Taste of Hong Kong festival takes top chefs out of comfort zone, but they’re up for the challenge

It’s one thing to make gourmet food in a restaurant kitchen, but cooking for thousands on Central Harbourfront without gas-fired stoves and grills will test chefs’ ingenuity. They’re determined to succeed, and have some fun too

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 5:38pm

The hungry hordes descending on this month’s Taste of Hong Kong will be a challenge for leading chefs far from their comfort zone and their well-equipped kitchens.

Visitors to the event last year quickly chewed through many of the dishes on offer, and this year organisers are expecting even longer lines for the signature plates from more than 20 restaurants setting up on the Central Harbourfront.

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It’s a true tests for chefs and their teams – to get all the ingredients and equipment to an empty site and work without their familiar gas stoves, ovens and grills to prepare restaurant-quality dishes.

For Max Levy, chef-owner of Okra in Sai Ying Pun, probably the most daunting challenge will be the number of customers on March 18, the only day his restaurant will be participating.

“I’ve been told by other people who did it last year that it was so busy,” he says. “They told me 17,000 people were there over the weekend, but I’m sceptical it was that many. It’s all kind of a guessing game.”

His small restaurant in Sai Ying Pun is not used to serving hundreds, let alone thousands, of people each day, but Levy has had experience catering for music festivals in Beijing.

“We’ll have a huge walk-in cooler, which is a huge help, but not having gas is an issue,” Levy says. “We have to choose items from the menu that we can serve to a large number of people with the equipment we have.”

His Okra stand will be serving four dishes: carabinero prawn chawanmushi, crispy Brussels sprouts with XO sauce, hot hentai quail tatsuta, and from Okra Bar, sea urchin à la mode, which includes sea water foam and smoked uni powder.

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“When you’re organised and have done the prep, it can be a lot of fun,” he says. “We thought about doing sushi, but we’re limited with what we can do. If you have 200 people lining up for sushi it can be daunting.”

At one music festival in Beijing, he served some 10,000 dishes but it was deli food such as bagels and sausages. He’s trying to keep things uncomplicated.

“I’ve had experiences where things break down, so it’s best not to have to reheat food on special equipment,” he says.

Levy is a little anxious because he can’t start prepping for the event until the week before, but he says working at this event is more about having fun.

That’s also the attitude ShaneOsborn of Arcane takes with the food festival. He is a veteran, having participated in Taste of London from 2004-2007, and in Hong Kong last year.

For him, the best thing is having people from the industry together in one spot. His staff can meet stars including Richard Ekkebus of Amber, Matt Abergel of Yardbird and Ronin, and Tosca’s Pino Lavarra. Taste of Hong Kong’s unusual environment encourages chefs to interact with their customers for immediate feedback, Osborn says.

The rainy, cold weather at last year’s inaugural event was the most challenging aspect, he says – he even had to run into the IFC mall to buy a jacket.

At Arcane, Osborn usually does 70 covers a day, but at last year’s event they served nearly 1,000 dishes daily. “You have to write a menu that’s achievable and simple, and hopefully at a lower price point,” the chef says. “Our target is to produce really good food in the style of Arcane.” Osborn doesn’t want to keep customers waiting and has chosen two cold dishes (Japanese tomato salad and hamachi carpaccio) that can be served quickly o and two hot dishes – wagyu short ribs and sautéed gnocchi with black truffle.

“The most important thing is to keep it simple and achievable. You’re going to have 3,500 to 4,000 people coming in; they don’t mind queuing as long as the line is moving. They want to visit as many stalls as they can,” Osborn says.

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Last year, Pino Lavarra of two-Michelin-star Tosca at The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong served one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: spaghetti alla chitarra of basil-flavoured pasta wrapped in a thin slice of swordfish and served with baby squid. They aimed to serve 50 portions each day, but ran out almost immediately.

“The work behind putting the dish together was complicated. We could not achieve exactly what I wanted,” Lavarra says. “You have to give the guest a perception of the restaurant, and to make it perfect you have to spend a lot of time on it. The queue was enormous. People were telling me to get out and talk to customers, but I was at the back trying to get as much food out as possible.”

This year, Lavarra aims to make the dishes easier to serve, and eat. Last year’s poached tuna belly needed a knife and fork, but this year prime beef short rib with tomato, garlic and oregano sauce can be eaten with just a fork. Others will be a terrine-like salad dish of compressed octopus, linguine with squid ink and the restaurant’s signature tiramisu with limoncello.

“We’ll be bringing 20 to 30 portions extra of each, so hopefully we won’t run out so quickly,” Lavarra says. “For me, Taste of Hong Kong is fun. I’m already thinking about what to serve next year.”

Taste of Hong Kong, March 16-19, Central Harbourfront, HK$138 (Thurs, Fri), HK$168 (Sat, Sun); VIP passes HK$598 (Thurs, Fri), HK$648 (Sat, Sun). For more details, go to tasteofhongkong.com