City Weekend

This Hong Kong restaurant asks you to bring the food and they cook it up for a good cause

What started as a one-off event to raise awareness about how to reduce food waste in the city has become a regular happening

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 1:10pm

A unique project has been helping solve the city’s food waste one meal at a time.

According to the charity Feeding Hong Kong, 3,400 tonnes of food are thrown out every day in the city. But what if instead of throwing leftovers into the bin, you could trade them in for a delicious meal?

That is the idea behind XCHANGE: Social Gastronomy, a project that is attempting to raise awareness about “green living” and preventing food surplus from becoming waste through a series of initiatives.

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One of those initiatives is Table for U, a tiny eatery at a community space and open kitchen in Fortress Hill. On a recent afternoon, six guests arrived carrying all sorts of food: two bags of instant noodles, three bags of rice, chicken meat and a bag of vegetables.

All that food, which may have been bound for the rubbish, was added the pantry, and a fresh meal was ready – made from previous donations. Diners feasted on scrambled egg with Chinese chives, sautéed pea sprouts with garlic and kimchi soup with assorted vegetables and meat, along with pastries and fruits.

“Respect starts from food,” said the kitchen host and chef, Pia Ho Sau-ping, who is better known as Lili Ho. “If you understand how to respect your food, you know how to treat everything well.”

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Table for U operates on a barter economy in which customers only need to bring at least the equivalent of a bowl of rice in a bag, but other canned and packaged food, or fresh produce, is also welcome. In exchange, Ho prepares dishes based on what was collected from the customers, or given by the nearby restaurants, bakeries and shops in wet markets. The restaurant, which runs without menus or a cash register, welcomes guests every Wednesday to Sunday at 1pm. Diners can enjoy a meal made from the collected seasonal surplus produce, with the chef sitting beside you guiding you through every dish.

The eatery is located in the Oi! Street Art Space, which is situated in a building constructed in 1908 and has been transformed into a creative platform for community arts. The art space falls under the city’s leisure and culture department.

Not only does Table for U bring together ingredients to make meals, but it also brings together people – often times strangers – to make friendships. This aspect turned the meal from a one-off event about five years ago to address food waste to an ongoing social experiment in 2015.

Alvin Yip, the curator of XCHANGE: Social Gastronomy, said he believed that tackling food surplus did not have to be a form of social service; instead he turned the project into a dynamic open space for “community building” through food.

“It is a social gastronomy in a community living room,” Yip said. “It is also a more exiting community centre and a more articulative setting where people in the neighbourhood can hang out.”

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Ivy Lin, curator of Oi! Street Art Space, said the concept of “give and take” through exchange has turned visitors into artists by “engaging them to participate and contribute”.

Ho, a theatre actress and former radio host, said she became the chef at Table for U when she decided to look for an “interesting job” last year. Her love for food motivated her to take up the new challenge.

“I cook everyday based on what I have in the kitchen and the improvisation is similar to the challenges I had when I was hosting a radio show or on stage performing,” she said. “Just like what I learned from the theatre, I would try to explore every possibility, break the rules and think out of the box when I cook.”

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Ho said she seldom looked up recipes online, but rather she tried to cook dishes based on tastes she remembered.

“Food is not just to fill up our stomach, but also a form of communication.”

To take part in the experiment guests can reserve a seat in advance. People are also invited to stop by the space with their own lunch and join the table.

Along with the lunch, Ho also serves visitors with a bowl of “beauty soup” every Saturday.