Cover Andy Cheng, Charmaine Mok and Wilson Fok in 2019 (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Hundreds of stories and countless meals later, Tatler Dining’s longest serving editor is leaving the table

If T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, then I must define mine in menus. Having reviewed restaurants and written about food for more than 15 years—nearly ten of them with Tatler Dining in Hong Kong—there are accordions of them on my shelves, haphazardly stuffed into cheap plastic file dividers. Like hastily snapped phone photos, they have been laying dormant; it seemed appropriate to bring them out this week as I draw this chapter as this publication’s Content Director of Dining to a close. Sifting through them is an almost meditative affair, the tactile nature of a physical printed menu at once mundane and significant. Pen marks some, but not all—the flourish of a visiting chef’s hurried signature, the care-free calligraphy of a daily-changing omakase, or tiny tasting notes to remind me of a fleeting aroma, texture or flavour. Some are cryptic, austere even, while others kick off with rambling manifestos. And there are all the four-hands dinners. So many four-hands dinners.

Call it hoarding, call it sentimentality—I’m glad I kept them all, as together they form an impressive archive of restaurant paraphernalia to remind me of all the people, places and plates that have defined Hong Kong’s dining scene. There are menus by chefs who no longer work in our city, and from restaurants that have ceased to exist (I still miss the brilliance of places like Nur and Serge et le Phoque, two restaurants that were clearly ahead of their time), but there are also multiple iterations from those who I have seen fine-tune their craft over the best part of a decade, earning their stars, stripes and all-important Tatler Dining awards.

I joined the Tatler digital team in August 2012, diving straight into a typhoon of activity as the team worked to put together the 29th edition of the Tatler Dining restaurant guide, and what would eventually become the Tatler Dining Awards. Originally slated for December of that year, the event didn’t end up happening; lucky for me, as the following year, in 2013, I took over the guide and the seeds of the work the team had put in finally came into fruition. We launched the first ever Best Restaurants Awards with a guest list of 100 people, as that was the max capacity of the terrace at the freshly-minted Duddell’s—the hottest opening of the year. In what would soon be known as classic Tatler Dining fashion, we drank copious amounts of champagne, we nibbled on Hong Kong-inspired macarons by budding desserts entrepreneur Anne Cheung (who now runs the incredibly successful Jouer Patisserie), and even entertained a bunch of rather rude gatecrashers who, clearly, did NOT know who we were. Most importantly, we celebrated not only the 30th anniversary of the dining guide but the achievements of the F&B industry in a way that hadn’t been done before in Hong Kong.

Connecting People Through Food

Ten years is not a long time, but a lot can change in such a period (including our brand name, which went from Hong Kong Tatler Dining to T.Dining to Tatler Dining). In tandem with the city’s frenetic pace and fuelled by the ambition and support that drove our little team, I’d like to think that we pioneered a lot of things that we felt would contribute to the dining community. Supporting the hospitality industry and championing local talents and Hong Kong food culture has always been non-negotiable elements underscoring every project we do, and I think that has been why we have been so fortunate to connect with so many likeminded individuals and groups who understand and share our goals, and throw their support behind even our craziest initiatives. 

One of the first major turning points in the Tatler Dining trajectory came in 2017, when we thought more about how we could create a sense of community and bring experiences to our readers, off the screen and the page. I have to credit Andy Cheng, my work husband and eternal partner-in-crime, for proposing the idea of a “T.Dining Week”, bringing together a whole series of pop-ups, workshops in the lead-up to the dining awards, and flying in food writers and influencers from around Asia to fully experience the vibrancy of Hong Kong’s dining scene. In those halcyon days, we brought together masters of dim sum to partner with rising young talents like Daniel Calvert (who won our Best New Chef award later that year) and May Chow to reimagine the yum cha experience through an initiative we called Dim Sum Duets; we invited the likes of Agung Prabowo and Owen Gibler (then at The Old Man and Employees Only, respectively) to create Hong Kong-inspired cocktails for The Battle of the Bartenders. We had incredible females in food including Janice Leung Hayes, Mina Park and Victoria Chow to show our visitors the very best of what was happening in the city at that moment in time, from a growing fondness for locally farmed produce to a reawakened interest in spirits. Everything had the purpose of celebrating our local heroes, in good times and tough times alike.

Then came 2019. When politics divided the city, we found the power of food to unite. As Hong Kong experienced both physical and mental turmoil during that summer, we knew we had to keep going and lend our support to the F&B industry which, in hindsight, was about to enter the first of many years of hardship. As summer transitioned to autumn, and universities and streets turned into fiery battle grounds, we were conflicted over whether or not to continue with our new event, the Off Menu festival, and host our awards night as normal. In the end, we pushed forward with the idea, which was to create an environment for cross-cultural culinary collaboration, where two chefs who had never cooked together before would unite to create dishes that spotlight Hong Kong ingredients or traditions. Culinary legends such as Hisato Hamada of Wagyumafia, Simon Rogan of Roganic, Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery and Richie Lin of Mume flew in to participate, and we were so fortunate to have the festival happen at the top of The Peak Galleria. On the last day of the festival, the weather was perfectly crisp—Victoria Harbour glittered as the sun set on the final session, and it was a much-needed reminder for everyone of how beautiful this city is. As I wrote in a reflection later on: I remember how surreal it was, simultaneously feeling elated but also guilty because of everything else that was happening in Hong Kong at the time. In the end, we were proud to provide a space to celebrate unity and community, a bit of solace and something that reminded us of what incredible talent this city has.

That sense of togetherness in 2019 gave rise to “United We Dine”, a powerful phrase suggested by our former dining editor Wilson Fok, during a routine editorial and events meeting in Tatler’s temporary office in a Wong Chuk Hang co-working space. It became the focus and anchoring point for not only that year’s cover story (a photo essay on family meals and togetherness in Hong Kong’s top restaurants), but it was an oddly prescient theme for Off Menu, the awards, and beyond.

In 2020, Covid-19 arrived and, very quickly, it became clear that the F&B industry was about to go through some intensely unsavoury times. Through private conversations with people in the industry, it was apparent that something needed to be done. In a time where citizens were becoming so concerned about catching the virus that they were abandoning the idea of dining out, we wanted to find a way to promote the idea of supporting the industry before it was too late. We settled upon an incentives-forward gaming mechanism where we would promote restaurants through our platform, and diners would be encouraged to go to and support at least five different ones for a chance to win prizes (an early iteration of the ‘dine out to help out’ concept that other cities ended up doing, too). When thinking of a campaign name to wrap it up, I knew it had to be United We Dine; and in the spirit of community, we invited competing media platforms such as Time Out, The Loop, Foodie, Tasting Kitchen and WOM Guide to participate. I’m forever grateful that the forks and knives were put down in order to support the cause, because at that time, the most important thing was to get the message out there and to rally support for the industry.

Rolling With the Punches

Wave after wave, our dining scene was reshaped as the industry grappled with a new reality. Restaurants opened and closed, people came and mostly went. One of the most common questions during the last two years of the pandemic has gone somewhere along the lines of: “So has it been hard to find things to write about, with not much happening?” I’ve always found this strange. Perhaps, before, if Tatler Dining’s only role was to report on the latest and hottest restaurant opening or the itineraries of a visiting celebrity chef, this would have been the case. But we’ve moved on from that, years before Covid made its entrance. We’ve been busier than ever, finding new ways to lift the industry, carve out opportunities for culinary talents to shine and explore their passions. Our most meaningful projects were borne from these fraught times, including The Hong Kong Cocktail, which featured 21 of our best bartenders working together to create a tribute drink to the city, after months of bar closures. (Who knew that, in 2022, we would have once again seen bars shut for months on end?) 

2021 was, at least compared to 2020, a thrilling year. With the virus mostly at bay, we saw the dining scene reignite in a way that we hadn't expected. For most of the year, we enjoyed restaurant openings galore—including our own. Thanks to Tatler Asia's Zita Ong and the support of our partners Mercedes Benz and IWC Schaffhausen, we made a dream come true in the form of Tatler Dining Kitchen, our very own restaurant space—an unforgettable project that allowed us to give our dining community another platform to experiment and showcase new culinary directions. With this incredible Central venue, we were able to give rising stars a kitchen to play in, and veteran chefs to try something a bit off piste. Antimo Maria Merone made a triumphant return to Hong Kong and created the most magical opening coda with his Italian x Chinese and Italian x Japanese menus for Tatler Dining Kitchen, before eventually launching Estro with JIA Group. I'll also never forget the incredible energy of our Tastemakers series with Lorenzo Antinori, Jason Cohen and Cut Sando Bar's Josh and Caleb Ng fusing caviar with cocktails, Richard Ekkebus cooking an epic Mauritian feast with his wife Fiona, and the sobering beauty of a dinner cooked by the resilient refugee women supported by Table of Two Cities and Alison Chan, who cosplayed a fierce immigration official barking at guests as they walked through the door, to mimic the experiences of asylum seekers. 

As I sift through these menus, I feel a surge of pride. Obviously, TDK (as it became fondly known) gave our team the rare opportunity to experience a tiny shred of what it takes to run a successful restaurant—from handling reservations nightmares to wondering where all the steak knives went. I’ll never forget the nights where our "TDK Ops" group—myself, Andy and Barbie Tsang—we would be there until late, washing dishes and taking out the trash before settling in again with a leftover bottle of champagne and takeaway spicy noodles. That’s when you know you have colleagues who are truly one in a million, and it’s also why the menus I’ve kept from various Tatler Dining events are hands down the most meaningful ones in my possession. And I know that there is so much more that the Tatler Dining team are going to achieve this year, and there will be many more menus to be tried—I'll be making space on my shelves to add to my ever-growing collection. If you're wondering where you'll find me, you won't have to look far. 

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