May Chow on Baos, Beer, and Second Chances
"I’m Chinese, and this would be my last meal if I had a choice. It’s like a Shanghainese bibimbap." We’re in the home of chef May Chow, owner of Little Bao, Soho’s American-Chinese “diner,” and she’s whipped up an extravagant late lunch of vegetable rice topped with a spectrum of pickles, fresh okra and a rib-eye steak drizzled with ginger-scallion oil. For May, the most important ingredient goes on last: a quivering Japanese egg yolk as golden as the setting sun.
The dish is utterly beautiful—the pickled shredded cabbage with its shocking magenta hue, the marbled jade and purple of the okra, the delicious darkened char of the beef rubbed with Chinkiang vinegar and sweet kecap manis—but it’s more than just food. It’s a dish that tells the story of who May is as a chef, and of the effortless, buoyant way she mixes and matches ingredients, combining Western and Asian techniques with serious aplomb.
The 32-year-old has evolved at a rapid pace since opening her first restaurant three years ago. She has represented Hong Kong at leading food festivals, including Omnivore in Paris and Shanghai, the prestigious Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in Australia and, just this summer, the Bordeaux Wine Festival. In July, Little Bao officially expanded beyond the Fragrant Harbour with its first franchised branch in Bangkok’s Thonglor district—a huge coup for a chef who hadn’t known whether her restaurant would last, let alone one who in her twenties hadn’t seen a life for herself beyond partying six days a week.
“It was a very special moment with Little Bao, to create something that was so popular. But for almost two years I was scared to expand,” says May. “I didn’t know if we were still relevant or if we were just a trend.” The accolades had kept coming, but then a problem presented itself: May was being pigeonholed. “I’m a Gemini and I like doing a lot of different things. But people would look at me and see only Little Bao, that I only made ‘Asian burgers.’”
Instagram wasn’t helping either. Searches for the restaurant would turn up page after page of its iconic green tea ice cream bao, rather than the dishes May had taken considerably more time and effort to conceive. “One of my biggest fears was to think that my next shop would be an ice cream bao parlour in a shopping centre.”
“One of my biggest fears was to think that my next shop would be an ice cream bao parlour in a shopping centre.”—May Chow
But May has exorcised that fear this summer by partnering with Chris Wong and James Ling of The Ale Project and Rohit Dugar of Young Master Ales to open Second Draft, a neighbourhood “Chinese gastropub” in Tai Hang. Occupying the spacious ground floor of a new luxury development, the venue is remarkably down to earth and utterly refreshing—a stylish and faithful homage to various Hong Kong charms, from the Star Ferry-inspired interiors to a witty menu that doffs its hat to working-class classics.
May has dug deep, drawing on the ingredients and dishes of her upbringing, and adding metaphorical nudges and winks, to create thoughtful, fun food, while the beverage team has delivered a range of refreshments strong on craft brews—and also natural wines. “It’s always been said that between Chris and Rohit, nobody in Hong Kong knows more about beer,” May says. “Even though some of their selections can be a little challenging, serious beer drinkers will appreciate what they’re trying to do."
These young entrepreneurs share a spirit of experimentation that’s injecting creative energy into the Hong Kong dining scene. And interestingly, it feels as though diners are not the only ones benefiting. “Second Draft is an opportunity for our own self-discovery, to learn new techniques and ingredients,” May explains. “There will always be fried chicken and chips, but our chefs have the freedom to do something different. It’s a little more mature, and there are things on the menu that I wouldn’t dare put on Little Bao’s.” She’s referring to chilled, crunchy beef tripe—a tribute to a Sunday morning dim sum favourite—and squid ink croquettes that have the surprising umami funk of dried oysters. There’s also French toast topped with foie gras butter—but served with lashings of supermarket Taikoo brand golden syrup. Her mother’s Shanghainese-style wontons are made with fresh local three-yellow chicken and celery, but dressed in a piquant Buffalo sauce.
“At Second Draft, it’s more adventurous—if something doesn’t work out, try again. You just have to have an open mind and a sense of fun. Once I did the menu here, I went back to Little Bao totally refreshed and really excited again.”
As for the Shanghainese bibimbap, it’s a dish that’s a little too close to May’s heart to be placed on the menu. But, given its pedigree, it’s unlikely anyone will be left wanting by Second Draft.
What to Order at Second Draft
Each of these plates is a delicious east-meets-west treat
Flower crab pasta
The thick Shanghainese rice noodles are tossed in a creamy egg sauce with picked crabmeat. Best eaten with a splash of the accompanying sweet dark vinegar.
Squid ink croquettes
These little fried balls are imbued with the intense flavour of the sea thanks to the addition of dried oysters.
The fresh, creamy ball of cheese tempers the chilli-flecked ragu it sits upon. A great twist on a Sichuan classic.
This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Hong Kong Tatler. Read our review of Second Draft here