Hong Kong private kitchens: Dying ... or already dead?
Are private kitchens dead? The thought crossed our mind as we put together this week's list of Hong Kong’s Best Eats 2010 and couldn't think of enough restaurants to recommend in the "private kitchen" category.
Five years ago, dining in a low-key, speakeasy-style restaurant tucked into an anonymous apartment block was all the rage. But lately, private kitchens seem to have faded into obscurity.
“It’s hard to find authentic private kitchens nowadays,” says food critic Michael Lam. “The places are usually run like any other restaurant, it’s just that they won’t have such a big sign outside their door.”
Book a table, order from a menu and pay by credit card -- aside from the more secluded setting, what’s the difference between a private kitchen and an ordinary storefront restaurant?
The spirit of the private kitchen has changed in Hong Kong, from one of experimentation to that of a conventional licensed restaurant.
Good ol' dining days
Originally, private kitchens had two sources of appeal: low prices and a more intimate relationship between chef, diner and food. The double whammy of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2003 SARS crisis left the economy in shambles.
Plenty of chefs were out of their jobs and so were lots of professionals who were untrained but interested in cooking. Instead of opening restaurants with high overhead costs, they set up shop illegally in apartments and offices, with straightforward, seasonal menus and a fine dining experience that cost just a fraction of what it would in a normal eatery.
The government, recognizing the economic potential of the restaurants, was reluctant to crack down, and private kitchens thrived for the next few years. Penny-pinching diners were happy not to sacrifice good food just because they could no longer afford a big night out.
“You would pay HK$200 to $300 for a multi-course meal,” says Samanta Pong, co-founder of the Word of Mouth restaurant guides.
“It was good and it was honest,” says her business partner, Fergus Fung.
One of the earliest private kitchens was Xi Yan, which opened in 2000 after graphic designer Jacky Yu lost his job and turned to his other passion, food. He provided only a set menu of inventive pan-Asian dishes, which changed according to the seasonal availability of ingredients.
“As I didn’t have any restaurant management, it was easier for me to manage and run a private kitchen then a normal restaurant,” Yu says.
Xi Yan was so successful that it turned Yu into a celebrity chef, with his own line of cookbooks and TV shows. In addition to the original private kitchen, Xi Yan has expanded to include three storefront restaurants and a private kitchen in Singapore.
Keeping the spirit alive
Yu says the secret to his success has been keeping the private kitchen ethos alive by constantly reinventing his menu according to the seasons and his own whims. If private kitchens have become less popular, he says, it’s because too many of them tried to apply a conventional restaurant approach to what should have been something more lively and experimental.
“A lot of the recent establishments label themselves as private kitchens but with a very expensive price tag to go along,” says food blogger Jason Bonvivant.
“That's not necessary the right approach,” Pong adds. “Many of these places just didn’t change their menus. You’re talking about just one chef. His or her ability to innovate is limited -- there are only so many dishes they can make.”
Food critics point to a few private kitchens that still capture the spirit of the early 2000s, like Amy Vegetarian Food, where former beautician Amy Chan serves fresh, seasonal vegan dishes. Prices are affordable -- about $200 per head -- but the waiting list to book the kitchen now stands at six months.
The latest trend, says the Word of Mouth duo, is for chefs from big-name hotel restaurants to branch out and open their own small restaurants, often in unlikely locations.
Two popular examples are ABC Kitchen, an Italian restaurant in a cooked food center run by staff from M at the Fringe, and Tim Ho Wan, the hole-in-the-wall dim sum joint opened by former Four Seasons dim sum master Mak Pui-gor. A more upscale case is Amuse-Bouche, a new French restaurant in Wan Chai founded by ex-Petrus chef Shun Ng.
“People have different expectations now,” says Pong. “Before, they wanted to be surprised. Now they want to be impressed.”