Cover Chef Marvin Gaw of Holy Gaw (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Chef Marvin Gaw of Filipino-inspired fusion restaurant, Holy Gaw, is transforming what Filipino food looks and tastes like. He tells Tatler about bringing a modern spin on Filipino cuisine to Hong Kong

“I would always look forward to coming to Hong Kong during the summer holidays because I love dim sum so much and the ones back home just can’t compare. If I can have a meal every day for the rest of my life, dim sum would be at the top of my list” says Marvin Gaw. Being born and raised in the Philippines but with his family based in Hong Kong, the Holy Gaw founder and chef certainly knows a thing or two about mixing various food and culture together.

“I did not quite realise at first that some food prepared at home was not really authentic—meaning they’re neither Filipino nor Chinese but somehow a combination of both [so] I try to set out to look for food that I know I will eat and love every time I have it,” he says. And in his search for the food he loves, he wound up in Hong Kong where he also found his interest in cooking.

To pursue his newfound passion, he enrolled at Hong Kong Culinary Academy which enabled him to understand the multi-cultural angles connected to food. But he didn’t immediately work in the food and beverage industry. In fact, he was working in finance. “The moment I decided that I wanted to start this journey was midway through my culinary school. It made me realise that I should be a chef.”

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That was when chef Marvin began working in Chino and then moved to Carbone. But he realised that being in culinary school was very different from working in the kitchen. “As any chef would tell you, long hours are part of the job but being in those moments certainly helped my abilities especially working with different groups of people.  It helped me to have more patience now that I am leading my own team.”

Still, there was a gap that kept gnawing at the back of chef Marvin’s mind and that was the lack of Filipino food options in Hong Kong and how underrated it still is. A majority of restaurants serving Filipino food tend to be family-run, a mash of Southeast Asian cuisine, or are essentially karaoke bars; then, there’s Jollibee, the biggest Filipino fast-food chain in the world. While Filipino food is far from non-existent in Hong Kong, most—if not all—are catered towards Filipinos living in Hong Kong.

About 1.95 per cent of Hong Kong’s population are Filipinos, a majority of whom are foreign domestic workers. Restaurants in the city that have Filipino food serve as a reminder of home which is the concept that tends to lean more towards lutong buhay dishes which roughly translates to home-cooked food. This is also popular in the Philippines as they mainly cater to the masses, and these tend to be the kinds of restaurants brought to Hong Kong for Filipinos to enjoy.

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But Filipino restaurants that cater to the Hong Kong palate are lacking so instead of going with the traditional lutong bahay way, he chose to take a modern spin with his dishes. “Some Hongkongers may have already tried the authentic ones around the city but based on my experience, I know that the palate for most Hongkongers is different.  With this in mind, I tried to find a balance in terms of taste to make sure it’s tasty for everyone.” He also said that by modernising Filipino food, he’s also hoping to correct certain biases about it.

“I still meet people who have a certain bias with regards to Filipino food. Their first thought on Filipino food is that it’s not interesting and the taste does not fit their palate. And since most of the Filipino restaurants available is mainly served to just Filipinos, their immediate thinking is that the food is not catered for them and therefore would rarely be on their list to visit.” In order to achieve this, he goes the extra mile for the dish’s presentation and by offering healthier choices, hoping that both will attract more customers.

“I think that the best way to introduce Filipino food especially to the locals was to find a balance on the aesthetics and the taste, whether this is done through ingredients or spices for a certain dish.” And this seems to be the case. When Holy Gaw opened in 2020, there was buzz in the Filipino community, especially the younger generation about a “modern-day Filipino fusion restaurant” and its camera-pleasing plating. For me—being a born and raised Filipino in Hong Kong—the menu was met with raised eyebrows as initially, nothing about it looked Filipino. But to chef Marvin, that is the point.

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“Filipinos won’t get nostalgia from my food but I just hope that they recognise what I am trying to do, which is to slowly introduce our food to Hong Kong. And for the people of Hong Kong, I just want them to realize that Filipino food is on par with other Southeast Asian food as well.” Holy Gaw just celebrated their first anniversary this October and the past year has been tough, especially opening during the pandemic. But the packed crowds in their intimate yet humble restaurant space is an indication that there’s a craving for what they’re offering especially to those looking for new flavours.

Trying Holy Gaw for the second time made me realise just how authentic the Filipino flavours are. Their carbonara uses the flavours of sisig (chopped meat, onions and chilli) complete with chicharon bits (fried pork belly) while the kare-kare (Filipino stew with thick peanut sauce) is best served with healthy, cauliflower rice. With these, what Holy Gaw offers is a great getaway to Filipino food for someone who certainly hasn’t tried them before.

But amidst all these, chef Marvin, tells me his hope for Holy Gaw is simple, “I just want it to be remembered as a place that serves good food.” Will we see a Filipino food and dim sum mix soon? “I'm open to the idea but it won’t be in Holy Gaw” he teases.

Holy Gaw, G/F, 15 Swatow Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2782 3988

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