KNOWN FOR EXCELLENT FOOD COMBINED WITH LAID-BACK STYLE, BRITISH CHEF ROWLEY LEIGH TELLS Leanne Mirandilla ABOUT HIS FIRST FORAY INTO ASIA WITH THE CONTINENTAL AT PACIFIC PLACE
I’m not a huge fan of music in restaurants,” Rowley Leigh declares off-handedly as we slide into an empty booth on the eve of the opening of his new restaurant, The Continental, which replaces Domani at Pacific Place. “For me, the music in restaurants is the conversation.” Today’s soundtrack is abuzz with the voices and hurrying feet of staff engaged in last-minute preparations for the October 13 opening. The British chef, taking a short break from directing his army of workers, says he’d rather be “less hands-on” with this project, which is why he has taken the role of consulting chef at The Continental, a collaboration with Swire Hotels, rather than executive chef. But he doesn’t seem to be getting his way, constantly distracted by questions from staff and drawn away to inspect contractors’ work as we intermittently chat over coffee.
Leigh entered the culinary world in 1977 when, hard up and disheartened by his apparent failure as a writer—“i tried to write a novel, which I never finished”—he applied for a job at the Rock Garden restaurant in Covent Garden, London. He spent the next six months doing nothing more complicated than flipping burgers, but the experience made him realise how much he loved cooking.
He left his days as a grill chef to work with the renowned French-born chefs and restaurateurs Michel and Albert Roux, “the godfathers of UK modern restaurant cuisine,” at Le Gavroche, the first British restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. The brothers then appointed Leigh head chef of another of their projects, Le Poulbot, where he earned the establishment copious awards, including being named by The Times as Restaurant of the Year. He opened his first eatery, Kensington Place, in the 1980s. Its successful combination of informality and stunning food set the tone for the London dining scene through the ’90s. Leigh opened his second and perhaps better known restaurant, Le Cafe Anglais, in 2006.
Though Leigh’s early career as a writer withered, it sprang back to life in 1998, with Leigh first penning award-winning pieces for The Guardian and The Sunday Telegraph before he moved to the Financial Times, where he has been published for the past 10 years. His weekly column features a short, reflective essay followed by a recipe.
“I LOVE THE ITALIAN APPROACH TO FOOD. I LOVE ITS LACK OF POMPOSITY, ITS RESPECT FOR INGREDIENTS AND FOR TRADITION”
The Continental has a clean, contemporary look with plenty of space and a laidback feel, thanks to the work of David Collins Studio creative director Simon Rawlings. Clients of the studio, renowned for glamorous interiors around the world, include Alexander Mcqueen, Kent & Curwen, Harrods and hotels such as the Hilton Prague Old Town and The London NYC.
The Continental operates all day, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as afternoon tea and evening cocktails. It draws on Leigh’s deep experience in French, Italian and British cuisines and is intended as a European bistro of sorts. Its signature dishes include steamed grouper with clams and seaweed butter, and fish pie with salmon, smoked haddock, prawns and whiting. Simple, but sophisticated. And, of course, The Continental’s dishes are all about mastery of the most fundamental and important aspects of cooking. “I love the Italian approach to food,” Leigh says. “I love its lack of pomposity, its respect for ingredients and, above all, its respect for tradition and what I call the grammar of cooking. If you grill a piece of meat, you’d never put gravy on it—that’s grammar.”
As his first commercial foray into Asia—leigh is widely travelled but spent most of his career in London— The Continental has provided the chef with a series of challenges and discoveries, such as the different seasonal dynamics of Hong Kong’s sub-tropical climate. As his knowledge of the region grows, he plans to include more local produce on the menu. “We found fantastic chicken in the New Territories; nobody had told me the chicken in Hong Kong was very good,” the renowned chef says. “The same with the fish. I had a beautiful snapper in Po Toi the other day, and the grouper here is fantastic. So now both those fish are on the menu.”
For the past few years, Leigh has been globetrotting more than ever, spending time in diverse locales all over the world, from Norway to Australia. “I spent 35 years of my life not travelling outside of Italy and France,” he says. “I’m really enjoying the travelling. I have more curiosity than I had 40 years ago.”