How Hong Kong's The Chairman Restaurant Redefines Chinese Fine Dining
“My God, I think it might actually be The Chairman,” whispered my neighbour as the numbers slowly counted down on the screen. It was March 25, and a contingent of journalists and food influencers were gathered at Hong Kong restaurant VEA to watch the virtual announcement of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, an hour-long live feed of floating graphics and cobbled-together footage that took place in lieu of a physical awards ceremony. The names kept coming in: Gaggan and Le Du in Bangkok, taking fifth and fourth respectively, followed by Den in Tokyo at number three. Everyone knew that the final conclusion would come in the moment that number two was announced—and The Chairman, which did not even rank within the top ten in the previous edition, had been conspicuously absent from the list throughout the ceremony. Either it had performed so poorly in the minds of the judges in the past year that it had dropped out entirely; or it would, against the odds, have a shot at making history as the list’s highest ranked Chinese restaurant ever.
It only took the next few words to send the entire venue into hysterics: “The best restaurant in Singapore is ...”
Odette, a contemporary French restaurant in the Lion City helmed by chef Julien Royer, had been sitting comfortably at number one for two years in a row; and thus, The Chairman, Danny Yip’s low-key, family-style restaurant in a quiet Hong Kong cul-de-sac, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. “It was so exciting because The Chairman is 100 per cent Hong Kong-born and based, and promoting Cantonese cuisine as well,” says Margaret Lam, a prominent food influencer who goes by the moniker @little_meg_siu_meg, and a long-time devotee of the restaurant. “I really felt like this was something they deserved. Chinese cuisine is so deep, and has such a long history, so it was always ironic that there had never been any Chinese restaurants that have gone that far [on Asia’s 50 Best]. You’ve had molecular, modern flavours like Gaggan, and then French cuisine. It made you wonder: is the best of Asia really that kind of food?”
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The best of Asia now has a different definition. It can be found in the glisten and char of a perfectly roasted piece of char siu, made using the coveted “first cut” pork shoulder, a highly specific part known for its unparalleled texture (the “second cut” is more commonly available). It’s represented by a dish of locally grown choi sum, each one trimmed precisely to reveal its most tender, sweet core before it is tossed gloriously in a hot wok or gently simmered in milky fish broth. At The Chairman, dishes are simultaneously familiar to the Chinese palate yet mysteriously unexpected—it’s where the building blocks of the classics act as a springboard for further exploration, a working philosophy that has remained at the backbone of Yip’s restaurant for the past 12 years. Adding to the general wholesomeness of The Chairman is the fact that, despite its multiple accolades—on October 5, it jumped 31 places on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2021 list, placing 10th— and groundbreaking menu, the restaurant itself is as low-key as they come—the plain white interiors have not been updated since its opening day, the wine list is modest, and the tasting menu, at HK$828 per head, is roughly half the price of dégustations at lesser one-Michelin-starred venues.
I meet Yip on a quiet afternoon between lunch and dinner service, the hours when he would normally be tinkering with recipes and figuring out his latest culinary conundrum (often to the mocking chagrin of his kitchen colleagues). The lunch crowd has cleared out (The Chairman is, expectedly, fully booked until March 2022), and a few kitchen hands and waiters have crumpled themselves across the dining room chairs, soaking in the temporary respite from the demands of the busy restaurant; yet, behind closed doors, the telltale hiss and clank of flame and wok are still discernible.
Always, there is something to be tested out, a recipe to be improved upon. Yip shows me notes on his phone, a list of disconnected phrases and ingredients—spicy soy, fresh lemon, shrimp roe and pomelo peel—that are a window into his food-filled mind. “We’re constantly researching because knowledge is infinite,” he says. “Everything is inside my head, and my notepad. I jot down what I see and think. It’s all stuff I want to work with one day, things we haven’t worked with before. I haven’t backed anything up, so I might go mad if I lose them.”
When Yip opened The Chairman in Sheung Wan’s quiet Kau U Fong street in 2009, he was returning to a life he had known since the Eighties, when he opened and ran a succession of Asian restaurants in Canberra, Australia. Among them, Chairman & Yip, which opened in 1992, still operates today—though without the involvement of Yip, who sold his shares in 1997 and returned to Hong Kong to try his hand at the tech industry. During that time, he created Tradeeasy, a successful international trading platform focusing on assisting small and medium-sized enterprises.
But something about food still latched onto his consciousness. Unable to find a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong that he enjoyed, Yip envisioned his own. “The reason I opened The Chairman was because I think Chinese food has such a wide spectrum. The schools of cooking are so diverse,” he says, describing how, later on, lauded chefs like Heston Blumenthal would visit the kitchens and come out utterly dizzied by the complex techniques on show, from the way the team creates the paper-thin skin required in the imperial dish known as Hundred Flower Chicken to the steps required to maximise the crispiness of roasted suckling pig. “In the whole world, you won’t find anything like it,” Yip says. “So when we opened, we thought: how come this deep level of skill is not known worldwide?”
We need to be creative within the framework of tradition. Each dish will make you think it’s classic, but it will be something that you have never seen before.— Danny Yip
The lack of recognition for fine Chinese cuisine is also what spurred Andy Ho, the young chef in charge of roast meats at The Chairman, to dedicate himself to working in the industry. “I am a chef, but my dream isn’t necessarily wanting to be the world’s greatest chef,” he says. “If I can, I’d rather help Chinese food become known as the world’s greatest cuisine.” Le Cordon Bleu-trained and a fashion marketing major, Ho was originally enamoured with modernist cuisine during his time in London—the smoke and spherified olives that defined the fine dining of the Noughties. Returning to Hong Kong, he was determined to learn the fundamentals of Cantonese cuisine, drawing parallels with the requirements of martial arts. “Personally, I didn’t aim to be the best chef, but I genuinely wanted to learn the basics, because you need that before you can even think about being creative,” he says. “It’s why I use that analogy—you need to know the foundations before you can learn the tricks.”
While he has always loved char siu, he didn’t actually love working on the roast meat station at first, Ho reveals. “There’s a lot of smoke and grease, early morning deliveries, long hours. I could never wash off that smell of fat dripping onto coals. But char siu is something that has so many layers of complexity. You want texture, both springy and tender; you want fat as well as lean meat. On the surface you want the caramelisation of the pork as well as that of the sugars. And you want the fragrance of the fats to come through. Every single thing needs to be done super well.”
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It may come as a surprise to many that char siu, a cornerstone of Cantonese cuisine, was only recently added to The Chairman’s menu, in 2019. The reason is simple, as it applies to all of the dishes the team members introduce: it has to be their version of perfect, addressing tradition as well as presenting their own signature spin. Their char siu glaze, for example, eschews the more common maltose for sugar scented with tuwei, a unique ancient breed of rose blossom first cultivated in Zhongshan, Guangdong province.
“I think we need to be creative within the framework of tradition,” says Yip. “Each dish will make you think it’s classic, but it will be something that you have never seen before—and yet, you would not think it’s alien either. I always want an emotional attachment.” It’s a philosophy perhaps best encapsulated in the restaurant’s humble bowl of smooth, fragrant congee that has been properly rumbled over high heat until the grains succumb to the liquid and emulsify into a luxuriously thick yet light potage. The silkiest top layer is skimmed off for the final dish, which is as elegant as any French velouté. “Congee is fundamental. It’s about technique. Once you have it, you can create beautiful congee,” Yip explains. “But after that, how can you apply this beautiful congee technique to create a dish that is something even greater than itself? Every day we try things in this way.” And so the resulting dish is taken to the next level, particularly when garnished with shrimp oil and a pristine tranche of locally caught slipper lobster (so called because of its flat, shoe-like body), which had been trucked over that very morning from the fish market, fresh and alive up until the second before cooking.
To Yip, the freshness and delicate nature of Cantonese seafood should be upheld as the very definition of fine dining. It’s also why his restaurant’s most iconic dish over the past 12 years has been the steamed flower crab with aged Shaoxing wine, chicken oil and flat rice noodles—a true representation of beauty in simplicity, where every element plays its part in the greater whole. Take a seat at the restaurant these days, however, and you will start to recognise a new cast of emerging classics: crackling claypot rice with sweet potatoes and preserved meat, or fish head steamed with fermented chilli, pickled olives and salted lard.
Unlike other Michelin-starred restaurants that push themselves to create new tasting menus every few months, the process of development at The Chairman is slow, methodical and steady. The team have been developing their camphor wood-smoked goose recipe for close to two years, an incredibly complex process involving marination, a spice rub, steaming, drying, smoking and then finishing with hot oil—but Yip still isn’t convinced. “I still don’t think it’s there. But I think it has the potential. I still think, after so many tries, there is something more that can be tweaked. I’ll leave it for two months and return to it. And then [chef de cuisine] Kwok Keung Tung will be like, oh no, I’ve got to eat nothing but goose for two weeks!”
To regular diners like Lam (who has a weekly standing booking at the restaurant for the foreseeable future), it’s this gastronomical geekiness that sets them apart. “The whole process is not just difficult, but it’s really new because no one has done this to poultry before. They were also able to achieve a point where the goose is tender, not dry, which is a breakthrough, when you think about it. It’s a whole new method.”
Yip, a self-described “playful madman”, hopes to continue the journey of exploration and discovery with his team, many of whom have stayed with him since the beginning, when The Chairman was an unknown and the concept of Cantonese fine dining was a question mark. “Each time it’s like this, the pattern: I propose something insane and the kitchen groan and question whether or not I’m serious. And then there are a lot of hurdles. We overcome each hurdle. After all, it’s only a hurdle. If you think through it, you’ll eventually find a way out, to create something that hasn’t been done before in Hong Kong. It’s just super cool.”