When he thinks back to the food of his childhood, Nathan Green immediately reminisces about his grandmother, Rhoda. “She truly embodied the meaning of the word hospitality,” says the chef, who has helmed the kitchen at Wan Chai restaurant 22 Ships for the past two years. Rhoda lived in South London—a lengthy trip from the Midlands, where Nathan resided with his mother and father, so his visits were limited.
But when they did get together, the feasts were spectacular. “Lunch would normally start around noon and go until midnight,” Nathan recalls. “It would be this procession of incredible dishes, which she would send out from her tiny little galley kitchen.” Rhoda’s signature dishes included poached salmon, beef bourguignon, pâte, prawn salad and spare ribs—simple food that packed a punch.
This month, Nathan pays the ultimate homage to Rhoda, who passed away last year aged 94, by opening a new eatery named for his grandmother and inspired by her sensational spreads. The restaurant, located in Sai Ying Pun, is a collaboration with Yenn Wong of Jia Group, with whom he worked during his tenure at 22 Ships.
Rhoda’s focus is family-style, rustic fare—the type of food on which Nathan was raised. “As a child, I was surrounded by food,” he recalls. “At an early age, I helped my mother in the kitchen, rolling out pastries. By age five, I had learned how to make the perfect omelette. One of my favourite father-son times was handling the barbecue with my father.”
At 18, Nathan finished cooking school and was ready to work. After stints with big-name chefs including Michael Caines, Tom Aikens and Tom Sellers, it was Jason Atherton who gave his career the biggest boost. “Jason called. He heard that I was leaving [Sellers’ restaurant] Story and said he would like to offer me a work opportunity in Hong Kong.” Nathan basically hopped on the next plane—and has yet to look back.
Rhoda is set to be a thing of beauty. The interiors have been designed by celebrated tastemaker Joyce Wang, whose brass and aged wood will line the 2,000-square-foot space, complete with bricks and tiling to bring a homely feel to the establishment.
Beyond the look and feel, unpretentious down-home flavours are the true focus at Rhoda. Nathan will offer a menu that changes daily and features market-fresh produce. “Rhoda is going to serve everything—different cuts of meats and offal and all,” he explains. “We don’t enjoy the term ‘nose-to-tail’ that much, because we are simply maximising the potential of the resources offered to us, such as what parts of the animal are available. It’s essentially about making the most out of the animal and minimising wastage.”
Nathan will buy his animals whole and carve them into cuts in the restaurant’s kitchen. Fish is sourced locally—with help from David Lai, who co-runs Fish School with Yenn—and grilled to perfection. Similarly, the roast chicken is deliciously moist and comes seasoned with thyme and herbs, as well as a mixed platter of grilled meats, charred on the outside and succulent within. Simple execution, Nathan insists,
is best for the ingredients and Rhoda’s guiding philosophy.
Having cooked professionally for half his life, Nathan is keen to expand the scope of his role. As such, he is now overseeing all aspects of the restaurant’s operations. The first step has been to find experts to guide the beverage offerings. “My brother Adam runs his own wine company in London and he’s moving to Hong Kong to help curate my wine list for me, with drinkable bottles as well as some rare finds on the exclusive list. Elliot Faber from Sunday’s Grocery is a master of sake, and he’s been kind enough to help us find a few good sakes and after-dinner drinks such as a fine Port, Banyuls and Sauternes to match with an extensive Japanese whisky collection.”
Yenn is a huge supporter of Nathan. “He is so passionate and explorative. We have been working together for a while, so it’s so easy for us to understand each other, and I think we have created a lot of sparks and interesting things for this new project.”
Nathan is a perfectionist, but also a pragmatist. Rhoda won’t offer food and drinks that appease every palate—but he says that the things it will do, it will do very, very well. “If there is anything 22 Ships has taught me over the past two years, it’s dealing with guests. Not only do we serve you, we observe how you react to eating the food. We read the smile, the raised eyebrow, the frown—from bite to swallow. At Rhoda, we want to give the guests what they want, of course, but we don’t want to be good at everything. For instance, we only serve drip coffee and a limited cocktail list because these are the basics, not our best strengths. We will not compromise our time perfecting items that we are not going to be experts at.”
The new establishment has the idea of family written all over it. “Working as a chef, your team is your family. I want to spend time with my family—my real one and my work one,” says Nathan, who gathers his staff every afternoon to eat together and talk. “It’s a time where we share and interact with each other. No judgments, no lectures—just talk, like a family does. We feel that the concept of family has been lost in dining, as eating used to be a fabulous time to interact with your loved ones, but now most of us are too busy having a relationship with our mobile devices.”
With this in mind, Nathan has designed dishes to be shared in an environment with large communal tables. “We want to encourage interaction and sharing, and bring back the joy of eating.” As he embarks on his new challenge as head of Rhoda’s household, we’re in no doubt that Nathan will spread his close-knit family concept to thousands of hungry Hong Kong diners before the year is out.
Rhoda, G/F, Upton, 345 Des Voeux Road West, Sai Ying Pun
This article was originally published in Hong Kong Tatler's May 2016 issue