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Jowett Yu, chef of Ho Lee Fook, in Central, worries for the future of Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong. He is leaving for Australia and wonders if he will still find freshly made dim sum if he returns in 20 years. Photo: Edmond So

Will there still be freshly made dim sum in Hong Kong? Departing chef urges young chefs to embrace Cantonese cuisine

  • Jowett Yu, executive chef of restaurant Ho Lee Fook, hopes young chefs will work in Chinese kitchens and preserve ‘vanishing’ Cantonese cuisine
  • Yu, who is moving with his family to Sydney, has a simple message for them: ‘This is a part of your past, part of your identity’

Jowett Yu, executive chef of Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook, will soon leave Hong Kong, but he hopes he has inspired some young people to get into cooking in his seven years in the city. And not just any cooking, but Cantonese cuisine.

He’s worried he won’t be able to eat freshly made dim sum if he comes back to Hong Kong in 20 years’ time, noting that the average age of dim sum chefs in the city is 55.

“I worry about this. It’s a vanishing cuisine,” says Yu, 39. “I hope there will be more young people of Hong Kong appreciating the unique and important cuisine of this region.

“I hope that when young cooks enter the profession, they don’t go to cook Western food, Japanese food, or French or Italian food because it’s easier or more prestigious. You should go work in a Chinese restaurant. This is a part of your past, part of your identity, and you can never be taken away from this. This is why I entered Chinese cooking.”

Mak Kwai-pui, founder of Tim Ho Wan dim sum chain, at his shop in Sham Shui Po. The average age of dim sum chefs in the city is 55. Photo: Dickson Lee

Restaurant groups like Tai Hing and Tao Heung now use robots to stir-fry noodles and fry rice. While Yu hasn’t tried them, he says this is the reality – there aren’t enough qualified cooks entering the profession and so robotic chefs have been invented as the solution.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, so I just hope people will be appreciative and more passionate about Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong,” he adds.

Chefs keeping traditional Cantonese cuisine alive – the hard way

Yu’s reason for leaving the city is personal rather than professional. It’s a move the chef, who has Taiwanese, Australian and Canadian roots, has thought about for the past two years, sparked by the 2019 anti-government protests.

“We live in Causeway Bay so every weekend we saw people demonstrating and I sympathise with them. There is a lot of frustration at their end because of the government,” he says.

“Just seeing the rapid change over the last two years is far faster than I can adjust to, and that’s a concerning factor. There are things I’m really passionate about, there are core values, and staying in Hong Kong no longer subscribes to the values that are really important to me.”

Yu’s plans to move to Sydney with his family were first sparked by the 2019 anti-government protests. Photo: Winson Wong

After deliberating where they could go (Canada, Australia, Taiwan or Italy), he and his partner felt Australia was the best option for them and their young son, Otto, who will turn three this year. They will move to Sydney, and since he doesn’t have a job to go to, they may start life there with a road trip.

Yu will finish his tenure at Ho Lee Fook in Elgin Street, Central, this month. His last day in a Hong Kong kitchen will be at Japanese restaurant Ronin in Sheung Wan, where he will serve as guest chef on June 30.

Ho Lee Fook is part of the Black Sheep Restaurants group, and when he shared his decision to leave with its co-founders, Syed Asim Hussain and Christopher Mark, in February, Yu says it came as a bit of a shock to them, following on the heels of Belon chef Daniel Calvert’s leaving for a new job in Tokyo.
I think at the end of the day chefs are very easy people when you feed them. Just as long as it’s delicious and the ingredients are the best you can get. I think chefs are just really straightforward people
Jowett Yu, executive chef of Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook

Although it was announced in early June that Ho Lee Fook will close for a complete renovation headed by designer Sean Dix, Yu says revamping the basement restaurant has been in the works for a while. It will be helmed by a yet-to-be-named chef and continue offering Chinese cuisine.

The past year and a half navigating through the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for Yu and his team, constantly having to adapt to the latest government announcements. Ho Lee Fook’s takeaway business managed to keep the restaurant afloat.

Despite the restaurant closing at 6pm for several months last year and up until recently till 10pm, it turned out to be a huge benefit for Yu and his family.

Yu, his son Otto and partner. Photo: Instagram/@thejowski
Ho Lee Fook’s roast wagyu short ribs, jalapeńo purée, green shallot kimchi and soy glaze. Photo: Ho Lee Fook

“I probably got the most sleep since I arrived in Hong Kong because you’re closing at 9, 10 o’clock. I was able to cook dinner [at home] some nights, be in bed by 8 or 9 o’clock, so that’s something positive,” he says.

“It’s the most time I spent with my family, otherwise I would have been travelling every month somewhere, doing something. The takeaway was seeing my son grow in the last year and a half.”

Over the years, Yu has cooked for many famous chefs and celebrities at Ho Lee Fook, and one of the more memorable experiences was cooking for his idol Ferran Adria, the Spanish master of molecular cuisine at the now closed El Bulli.

Yu at Ho Lee Fook in Central. Photo: Edmond So
A rendering of Ho Lee Fook’s upcoming interior redesign by Sean Dix. Photo: Ho Lee Fook

“I think at the end of the day chefs are very easy people when you feed them. Just as long as it’s delicious and the ingredients are the best you can get. I think chefs are just really straightforward people,” he says.

“I’m just happy with a siu mei fan [roast meat with rice] on my day off; this fills my soul like the way that even the most celebrated chefs on their day off have pizza or fried chicken, just as long as it’s something nourishing their body and their mind.”

Before he leaves, Yu intends to visit his favourite restaurant, The Chairman, a few more times. It won the top spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants this year, and a Michelin star.

The Chairman’s smoked camphor goose. Photo: The Chairman

“The restaurant is at the point where they [ask], how do I take more away from the plate than add more things to it. If I’m going to only put two or three things on this plate, it better be damn excellent, like the smoked goose. That’s the takeaway.”