Ca­su­ally Con­ti­nen­tal

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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Food -

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.”

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