Cover Sistelo calls this "the ceviche of your dreams" (Photo: Courtesy of Mesa)

The showroom project turns a design atelier by day into a private kitchen by night

The smell of something smoky fills the air, raising eyebrows and making stomachs grumble in anticipation. Within minutes, fresh sourdough appears, hot out of the oven, followed by a jar of smoked brown butter. Once the lid pops open, the smoke slowly dissipates, adding soothing comfort to the already homey surroundings.

The minimalist space—complete with a dimly lit sitting corner and a tablescape with flowers and greenery carefully dispersed throughout—is the epitome of a welcoming home, fulfilling the exact vision Tiffany Kwan and Fred Sistelo had when creating Mesa.

Mesa was born out of a love for details, refinement, mutual trust and of course, a love for food. With Kwan’s past experience designing both residential and commercial spaces in New York and Sistelo’s numerous years as a chef (he was most recently at Rosewood’s Holt’s Cafe), the duo had every tool under their belt to create an innovative showroom concept that showcases Kwan’s design skills and Sistelo's cooking skills through a private dining experience.

The concept comes as a breath of fresh air in the current Hong Kong landscape. As the pandemic continues to take its toll on the city, the people of Hong Kong have turned to an emerging underground culinary scene. Dining at a private kitchen is comparable to having your friends over and having a talented chef cook for you. It’s intimate, it’s exclusive and, more importantly, it’s something new and different in a time when a change of scenery is most welcome.

Through his shared-plate approach, Sistelo aims to push himself creatively while offering international food with a heavy influence from Portugal, his home country. Depending on what’s in season or available at the market, you might find anything from grilled octopus with creamy potato espuma and smoked paprika, to steak tartare with cured duck yolk, duck rice with chorizo or sea bass with sun-dried tomato micas (a Portuguese/Spanish dish made with bread). And the dinner wouldn’t be complete without the rabanada dessert, a Portuguese toast with flavours of cinnamon served with spiced berries and vanilla ice cream—which will be accompanied by Sistelo’s voice echoing out of the kitchen insisting that “It is not French toast”.

We speak to the star duo about their serendipitous business partnership and their inspiration behind the design-meets-gastronomy showroom concept:

How did this collaboration come about?

TK: Fred and I first met last summer through some mutual friends and we clicked over our shared guilty pleasures of beef noodle soup and disco music. When I officially moved back to Hong Kong in December of last year I reached out to Fred to catch up. It was one of those moments where everything just lined up.

I don’t think either of us expected to start a business but it just worked out. You know, for both of us, we were excited but a little scared since it’s not easy to leave your professional network and subsequent steady paycheck to start something new.

What inspired you to create this private kitchen in a showroom-style?

TK: When I was living in New York and working as an interior designer, I had the opportunity to visit a few showrooms that were actually the residence of the principal designer. I loved the experience of walking around in a lived-in home at your own pace, which is very different from your typical showroom visit, there wasn't any pressure to buy or engage with the products in a certain way. This inspired me to create a similar experience and that concept paired beautifully with the dishes that Fred wanted to make. His shared-plate style adds to this idea of a warm gathering at a friend’s home.

You started this project during a pandemic, what are some of the challenges and opportunities that you have experienced?

TK: As we were building out this project, a lot of shipment times and deliveries just weren’t working out. So we had to adapt to that and change our own process. Fred and I both found ourselves stealing every minute we could to visit local shops. And it was so cool to see how that change really added to Mesa. For instance, we love the ceramics we got from Flow Plus Living and under “normal” circumstances we wouldn’t have seen them.

What are some things that you learned in your previous places of work that you hope to carry on or do even better?

TK & FS: This is sort of a hard question to answer because we’re always thinking of ways to do things better, but one thing we both agreed upon was to have sensible work hours and not over extend or get burnt out. Despite coming from different fields and industries, we both felt like the work culture and lack of balance in the design and food world weren’t sustainable. We’ve been very conscious and proud of not bringing that with us to Mesa.

Your menu is ever changing, so how do you choose what to present to your guests?

FS: One of my early goals in this project was to push myself and be as creative as I could. I approach a new menu knowing that I have to satisfy my own ambition for creativity and progress but also consider what products are available and in season, what do my customers want, and of course any food restrictions or allergies. I’ve had to step out of my comfort zone, but I think it’s made the food better and improved my cooking.

What are some of your signature items?

Fred: Our rissol (savoury pastry stuffed with clams, white wine, garlic, and cilantro) and mom’s duck rice (roast duck, Portuguese chorizo, and rice) have been some of our favourites and I’m really proud to say that because they’re the more Portuguese and nostalgic dishes for me. It’s been really nice hearing that feedback because I’ve always wanted to show how amazing and rich Portugal’s cuisine is. I think it’s important to keep one or two dishes on every menu, like our favourites, because it helps keep Mesa anchored and memorable.

You can book your next dinner party at Mesa by enquiring through their Instagram