Chef ArChan Chan on Creating Ho Lee Fook’s New Menu and Developing Dishes During Quarantine
Ho Lee Fook announced its reopening last month, revealing all-new interiors, and a menu created by their new head chef, ArChan Chan. Previously the executive chef at Level 33 in Singapore, the Hong Kong native tells Tatler Dining all about her decision to return back home, how Ho Lee Fook’s new menu compares to the old, and her favourite restaurant in Hong Kong right now.
After spending three years in Singapore, why did you decide to return to Hong Kong?
I always knew I wanted to come back to Hong Kong because my friends and family are all here, but in those 14 years I spent abroad, I was really able to see how much the local culinary scene has grown and evolved.
Hong Kong has become such a dynamic place to be part of the hospitality industry and so when the opportunity presented itself to join Black Sheep Restaurants, take the reins of the institution that was Soho’s Ho Lee Fook and be part of bringing it forward into its next chapter, well, it finally seemed like the time was right to return home.
How did you start the conversation with Black Sheep for your role as head chef for Ho Lee Fook?
Interestingly enough, I think it was all due to a Tatler article I did when I released my first book, Hong Kong Local. The article was about the places where I missed dining in Hong Kong, and I mentioned Belon and Ho Lee Fook—whenever I would visit Hong Kong, they were some of my favourite restaurants. It was around this time that Chris [Mark, group co-founder] and the Black Sheep Restaurants team reached out.
What made you want to lead the team at Ho Lee Fook?
There is so much talent here on the team. People like chefs Jack and Jordan have been such a huge part of the Ho Lee Fook story so far and we’ve been able to learn a lot from each other, bouncing off ideas and trying new things in the kitchen.
I’m very glad to have a team that is passionate about Cantonese food and whose love and care for the cuisine shines through the work they do. Working with people who hold this kind of natural fire and drive for their work… well, I couldn’t ask for more. Experience can be taught but attitude is hard to train.
How would you say the new Ho Lee Fook differs from the old as a whole?
This next chapter for Ho Lee Fook is more unapologetically Cantonese in spirit; we really want to make sure that every aspect of our DNA embraces this. It is more luxurious and feels a bit more elevated, but at the core of what we do is still that same great, boisterous hospitality that makes it one of the restaurants you want to keep going back to.
How is your cooking style different from chef Jowett Yu?
We both spent a lot of time abroad, specifically in Australia, so I think there are definitely some similarities. Over there, because it is so far away and such a young country, you learn to use whatever is available and there are fewer restrictions on the dishes and ingredients are meant for each kind of cuisine.
But for the new Ho Lee Fook, I really want to focus on showcasing more Cantonese things. When I think of the ingredients I use in a dish, I also think about whether or not this will confuse guests with what we are trying to achieve, so even if there is an ingredient that I think might bring an amazing flavour to a dish, if it doesn’t fit the end goal, then I won’t use it.
Are there any of his old dishes that you’re keeping?
Jow is an amazing chef. He and the Ho Lee Fook team, including chefs Jack and Jordan, who are still with us today, created some great dishes that have moved into true signatures for the restaurant experience. Guests who join can still expect to find their favourite wagyu short rib or Prawn Toast x Okonomiyaki on the menu.
What are some of your favourite dishes that you’ve created for Ho Lee Fook?
The Live Razor Clams and Stir-fry King are both dishes that I put a lot of time and care into developing. I have fond memories of eating fresh razor clams with my family, and the stir-fry king is a true Hong Kong-born dish straight from Sham Shui Po, but the double-steamed broth is easily my favourite item on the menu. You have this very clean flavour of the broth that took a lot of time and work to achieve, and for me, it is just a very comforting dish.
How did you come up with the ideas and how long did it take you to “perfect” each dish until you were satisfied? Can you give me an example of the process?
When I create a dish, there is always an idea of a flavour I want to achieve, and I think about that flavour a lot. For that dish, I not only want to reach that idealised flavour but I strive to achieve something beyond the initial idea. For a dish like the razor clams, which in its natural form is close to perfect already, I was trying to consider what I could add not just for the sake of adding something, but to bring something that would really enhance the umami of the dish; this is when I thought about the fermented garlic soy. This is what I was brainstorming all throughout my quarantine.
Fermented or aged ingredients add to the tone and depth of a dish, so this aged garlic soy brought a whole new dimension to the garlic flavour without being overpowering, plus the minute taste of vinegar from the fermented soy brought just a bit of acidity, which we know goes well with seafood. So far this dish has received positive feedback!
What’s your favourite type of cuisine and dish?
Honestly, Cantonese! But a close second is my passion for Korean food. I love the philosophy of Korean cooking—they use everything when it comes to an ingredient. For example, they don’t ferment for the umami or just for the sake of fermenting, they ferment so that they don’t waste any bit of the ingredient, always thinking of ways to preserve the produce they have and stretch it into that next dish.
In Cantonese cuisine, I’m really a fan of any chicken dish. When I think about a dish that my family or grandma would cook, it is always a simple steamed chicken with fungus and goji berry because it is very comforting. For Korean, a stew or a soup would be my go-to.
What new restaurants in Hong Kong have you tried and loved since you came back?
I have been able to try a lot of different places since returning to Hong Kong, but I’m more interested in the tried and true institutions that exist. One of my favourites in the past few months has been The Chairman; I went there with really high expectations and they 100% delivered. As a chef, I know the story behind what they want to achieve and I can taste that in their food. They just bring a lot of different levels of flavour to the table, and that is something that I really loved.
How are Singapore and Hong Kong’s dining cultures different?
There are a lot of similarities between the two cities, they both have a very diverse selection of cuisines and the diners are interested in trying new things from all over the world, but this also means that they are a very critical and knowledgeable audience when it comes to the food they are eating.
One of the main differences I’ve noticed is that Singapore has been able to keep a lot of the hawker community alive, whereas in Hong Kong these local community places, like our cha chaan tengs, have become a bit of a disappearing culture. Hawkers in Singapore still have a large presence and remain places where you can get this really good, affordable, simple food that has been part of the local culture for so long.