Fish School to take Hong Kong-caught fish and cook them the French way

Yenn Wong of 208 Duecento Otto, 22 Ships and Aberdeen Street Social teams up with David Lai, French-trained chef-proprietor of On Lot 10 and Bistronomique, for Sai Ying Pun venture

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 4:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 4:41pm

Fish School,  Yenn Wong’s newest venture, is only the latest in a series of restaurant venues that could best be described as eclectic.

The new Sai Ying Pun  establishment is a collaboration with  David Lai that will promote a menu of mostly locally caught fish cooked using French and international techniques. Lai is a chef and restaurateur known equally for his love of diving into local wet markets to buy fish and his dedication to French technique, as Hong Kong diners who’ve eaten at his restaurants  On Lot 10,  Neighbourhood and  Bistronomique would know.

“I knew of David’s training under  Alain Ducasse and his restaurant work, and his multicultural techniques intrigued me.   I was waiting for the right creative collaboration to come along,” says Wong.

If the new partnership and restaurant share a characteristic with Wong’s past ventures, it is perhaps her willingness to be different.

Opia restaurant at Wong’s first hotel, a boutique operation in Causeway Bay then called Jia, featured the cooking of Australians Teage Ezard and  Dane Clouston. The complicated fusion of Australian and Asian ingredients and cooking methods and Ezard’s imagination won many fans and also an SCMP restaurant of the year prize in 2006.

When Wong opened an Italian restaurant in 2010, she broke conventional wisdom by placing it in the then run-down and unfashionable Sheung Wan. Cleverly marketed as being in the local equivalent of New York’s chic  Meatpacking District (dried fish packing might have been more apt),  208  Duecento Otto helped turn the “wrong end” of Hollywood Road into a far more glamorous destination. Hiring the vivacious and talented New Yorker  Vinny Lauria as chef didn’t hurt the restaurant’s prospects either.

Three years later Wong opened the Thai restaurant  Chachawan, virtually next door to 208. The easy option would have been serving the overly sweet classics favoured by many Thai restaurants in Hong KOng, but instead Wong hired Adam Cliff, a protégé of  David Thompson, probably the best known Thai food chef in the world, and allowed him to cook his take on the food of Isaan, by far the hottest of the Thai regions.

David’s menu will be pioneering in that he will serve fish that many are unfamiliar with, or will certainly have not eaten ... cooked in a Western manner before
Yenn Wong

At the same time, Wong has been building a small empire around the cooking of  Jason Atherton, who first made his name with Michelin-starred restaurants in London. Just as Hong Kong diners began exploring the more classic cooking of Spain, Wong brought the young chef over from London to give us his more modern take on tapas. The first venture,  22 Ships, was so successful, it soon spawned the overspill venue  Ham and Sherry down the road, which has a seriously well-stocked back bar, and not long afterwards  Aberdeen Street Social – a restaurant that has taken a while longer to settle in.

After 10 years of bringing other cuisines to Hong Kong, Wong feels like it is time to promote the local food culture, although that does not mean she has become a convert to  locavorism, sometimes defined as eating food grown or raised within 100 miles (160km) of where it is eaten.

Wong places a different stress on the word local, saying, “Local is what our local fishermen catch.” The aim of the concept is to support the livelihood of local fishermen and Hong Kong culture.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘convert’ as I also enjoy many international concepts and cuisines. I am lucky that I travel both for leisure and for business, which gives me the opportunity to taste local dishes from around the world: there’s always a feel-good aspect of doing that, knowing that you are having the freshest possible produce and supporting local businesses,” says Wong.

It was Lai’s ability to marry international concepts and local produce that drew Wong to a partnership with him.

“Initially the concept grew out of our shared appreciation for Hong Kong wet markets,  local culture, and David’s knowledge of local produce. He is like an encyclopedia of fish and his passion is inspiring. He has been documenting his trips to the market where he has an incredible network of the city’s hardworking suppliers,” says Wong.

Lai has built up a collection of over 10,000 images of fish that can be caught locally, and the restaurant’s customers can expect to see threadfin  (eleutheronema tetradactylum), oriental sole  (euryglossa orientalis), spotted knifejaw  (oplegnathus punctatus) and spotted tail morwong  (cheilodactylus zonatus) on the menu.

“David has been working with small-boat fishermen and the best of local fish farms for many years. Any foodie can’t help but get caught up in his enthusiasm,” says Wong.

Surely some customers will be wary of locally caught fish? Fish School will be using fish caught in waters four to six hours from Hong Kong, according to Wong, who says that most fish are migratory and “don’t recognise boundaries”. It is also the case that in the past 20 years Hong Kong has deindustrialised, closed most of its farms and introduced anti-pollution regulations and monitoring - making local waters far cleaner than they are perceived to be.

“Fish don’t spend their entire lives in any single place unless they live in an aquarium, so we source the best produce locally, and where unavailable we reach out to a larger network of regional suppliers to ensure quality.

“From Michelin-star chefs to local seafaring families, our ocean is a traditional resource for the Hong Kong table.  David’s knowledge of good suppliers  ensures the quality of the local fish we use,” says Wong.

The idea that Fish School would represent Hong Kong as it is now is also reflected in its location of Sai Ying Pun,  as well as the restaurant’s design.

“From the dried seafood and fish stalls that you still see on the streets, the lively wet market, to the escalator and new designer boutiques popping up, Sai Ying Pun is a neighbourhood that I feel fits with Fish School’s identity,” says Wong.

The restaurant design – by  Paola Sinisterra and  Ignacio Garcia – is based around a fish tank, and Hong Kong design features rarely come more traditional than that of exposed piping and polished concrete walls. The latter  is a play on the wet markets where Lai will be buying the fish on a daily basis.

“David’s menu will be pioneering in that he will serve fish that many are unfamiliar with, or will certainly have not eaten ... cooked in a Western manner before – he will be making all of the sauces in-house and surprising you with dried-seafood techniques of old in a very contemporary manner,” says Wong.