When I visit family in the South, there is so much space you don't know what to do with it," says the trained chef, who now sells catering services.

She enjoys cooking recipes from the Southern US, especially Louisiana and from her husband's native South Africa. Typical dishes that she would use an oven for might be roast chicken, pork tenderloin, roast vegetables and broiled fish.

"You can't cook two trays of food in the oven at the same time - like roasting a chicken with the veggies underneath. You have to decide what's going in the oven and prioritise," she says.

"It's impossible to make a traditional holiday meal like for Thanksgiving."