Chef Max Levy of Okra Hong Kong tells Riva Hiranand about the modern Japanese fare he serves, how he deals with social media haters and why uni has become so obnoxious.
“You Hong Kong people really love to hate on Beijing,” says chef Max Levy after I ask how he fared on his trip to Beijing with the impending heatwave and onset of choking pollution. Levy, the head chef and founder of Okra 1949 in Beijing and Okra Hong Kong, scrolls through his phone and shows me a photo of lush greenery and blue skies. “I took that on our farm in Beijing,” he tells me. It’s no surprise Levy is enamoured with Beijing, having spent the past 10 years in the Chinese capital at the helm of restaurants such as Okra 1949, Traitor Zhou’s Nonkosher Delicatessen, Bei, and Creole-themed Apothecary Cocktails and Dining (Bei and Apothecary have since closed).
Born and raised in New Orleans, Levy grew up with a love and appreciation of food. His grandfather’s family were strawberry farmers, and he began working in restaurants from the age of 12 – be it during the summer, on the weekends or after school. A desire to travel kicked in after high school and the aspiring chef left his hometown in 1997 for Tokyo, where he worked in fish markets alongside local fishermen and boat workers, gaining skills that later earned him a place as the only non-Japanese sushi chef at New York’s Sushi Yasuda in 2001. Keen to experience more of the world, Levy moved to Beijing in 2004 to be the sushi chef at a former customer’s restaurant, and returned in 2007 to open Swire Hotels’ Bei restaurant at The Opposite House.
The 38-year-old developed his culinary philosophy while under the tutelage of Naomichi Yasuda. “I worked at a bunch of sushi restaurants [before] but no one had actively mentored me. It’s rare that you see a head chef who explains how you should work, look at your job and treat staff – but Yasuda was a huge influence on me,” Levy says. “He taught me the idea that you don’t work by recipes; you look at the ingredients and the situation. It changes every day, so you should look at it differently every day. I apply this philosophy to everything – food, sake, staff and service.”
Contemporary sushi bar Okra 1949 opened to immediate acclaim in Beijing’s Chaoyang district in 2013. Okra Hong Kong followed at the beginning of this year, staking its place along Queen’s Road West in Sai Ying Pun. Though he initially intended to expand in Beijing with the launch of a bread-and-breakfast weekend restaurant, Levy wanted to be in a more cosmopolitan setting and chose Hong Kong.
With its green patterned doors resembling a bisected okra, the restaurant stands out from the predominantly local shops along the street. The chef is quick to point out that diners should not expect a replica of his Beijing outpost, which is larger (it seats 40, and has a small cocktail bar as well as a sushi bar) and has a different menu.
“There is no reason for me to come down here and have a carbon copy of what we do in Beijing. The philosophy is the same, but our regular customers at Okra 1949 who are based here are not regulars at Okra Hong Kong,” he says.
While the smaller space may make it appear more upscale, Okra Hong Kong draws in both diners who want a contemporary Japanese meal and drinkers who are keen to enjoy artisanal sakes. “It’s a completely different dining atmosphere – casual, relaxed and fun. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff we cannot do in Beijing,” says Levy, who divides his time between the two cities to ensure both restaurants are running smoothly. “We have to take ourselves more seriously than I would like there…”
Okra Hong Kong was designed by Sean Dix – the Hong Kong–based designer behind Yardbird, Carbone, Little Bao and other local restaurants – to seat 12 people by the open kitchen and offer six standing tables. The space is intimate yet playful, with a Toshio Saeki mural lining the left wall. The prime seats are at the bar, where diners can watch Levy and his team in action and get a chance to talk to the chef. “We don’t serve food for everybody. But what I like about Hong Kong is that a lot of people are genuinely interested in learning,” he tells me. “Not just trying something new for the sake of it, but actually interested in expanding their knowledge and taste.”
The menu is divided into A-side, which includes sashimi as well as smaller bites such as carabinero prawn soup and handmade nigari tofu, and B-side with larger dishes such as unakyu foie gras (barbecued unagi, honey miso duck liver and sanbaizu) and hentai quail tatsuta (half a quail marinated in a ‘secret sauce’ and fried with preserved ginger and spring onion). Sauces, such as XO and ume ‘ketchup’, are made in-house. All dishes are to be shared and enjoyed with sake. The sake menu features artisanal breweries from Nara, Fukuoka and Niigata, with some exclusive to Okra. “We only serve sakes when we have a direct relationship with the brewer because I know how the sake should be served,” says Levy. Most of the sake is unpasteurised and served in stemless wine glasses, so guests can experience the bouquet.
When I ask Levy to talk me through some of his signature dishes, he retorts: “Oh, the dishes everyone loves to hate?” Levy’s creativity shines through in items such as smoked anchovies and bafuni (bafun uni from Hokkaido) with salted Buddha’s hand (a type of citrus fruit), house-made tofu skin and shiso. “Five, six years ago, no one wanted to eat uni,” he says. “Then it just blew up on Instagram. Even people who don’t like uni order it. So we wanted to put an obnoxious uni dish on the menu, but ended up getting these amazing smoked, salted anchovies.” The fat of the uni perfectly complements the anchovies, and though the latter are the star of the dish, people complained that it was “the worst uni dish ever.” Levy smiles as he says: “But that’s the thing. It’s not an uni dish. It’s about the anchovies.”
What’s apparent from the moment we sit down is that Levy is brutally honest, and this trait extends to his food. “Our menu is sarcastic, a bit tongue-in-cheek,” he says. I burst out laughing when I see it, as next to one of Okra’s signature dishes of dry-aged tuna it says in brackets: ‘Recommended by Time Out H.K. Contains bones!!’ It’s a cheeky nod to the magazine’s review, in which the writer bemoaned the bones left in the fish, warning Okra to “debone your fish, guys, because something like that could make or break you in Hong Kong”.
The tuna in question is brined in saltwater, wrapped in salted shiso leaves (from Levy’s farm in Beijing) and left to hang in a freezer for around a week and a half. It is then lightly breaded with panko, fried to order and served with ume ketchup. “We have to leave some bones in there – if we take them all out the fish will curl up and break apart,” explains the chef, who now warns customers that the tuna contains bones (in case they didn’t read the menu properly) and that they shouldn’t order it if they dislike strong flavours or dried fish. “I try to explain as much as I can – but there’s only so much I can do without sounding like an a**hole. If people don’t like it they shouldn’t order it – most people listen, and some people don’t.”
Though some may not take well to Levy’s brand of upfront honesty, it is a trait that will undoubtedly allow him to thrive in an industry in which bloggers and Instagram ‘reviewers’ are often the first to get in and dominate social media platforms. “I find people want to review restaurants as quickly as possible to hate on them. Sometimes a blogger will post a photo claiming they love a dish – but then that same person will comment and agree with another person who hated it!” he exclaims. “Every chef and restaurant owner wants to say they’re above it. But if you’re a responsible business owner, you have to look at it. You have to take every comment, good or bad, seriously but also with a grain of salt. You don’t open a restaurant for reviewers.” At the end of the day, that’s part and parcel of the business, and something Levy is well prepared for: “The whole philosophy of Okra, from start to finish, is that like the vegetable, it’s one of those things you either love or hate. Everything we do is like that.”