Belon 2.0: Head Chef Matthew Kirkley On Keeping The Restaurant 'Fancy, Not Formal'
In its half-decade at the top of Soho, Belon became a sum that was greater than its parts, transcending the original intention of opening a neighbourhood neo-Parisian bistro to win acclaim near and far under the tenure of chef Daniel Calvert: it is one of Tatler Dining's top 20 restaurants of 2020, has held one Michelin star in 2019 and 2020, and is ranked number four on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list.
His departure from the helm of the restaurant signalled a sea change in more ways than one, with parent group Black Sheep Restaurants deciding to close the street-level restaurant on upper Elgin Street in favour of a space above Ho Lee Fook and Fukuro on lower Elgin. Upon first glance, the only thing that seems to have escaped change is Belon's name—the entrance, a stairway sandwiched between its sister restaurants on the ground level, is the diametric opposite of the original, camera-friendly wood-panelled facade; ascending into the restaurant proper, Joyce Wang's hushed, modernist interior design marks another break from the bright and classical look of old Belon.
We are lucky that guests want to join us, and we never forget that.— Lauren Kirkley
However, in new head chef Matthew Kirkley—a Baltimore native who has worked at a litany of the world's most renowned French restaurants, including London's Le Gavroche, Le Meurice in Paris, and three-Michelin-starred Coi in San Francisco—we find a culinary mind who is, rather than a revolutionary, much more a steward of Belon's distinct gastronomic style. Coincidentally, his wife, general manager and Belon veteran Lauren Kirkley helms the front of house, with the Kirkleys presenting a unified philosophy towards the guest experience: "We are lucky that guests want to join us, and we never forget that," says Lauren.
With little more than a week to the reopening of Belon on March 25, Matthew Kirkley shares his thoughts on continuation and reinvention, reclaiming fine dining for diners, and why the legacy of Belon is still unwritten.
On Poultry and Seafood
"I've always kind of been a Francophile by nature, but I have a particular penchant for seafood. That's kind of where my heart lies: Chesapeake Bay and blue crabs. I wouldn't say it's done with any great degree of sophistication, but really, really awesome food kind of rarely is anyways, right? It's the simplest stuff—it's just the best. My deathbed meal is just a big bushel of blue crabs with Old Bay seasoning on them on a picnic bench. I find seafood to be endlessly interesting, cooking-wise.
"That being said, it's fun to be back into a decidedly French restaurant, particularly with birds. Actually, that's kind of my second love—pigeons and chickens and ducks, and the kind of classical repertoire and the technique involved with that. When you're here in Hong Kong, the birds are just such an amazing quality here; the chickens are night and day better than what I'm used to in the States."
On challenges and change
"I feel like we kind of got a windfall here in Hong Kong compared to the United States. While it's certainly been challenging here over the last years, you can only be thankful that restaurants for the most part have stayed open. I know guys that have been out on their ass for the last year or so. I feel even more fortunate to be building things and relaunching fine dining restaurants in the midst of this. Everybody's kind of holding back and kind of waiting for the storm to clear and we're still pushing forward. So I can't be anything but grateful for that.
"We're trying to walk the tightrope between evolving and changing. A lot is new, the space itself, the chef ... but we're also still trying to retain the identity of Belon in some way. We were fans of [Daniel Calvert’s] cooking, and we’ve been personal friends with him for many years. It's still the same restaurant, just the locations have changed. That restaurant started out with very straightforward ambitions on doing a nice bistro in Hong Kong, and over the course of nearly five years up there on Upper Elgin Street, it kind of grew into something bigger."
On what was missing
"We're not trying to wipe the slate clean completely because then we would just call it a new name. We're still keeping some of the favourites on the menu—we hope that there are still touches of the old thing, because we thought the old place was pretty special too. The restaurant just kind of outgrew it. That was really what the restaurant needed the most, was just a space upgrade.
"I think that we still want to be a decidedly French restaurant. While we are in eastern Asia, we still want to hold true to French cuisine. We'll certainly source the best ingredients from anywhere around the world—and that tends to be what's closest to you—but we want to have a decidedly French palate and keep to that wheelhouse. That being said, we're not regurgitating classics; we hope to still be contemporary, creative, and unapologetically French."
On just eating dinner
"Stuffy formality is the last thing that we want to be. Aaron Silverman from Pineapple and Pearls in Washington, DC says it well: we want to be want to be fancy, not formal, right? That being said, we're not trying to 'casualise' what we're doing either. As a guy that's run very expensive tasting menu restaurants for the last seven, eight years, I find it less and less fun to go to fine dining restaurants where you get imprisoned behind a table for three and a half hours. That’s been a mistake of the industry in that we're leaving the guests behind, just because the restaurant is so in charge. We'll certainly offer a tasting menu if somebody would like it, but it's not on the menu. It's just the list of dishes, and I hope people pick what sounds most delicious, and we’ll come through on it.
"All these words that get thrown around now feel increasingly convoluted, like 'storytelling' or 'experience'. I still just want to eat dinner, right? It got to the point where if you're going to a two- or three-Michelin-starred restaurant, that's the only thing you're doing that evening. I hope you can go to Belon and go to a movie afterwards. I'm just interested in returning [it] to dinner, putting it back in the guests' hands. [Tasting menus have] rippled down to really hurting wine programmes in the last 20 years—who's going to buy a bottle of wine when you have 16 courses in front of you, and all of them have different ingredients? The wine guys and the industry have kind of gotten short-changed as a consequence of these tasting menus. I don't want this to be an ego-driven experience, or whatever they're using now to sell it."
On service and sustainability
"We try to make ethical decisions wherever possible. That being said, I think that there's something inherently insincere about calling yourself sustainable in a city state like Hong Kong, that grows nothing but imports everything, right? By definition, you're contributing to a pretty heavy carbon footprint just by existing here. The actual side benefit is that we tend to buy from small producers and small purveyors, because they tend to be more local and sustainable, but it's also the most delicious. That's the primary driver, that I'm after the best that I possibly can. Just by definition, our identity doesn't really tune us into that particular angle [of sustainability].
"It takes time for a restaurant to gel. There's only so much practising you can do, because it's all theoretical, right? Yes, we've plotted and planned how this will go, what the dishes are, what the steps of service are, but the guests are really going to tell us the restaurant that we're going to be. It takes a long time for a team to really, truly congeal and realise its potential. We're gaining efficiencies in the kitchen every day, just by practice. Of course, service gets more polished by the day. We're always trying to make incremental improvements to be a better restaurant.
"[Belon has] already come a long way in five years. I'm genuinely excited about what we have, about the physical space and the team, and about the legacy and the story of the restaurant that we're inheriting already. We've really got the wind in our sails—I’m looking forward to seeing where we're getting pushed to next."