If music be the food of love, play on

YP cadet Alex Wong

A new Central restaurant, Cantopop, is updating the old cha chaan teng experience using creative ethical ways

YP cadet Alex Wong |

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Todd Darling and Margaret Xu want their food to benefit the community
With eye-catching pop art on the walls, edgy metallic bar stools, an open kitchen, butchers' lamps hanging low from the ceiling and booth seats lining each side, Cantopop, a new cha chaan teng, does not blend in with the usual restaurants found on metropolitan Central streets. On the contrary, it proudly stands out.

Cantopop plans to redefine the culture of cha chaan teng so that it appeals to younger people and remains a permanent part of Hong Kong life.

The restaurant, which uses sustainable, organic and additive-free ingredients, puts the emphasis on healthy food. "There are what we call 'diners' in the United States, serving homemade dishes in a cosy environment," Todd Darling, the American chief executive of Cantopop, says. "I wanted to bring this culture to Hong Kong. Then I discovered the fascinating culture of cha chaan teng."

The menu integrates classic local comfort food with fresher, more natural ingredients and recipes to help revitalise the fading cha chaan teng culture.

Executive chef Margaret Xu Yuan says: "Cantopop offers an alternative for cha chaan teng lovers, who can't afford to put their health at risk. We want to be a part of the revolution of Hong Kong people's lifestyle and eating habits and change their perceptions of food."

The restaurant's name, Cantopop, comes from the name given to Cantonese pop music. In the past, most song melodies were influenced by Japan and the West and reinterpreted with Cantonese lyrics. Cantopop's owners hope to achieve a sense of "fusion" cuisine - combining Hong Kong dishes and Western health standards.

Darling says each of its dishes use "ingredients with integrity". All the meat is free of hormones and antibiotics; the barbecue pork is homemade, while the vegetables are from local organic farms. It also uses only "music eggs" - eggs laid by chickens listening to music at the Pop Poultry Farm, in the New Territories.

"We want the business to benefit not only ourselves, but also our employees and local farmers," Darling says. "We hope competitors will emulate our practice so the whole of the local food industry can contribute to the Hong Kong community. We hope to push the ball forward."

Darling defends the higher-than-usual prices at his restaurant. "Some other cha chaan teng trick you into believing the cost of eating their food is [only] what it says on the bill," he says.

"They haven't included future bills from the doctor, pressure on healthcare, or the pollution brought to the environment. For the past 50 years in Hong Kong, people have been spending less and less on food, but getting more and more of it. We are not paying what we should [for food]."

He says it is crucial to cater to younger customers. "What young people think is extremely important. They are the fresh minds who care about their community, environment and [are] especially conscious of the health risks from food. Now with obesity and other health problems, they deserve cleaner and healthier alternatives."

He and Xu predict a bright future for their business. They plan to expand Cantopop in Hong Kong - and even abroad. "We can really promote Hong Kong cuisine: Cantopop London, Cantopop New York ... why not?" Darling says.