Cover Chef Ho Chee Boon has a special place in his heart for Malaysian street food (Photo: Empress By Boon)

The San Francisco-based chef is a big fan of the char kuay teow in Taiping

Chef Ho Chee Boon will not give you a straight answer when asked what the most popular dishes are on the menu of his restaurant, Empress by Boon. The Taiping-born tastemaker believes in always shaking things up.

“For 20 years, everybody keeps asking me this question. I don’t know how to answer. I love all my dishes. But when I think it’s time to change my menu, I change it,” Ho says with a laugh during a Zoom interview from his base in San Francisco with Tatler.

“I always want to create something new. I cannot have anything on my menu longer than three years. No matter how good something is, there will be something new I want to replace it with.”

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Ho is the former international executive chef of Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant Hakkasan with over 30 years of experience in the industry. He has helped to open many of Hakkasan's celebrated addresses including Hakkasan Hanway Place and Yauatcha Soho, both in London.

The chef relocated to the US in 2012 to open Hakkasan New York. In June this year, he opened his own restaurant, Empress By Boon, in Grant Avenue, San Francisco. It features a prix fixe menu with modern Cantonese dishes, prepared with fresh local ingredients from the restaurant’s own organic farm in Gilroy, California.

While what he serves is considered elevated Chinese dining, Ho confesses that he still has deep love for fuss-free Malaysian street food.

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How long has it been since you last visited Malaysia?

I usually come to Malaysia every summer. Last year, however, I couldn’t visit due to the pandemic. I usually land at Kuala Lumpur first and spend some time there with my friends and siblings. Then I return to Taiping to see my mother.

What food and drinks in Malaysia do you miss the most?

So many! I love Taiping char kuay teow. It’s very good. I know a lot of people talk about Penang char kuay teow, but I like Taiping’s version because I ate it a lot as a child. I’m going to be honest—I love street food a lot. There’s this small restaurant in Chinatown in KL, which serves great claypot chicken rice. There’s also a place in Jalan Alor where they fry chicken wings, which are really good. In Penang, I love going for char kuay teow and asam laksa.

Overall though, the food I miss most is my mum’s cooking. When I was young, she made me these pork spare ribs that were so good. I got the recipe and tried to make them, but it’s not the same. For me, she’s the best cook in the world.

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What is the first dish you normally have when you return?

It depends on where I am. But one thing I must absolutely have is durian

Do you have a favourite restaurant in Malaysia for fine dining?

Not really but I do want to open one in Malaysia some day.

Do you have a favourite bar or cafe when you're in town?

I don’t go to bars much, I’m very boring lah!

If you have guests visiting from abroad, where will you take them for a real taste of Malaysia?

First, I will take them to eat wang bu liao (empurau) fish. Many of my friends have heard of this dish and want to try this. I know a restaurant in Tanjung Malim that always serve it. I will also bring them to try char kuay teow in Taiping or Penang, as well as Malay street food.

Where are your favourite places to eat in San Francisco?

I don’t have any real favourites. I enjoy all cuisines although I'm partial to Thai and Korean food. There are a few Malaysian restaurants here but I think they try too hard to the local palates. Somehow they are not the same as the food back home.

Do you try to incorporate any Malaysian flavours in your dishes?

Yes, I do. I incorporate Asian ingredients like chilli, lemongrass, belacan, and asam. When I first came to the US, I wanted to let my customers try something new so I tried cooking a few Malaysian dishes but in Cantonese style. 

What kind of dining experience does Empress by Boon offer?

My intention was always to open a good Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Cooking for people brings me a lot of joy, and I’ve missed it a lot in the past one year. 

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