A creative afternoon in Kwun Tong with restaurateur Esther Sham
- Stepping out from her popular Ta Pantry private kitchen and Maison ES, the Hong Kong-born and bred chef goes exploring in Kowloon East
If you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Ta Pantry, a private kitchen on Star Street, then you may be familiar with the creative force that is Esther ‘Tata’ Sham.
Born in Hong Kong, the model-turned-chef worked at Michelin-starred restaurants – including Amber and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon – before opening Ta Pantry Dining and Catering in 2008, followed by French restaurant Maison ES in 2015.
When Sham heard about the ongoing transformation of Kowloon East into Hong Kong’s next “Smart City”, the enterprising chef was keen to get out and explore the neighborhood.
On a creative adventure through Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay, Sham visits new restaurants, checks out a hidden art gallery, relaxes at hip cafes, and enjoys the recently redeveloped waterfront promenade.
“If I had to choose three words to describe Kwun Tong? ‘New generation, new development, and ideas,” says Sham. “There are so many hidden gems and eateries to explore.”
Lunch at Le Pan
A contemporary French restaurant tucked away in Kowloon Bay, Le Pan opened in 2017 and has quickly become a go-to for intimate, fine-dining experiences.
Originally from Singapore, talented chef Edward Voon worked at Mandarin Oriental Singapore and as a private corporate chef before opening Le Pan. At this posh establishment, Voon changes up the menu every three to four weeks.
“Since we have a lot of regulars, we want our guests to enjoy different sensations every time they come,” says Voon. “For me, I find inspiration from all over... creativity comes when we are free, when we have this free spirit that can transform into the kitchen by looking at something, reading something, tasting something...”
But one dish that rarely changes is the signature Botan shrimp tartare. The precisely plated dish has a base of prawn tartare, marinated with yuzu, almond, some pickled celery and a little bit of oyster water, so “you get the sea taste”. The second layer features uni from Hokkaido while the third is a shrimp jelly, topped with caviar.
“The dish is created for the people in Hong Kong,” says Voon. “That first taste is very important... I want diners to feel like ‘wow’.”
Sham and Voon share a similar philosophy. Despite the infamously demanding schedules of the restaurant industry, both chefs try to make time for great food, fine ingredients, quality wine and time with friends.
That’s why Kwun Tong area felt like the perfect fit for Voon when he was searching for a place to open Le Pan.
“The people, the small shops around here, the language, the energy – even the food is very diverse. It’s just full of passion in this area,” says Voon. “At the end of the day, it’s all about good food, good people, and good energy.”
A visit to Osage Gallery
Tucked away inside a commercial building in Kwun Tong, Osage Gallery stretches across 20,000-square-feet of warehouse space, including two outdoor decks.
Dedicated to contemporary Asian art, the gallery features a rotating roster of avant-garde works by Japanese, Chinese, and local artists.
Exploring the gallery, Sham discovers a series of wooden and steel artwork, visceral photography, and raw video by Beijing artist Zhao Zhao.
“He assisted Ai Weiwei for a number of years and grew to become a very important artist of the post-80s [activist movement] in China,” explains Agnes Lin, the gallery’s founder and director.
Curated by art historian and author Charles Merewether, the solo exhibition covers five of the artist’s earlier works, such as “Building Blocks”, a set of 65 poetic-looking woodblocks that explore the act of repetition as a reflection of daily life, often overlooked by society.
Looking ahead, Lin says the next exhibition (Dec 1-Apr 30) will be an augmented reality show from visionary Japanese artist Masaki Fujihata.
While Osage Gallery has long been an anchor of creativity in Kwun Tong, having moved to the district in 2013, Lin says she has noticed other galleries, creative spaces, and design-savvy concept stores popping up around the area.
“In Kwun Tong, you need to discover them,” says Lin. “I found a little place on Hung To Road, it’s an antique lifestyle store called Parc Antique & Lifestyle. They serve wonderful Viennese coffee and she [the owner] has antiques that she brings back from Europe.”
“Of course, the East Corridor will bring everything together, because it’s a large space and a lovely promenade.”
In addition, she says the restaurant scene is constantly evolving. Just recently, she discovered a restaurant called 21 from 8, which is helmed by a French chef. Then there’s HAQ, an indoor shrimp farm where you can catch and grill your dinner.
“I think it’s that kind of thing – that you’ve never heard of before – that really brings vibrancy to this area,” says Lin. “The district is still in the embryonic stage and it’s really amazing to watch Kwun Tong’s transformation.”
Exploring with Esther
At Uni-Coffee Versity, a coffee shop across from Kwun Tong’s waterfront promenade, Sham unpacks the day.
“Before I explored today, I didn’t know there were these new restaurants and established galleries in Kwun Tong,” says Sham. “I feel like I’ve missed out!”
Sham says she always thought Kwun Tong was just an industrial area, without any lifestyle draws.
“I realise now that it’s not just a place for business. It’s a breeding ground for creative business, too.”
Sham points to the young, hip coffee shops, the art galleries, the warehouse restaurants and the many startups by young entrepreneurs.
“Since I'm an entrepreneur myself, I really admire and respect what people are doing here in Kwun Tong. I would love to come back and talk with more people and exchange ideas. I can see there’s so much creativity in this area.”
“To me, to be creative means, actually, you have to be a little bit childlike. There are so many taught knowledges that actually confine our mind and limit our creativity.”
She says Kwun Tong seems to strike a balance between work and play, old industries and new ideas. It also seems to be a place where people have discovered what a ‘good lifestyle’ really means.
“Everyone has 24 hours in the day and it’s about how we balance and use our time wisely,” she says. “Knowing what makes you happy is my definition of ‘good living’. We’re all different, so it’s all about self realisation and conscious living.”