Singer-actress Joyce Cheng revels in laid-back ambience and classic flavours at Cecconi's Italian

The revamped Cecconi's Italian offers dishes worth sharing in person and on social media

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 10:16pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 1:36pm

As our first course is served - two beautifully plated dishes of yellowtail ceviche, fennel, orange and coriander - Hong Kong singer-actress Joyce Cheng whips out her phone. "I'm going to be Asian and take photos of this," she says.

She proceeds to shoot a short video clip on Snapchat, telling her friends and followers what she's having for lunch. "I'm a big fan of good food," she says. "I wanted to order a lot more, but I wouldn't be able to finish everything."

She looks over at my plate and exclaims: "Why didn't you order other stuff? Then we could have shared and tried more."

Cracking jokes at every turn, Cheng is a natural comedian with a hearty laugh. We met for lunch at the newly madeover Cecconi's Italian, located in the heart of Hong Kong's wining and dining scene at 77 Wyndham Street. The new location is accompanied by a brand-new menu that blends traditional Italian favourites and modern dishes selected by award-winning Australian chef Michael Fox, who also heads Cecconi's Italian in Melbourne and a number of high-profile restaurants across Europe.

Gone are the dark wooden beams, cushy red chairs and quirky chandeliers. The second-floor restaurant now boasts natural sunlit interiors, a semi-open kitchen, simple furniture in neutral tones and white brick walls accented with two bold black lines. The space is inviting and laid-back, and according to Cheng, looks like a "work-buddy type of place".

Our second course is a pasta dish - warm and creamy asparagus tortellini with mushroom and aged parmesan. Cheng had shared her earlier appetiser with a few colleagues who accompanied her to the restaurant, but as we start to dig in, she says: "I think I might not share this one."

Next came the main course of free-range pork, crispy pork belly, eggplant agrodolce and sage. The tangy-sweet sautéed eggplant is delicious with the succulent pork chops, and the portions are large enough to split between friends. And that's precisely what we do, as Cheng brings her plate to her colleagues and everyone gathers around to have a bite.

Italian, with its fresh flavours and family-style dining, is Cheng's favourite cuisine. Shanghainese is another favourite, reminding her of family gatherings in Canada where her grandmother was in charge of the kitchen. Her mother was the sixth daughter out of nine children, and her grandmother's house, where she was born and raised, was always filled with people.

"People were always playing mahjong or singing karaoke in the basement," she says. "My grandmother is this tiny little lady. I don't know how, but she would magically make nine dishes and a soup for 10 to 15 people - and it's always Shanghainese."

Cheng hates pretentiousness in food and people. "You put me in a really fancy environment, and I'm still going to be loud and obnoxious." She is more likely to be found hanging out at Racks - "some of my friends just go in their sneakers, and no one cares"; Yardbird - "they haven't forgotten the most important thing about opening a restaurant, which is that your food and beverages have to be good"; or San Xi Lou - "I love spicy Sichuan hot pot with pig's blood."

Her latest find is Rang Mahal, a no-frills restaurant tucked away on a side street in Central that serves authentic Indian food.

"I think [right] now - whether it is food, music or movies - people are starting to go back to the roots. For a while, music was all about auto-tune, but I feel like people now want a more raw sound. With movies, there was the whole 3D craze, but now people appreciate indie films more. With food, I think people just want cleaner, less elaborate stuff," she says. "I think that's longevity - when things are clean, when it's classic and unpretentious, that's when it lasts a long time."

Cheng knows first-hand the importance of staying true to oneself. Born to celebrity parents Lydia Shum and Adam Cheng, she has been in the media spotlight since a very young age, tailed by the paparazzi and splashed across tabloids with every weight gain and loss or change of boyfriend. She began losing weight at 16, and recalls how she lost herself in the media frenzy. Desperate to hold on to the image that the Hong Kong audience expected from her, she forgot how to be happy and was even scared to go to the beach with her friends.

"I was sitting on the kitchen floor crying because I didn't want people to see me in a swimsuit," she says. "That's how intensely messed up my self-esteem was."

One day, rummaging through an old box of photos she brought back from Canada, she found a photo of herself at 15, wearing a muscle tee and ski pants, and hamming it up for the cameras. "As soon as I saw that photo, I started laughing uncontrollably. But immediately after came an immense amount of envy. I was looking at that photo and thinking: 'Where are you?' I was so envious of that joy and carefree attitude."

It was a long journey to self-acceptance, but these days the 28-year-old is comfortable living life her way, going so far as to proclaim in January this year that she was going to stop dieting, then released a single titled Are You Thin Enough? The song was a hit, drawing a huge number of comments in the online community praising her confidence and inner beauty.

Next, she is set to promote a movie about a group of misfits in SWAT team training, titled Special Female Force. It will be Cheng's first action film, and she proudly says she did her own stunts, including one where she had to fall into raging waters with only a rope tied to her waist.

Dessert arrives - a blood orange parfait with white chocolate, blood orange sorbet and a pistachio cake that's as light as a cloud. The restaurant manager explains that the sponge cake was cooked in just 20 seconds using the microwave. Three bites later, Cheng runs to her colleagues with her plate, urging them to eat up. "Sharing is caring," she laughs. "I love dessert, but it's not essential. For me, savoury food wins. No matter how pretty your side dishes and desserts are, I need my main course to be full."

Stephanie Ip