Farm Fresh: The Chairman

The Chairman is one of the city’s most lauded Cantonese restaurants, beloved by chefs like Richard Ekkebus and Ferran Adria, who dubbed it “the future of Chinese food”. The menu boasts Cantonese classics with an emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients such as flower crabs caught in Aberdeen, and chicken and pigs from the New Territories. The restaurant also acquired a 20,000-square-foot farm in Sheung Shui four years ago, where they have a fish pond, grow vegetables and fruit, make pickles and preserve meat.

Founder Danny Yip, 52, is a veteran of the F&B industry, having opened his first Chinese restaurant, Window on the Orient (which has since closed), in Canberra when he was a student in the ’80s. After returning to Hong Kong in 1997, he founded a tech start-up and continued to run his Australian restaurants, of which three remain in business. He also lamented the lack of authentic Chinese eateries in Hong Kong and wanted to bring family-style dining back to the forefront of Cantonese cooking, which led to the opening of The Chairman in 2009. “The rent is too high, and despite the effort that goes into Cantonese food, the perceived value is too low and people often sacrifice the ingredients substantially, relying on frozen meats and produce,” he vents as we sit down for lunch. “If you go to a Japanese restaurant and pay HK$2,000, it’s normal, but you wouldn’t expect to pay as much for a Chinese meal. That shouldn’t be the case.”

Since its opening seven years ago, The Chairman has become a favourite among those craving a taste of Cantonese classics with a focus on simple, honest cooking that brings out the natural taste of the ingredients. No MSG is used, and Yip tells me “there is not even a bottle of oyster sauce in the kitchen”, as he despises canned sauces. “Cantonese cooking is all about natural flavours. You cook to enhance the flavour, not to mask it with sauce.”

When Yip says they use premium ingredients, he doesn’t mean shark’s fin, sea cucumber or bird’s nest. “Why would I serve something that has no taste? It makes absolutely no sense! I hate that part of Chinese cuisine that uses super-expensive ingredients, and at The Chairman we have shown we don’t have to do that,” he says. Instead, the chefs source most of their ingredients from Hong Kong, and use bean curd and soy sauce made by famous local shops, as Yip believes premium ingredients are those that are fresh and prepared well. For example, the flower crabs in one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes are delivered daily after being caught in the morning, and are then cooked with Shaoxing wine and served with flat rice noodles to soak up the aromatic and flavourful sauce.

Though The Chairman is the only Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong that has its own farm, Yip says there are serious limitations to having a single farm as supplier. His farm supplies less than 10 per cent of the produce used at the restaurant, and he has to rely on other local farms to supply the rest. The first year yielded no useable crops –they employed a retired farmer to help them – and it wasn’t done organically, so they had to start over with an expert from Taiwan. It took two and a half years for the first harvest. “You spend most of your time waiting for the crops to grow. Then all of a sudden, you have an excess – and then you have to wait again!” Yip says, laughing. One of the crops is ginger, whose tips are used to make pickles with Chinese vinegar, which are then paired with cherry tomatoes pickled in a basil reduction for a refreshing starter.

Yip hopes new methods, such as hydroponic farming, will yield more crops and help them grow faster. “I’m not really into the term ‘farm to table’… It’s a strong movement outside of Hong Kong, but diners here aren’t knowledgeable about where their produce comes from,” he laments. “But what people do care about here is fresh, clean and chemical-free food. And that’s what they can get at The Chairman.”

 

THE CHAIRMAN

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WHAT? The Chairman focuses on classic Cantonese dishes, cooked without MSG or preservative-laden sauces, and with only the lightest of sauces or glazes so as not to compete with the true flavours of the ingredients.

WHO? Established by Danny Yip. Hong Kong-born and -bred Kwok Keung-tung has been head chef since the restaurant opened, and trained and worked at Yip’s restaurants in Australia.

WHEN? Since 2009

SIGNATURE DISHES: Steamed fresh flower crab cooked in Shaoxing wine and chicken oil with flat rice noodles; deep-fried spare ribs; deep-fried crispy taro cake with smoked duck

WHAT’S SPECIAL? The Chairman has its own 20,000-square-foot farm in the New Territories, where staff grow vegetables and make pickles, lap mei (preserved meats such as pork sausage or duck) and lap yuk (cured pork belly) when in season. They also make their oils in-house, ranging from chilli to chicken to lemongrass.

WHERE? 18 Kau U Fong, Central; tel: 2555 2202.


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