Cover Charlene Dawes used to bike to her local bakery and pick up a snack. (Illustration: Stephen Collins)

The owner and managing director of the company behind VEA, Quinary, Draft Land and more gets nostalgic about local bakeries and cha chaan tengs

As part of our series celebrating the vibrancy and community within Hong Kong’s dining scene, we spoke to several of the industry’s leading lights about why they love the city’s unique food culture. Here, Charlene Dawes – owner and managing director of Tastings Group, the brains behind award-winning restaurants and bars such as VEA, Quinary and Draft Land HK – reminisces about her childhood love of cocktail buns and jam toast, and what homegrown ingredient gives an extra kick to her G&Ts.

Tell us about some of your favourite Hong Kong food memories.

I grew up in Mei Foo and Tai Po, areas which both had many traditional Chinese bakeries. As a kid, I used to ride my bicycle around, stopping off at my local bakery for “tea” – I’d sit on the bench outside by myself and eat a cocktail bun with a Vitasoy. One afternoon, my P.E. teacher saw me sitting there enjoying my food and said, “Charlene, you really know how to enjoy life!”. I just smiled at her and kept eating… I guess we didn’t think about healthy eating back then! I saw her recently and she reminded me of this encounter, saying that she knew I was a foodie even then; I replied that I now enjoy my cocktails more than cocktail buns! (I’ve been back to Wah Lap Restaurant in Tai Po as an adult, and they have nice pineapple buns too!)

Another memory is from when I was in kindergarten in Mei Foo. My mum would pick me up from school for tea; I’d jump up and hug her, and she’d carry me to a local cha chaan teng (I was chubby and not so light to carry!). We’d normally order jam toast (油占多) or French toast – my two favourite teatime snacks. My grandma would join us sometimes, and I remember how one day, I was sitting in the cha chaan teng with my mum when I saw my grandma walking past outside; I was so happy to see her and screamed, “Grandma! Grandma!” – the person next to us nearly choked!

I always think a place brings back memories not just because of the food, but the company you’re with and the time you spent there together. My grandma is no longer with us and I wish I could be there with her once again to have tea – the simple joy of being with my mum and grandma, enjoying our jam toast together.

What are some of your favourite local ingredients to use?

I love preserved salty kumquats (咸柑桔). We actually have a big jar of them in our office – we’ve had them for six years now, but I’m hoping to keep them for about 10-15 years before actually opening it! We usually make them ourselves, but I’ve also purchased them from a Chinese doctor friend in Tai Wai; their shop is called Tai On.

When we first started Quinary, I kept losing my voice from long hours spent talking with customers, so I started making drinks with the kumquats to help restore my voice. They also work really well in a gin and tonic – the saltiness and acidity of the kumquats gives an extra kick to citrus-driven gins.

If you could only visit one restaurant in Hong Kong again, what would it be – and how does it sum up what you love about the city’s food scene?

It would have to be Chan Hon Kee in Tai Po. When I was a kid, my mum was a very busy business owner; she had her own property agency, so was always out and about. But when she had some spare time, she would pick me up from school in Tai Po and we’d go have our afternoon tea together at Chan Hon Kee. I would order my favourite tripe and brisket hor fun and char siu rice rolls – I was a very active kid and ate a lot!


  • Wah Lap Restaurant, G/F, 48 Po Heung Street, Tai Po, Hong Kong, +852 2656 8788
  • Tai On, G/F, 53 Chik Shun Street, Tai Wai, Hong Kong, +852 2691 1453
  • Chan Hon Kee, G/F, 91B Wan Tau Street, Tai Po, Hong Kong, +852 2658 2277