Vincent Mui of Test Kitchen Wants Chefs to Do What They Love
The latest Test Kitchen dinner features up-and-coming chef Carlos Garcia Rodriguez in a 3-day warehouse pop-up.
As Test Kitchen preps for its biggest pop-up yet with Spanish chef Carlos Garcia, we sit down with founder Vincent Mui to discuss the inspiration behind the concept, the manpower involved and how Test Kitchen has evolved in the past year into a springing platform for up-and-coming talent.
What was the inspiration behind Test Kitchen? I used to work in auditing but I always had this passion for F&B and hospitality. My wife (then girlfriend) encouraged me to follow my dream, and so I quit my job and started working at Dan Ryan's, first as a busser and then a server. This is how it all started for me, learning the tricks of the trade and most importantly, hospitality. I quickly realized that I genuinely enjoyed making people happy, and felt empowered in this job. After that, I went to the French Culinary Institute (now ICC) in New York to get an education, learning everything from knife skills to baking and cooking proteins. The experience was amazing and I got to work at restaurants like Bouley, and staging at my favorite restaurants like Bar Boulud and Gramercy Tavern.
How did you get introduced to the idea of pop-up dinners? While I was in school, I got connected with a company in New York that does pop-up dinners. They said they had an event coming up and they'd be happy to have me help out, but I had no idea what to expect. I showed up in Brooklyn in the middle of nowhere next to a church, and someone just grabbed me and said, "C'mon, we're setting up." It was crazy—all at once the place started transforming, the mise en place and food arrived and the front of house was set up, and then the guests started rolling in. It was such a blur but an adrenaline rush. On that night, I met Kwame Onwuachi (now a contestant on Top Chef) who used to work at Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. Long story short, he got me to go on a pop-up cooking tour with him, which was a competition featuring 10 chefs in a 10-week nationwide pop-up. It was an experience like none other, and I wanted to bring that back to Hong Kong.
What were the next steps in realizing your idea? My goal was to give chefs a platform to do what they love and share their stories with Hong Kong diners. A lot of really talented chefs working in kitchens don't always get to cook what they love, or share their own recipes—they're usually bound by the parameters of the restaurant. I wanted to test out this idea of a chef pop-up in Hong Kong, and I was lucky to get Kwame onboard for the first one. He flew here from New York, and we had an amazing time putting together the pop-up at Man Mo Café, which is a beautiful space.
What goes into putting together each dinner? For our first pop-up, we had very limited resources to start with, and we even prepped the food at home. Kwame wanted to utilize what the wet markets had to offer, so we just strolled around the market and we created the menu together on the spot. In fact the whole process is pretty chaotic—you have to prep outside and lug all the food to the venue, serving dinner in a new location everytime, prepping all the dishes, setting up the venue and hosting the dinner. It's no easy job, but so much fun and rewarding.
“Most of the time it's chefs that maybe haven't made a huge name for themselves yet, but are extremely talented, passionate and humble.”
How do you choose chefs to feature? It's been a lot of word of mouth, chefs whom I got to work with introducing me to other chefs who are interested. For international chefs, I always fly out to meet them before bringing them to Hong Kong, because I want to get to know them and try to fully understand their passion and philosophy behind their food. After the prototype menu takes shape, I'll find a new location, gather a team together, source ingredients and host the chef and his team during the week they are here. Most of the time it's chefs that maybe haven't made a huge name for themselves yet, but are extremely talented, passionate and humble. It's a process where we're constantly learning from each other.
What's special about the upcoming pop-up in March? This will be our fifth one and the biggest yet. The chef is Carlos Garcia, a Spanish chef who worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Madrid and London (such as Restaurante de Vinis, Roussilon and Gauthier) before moving to Manila in 2013 to open The Black Pig. He’s really into charcuterie, a very rustic guy that does amazing homemade bread and also desserts. I visited him first back in December, and he's so humble and super easy to work with. He works with modern techniques, but with a lot of passion and heart in his cooking.
Where is Test Kitchen headed next? We've gotten amazing feedback so far, selling out at almost every pop-up and I’m seeing familiar faces everytime as well as new ones. It's great for chefs who want to test out the water and see how their food is received in Hong Kong, and for local chefs who want a platform to show their skills. My goal is to get the word out more, and have more chefs and diners know what we do. I'm planning to go to Sydney next to scout for chefs, and also getting to know more of the chefs in Hong Kong. We might also get our own space soon if we have enough resources and interest to support it.