CLUB HONG KONG

The Chefs Club in the United States can­not get enough of our home­grown culi­nary tal­ent, writes SARAH ENGSTRAND

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“I WANTED TO cre­ate a place for peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent types of food,” says Chefs Club Founder Stephane De Baets. So the New Yorker did just that. “Peo­ple talk and hear about chefs, but un­less they can travel to ev­ery cor­ner of the planet, it is dif­fi­cult to ex­pe­ri­ence their food,” De Baets says.

Chefs Club is one of the most ex­cit­ing man­i­fes­ta­tions of a culi­nary con­cept. The restau­rants in the Chefs Club sta­ble, all in the United States, wel­come an im­pres­sive ar­ray of chefs, Amer­i­can and for­eign, who take turns at a stint in the kitchen. This lets Amer­i­can din­ers ex­pe­ri­ence the best of the best the world has to of­fer with­out hav­ing to travel far afield.

The idea was suc­cess­ful. Within four years of the open­ing of the orig­i­nal restau­rant, in Aspen, Colorado, off­shoots had sprouted in Man­hat­tan and Brook­lyn, one of them a vari­a­tion on the theme called Chefs Club Counter. In a food porn, cam­era-eats-first, chef-wor­ship­ping world, the suc­cess of the Chefs Club chain is hardly sur­pris­ing.

No other restau­rant is like the Chefs Club restau­rants. They of­fer an ever-chang­ing se­lec­tion of dishes made by the most out­stand­ing chefs. They al­low vis­it­ing chefs to do whirl­wind takeovers of the kitchen. Each chef draws up his or her own fixed-price menu of dishes made with New York in­gre­di­ents, putting a new spin on well-known dishes and so of­fer­ing din­ers a chance to try some­thing truly dif­fer­ent.

The co-founder of Black Sheep Restau­rants in Hong Kong, Christo­pher Mark, de­scribes Chefs Club restau­rants as “some­thing else”. The es­tab­lish­ments are nei­ther pop-ups nor con­ven­tional restau­rants. “This is an event space for high-level chefs to work at,” Mark says. He speaks from ex­pe­ri­ence. The chefs of two of his restau­rants, Ho Lee Fook and Le Garçon Saigon, have taken over Chefs Club kitchens in the past year.

De Baets now counts the first off­shoot to open, the New York Chefs Club, as the flag­ship es­tab­lish­ment of the chain. He says it at­tracts more vis­it­ing chefs than the other restau­rants. Those chefs in­clude Alain Du­casse, Hélène Dar­roze and Emeril La­gasse. Over the years, De Baets has as­sem­bled an im­pres­sive team to help make his vi­sion re­al­ity. The mem­bers in­clude culi­nary di­rec­tor Di­dier Elena, who worked un­der Du­casse for 20 years, and cu­ra­tor Aaron Arizpe.

The cu­ra­tor is what I would call the “toque hunter”, choos­ing which chefs will be in­vited to Chefs Club to cook. Arizpe is pas­sion­ate about

his work and his zeal is in­fec­tious. “This is going to make me sound crazy,” he says, “but chefs, restau­rants and food are pretty much the only things I think about, read about, write about and re­main in­fin­itely cu­ri­ous about, ev­ery wak­ing hour of my life.” He has his fin­ger on the pulse, closely fol­low­ing the in­ter­na­tional food news, con­stantly seek­ing out names of per­son­al­i­ties that will mesh well with the Chefs Club ethos and bring some­thing new and ex­cit­ing to an oth­er­wise sat­u­rated mar­ket for eat­ing out.

Arizpe has pulled in chefs from around the globe: Amer­i­can, Aus­tralian, Bri­tish, Chi­nese, Dan­ish, Filipino, French, In­dian, Is­raeli, Ital­ian, Ja­panese, Korean, Mex­i­can, Moroc­can, Peru­vian, Puerto

Ri­can, Sin­ga­porean, Span­ish, Thai, Turk­ish and Viet­namese chefs.

But he keeps on com­ing back to Hong Kong to find tal­ent. “There is a dy­namism to Hong Kong that re­ally res­onates with our au­di­ence here in New York,” he says.

Arizpe’s knowledge of the Hong Kong din­ing scene is en­cy­clopaedic. “I am re­ally ex­cited by what Daniel Calvert is do­ing at Belon. I’ve al­ways been cu­ri­ous about May Chow and Kwok Ke­ung Tung,” he says. The cu­ra­tor has al­ready brought three Hong Kong chefs to Chefs Club: Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook; Matt Abergel of Yard­bird, Rōnin and Sun­day’s Gro­cery; and Bao La of Le Garçon Saigon.

Each of the three Hong Kong chefs has a dis­tinc­tive style. To­gether, they not only present the best of the Hong Kong culi­nary scene but also rep­re­sent the heart of it, its di­ver­sity. Yu, orig­i­nally from Tai­wan, has built an in­ter­na­tional fan base for his Chi­nese clas­sics re-imag­ined. Abergel, a Cana­dian, has amassed a cult fol­low­ing with his new con­cepts of Ja­panese din­ing. La, from Bris­bane, is chang­ing the way Hong Kong sees Viet­namese food with his French-in­spired brasserie of the type last seen in Saigon be­fore the Viet­nam War. The food each chef makes pan­ders to the cu­rios­ity of New York­ers. “New York­ers are al­ways will­ing to try new things,” De Baets says. “We of­fer them these new ex­pe­ri­ences, and they like it. Our mis­sion is to bring joy through food.”

Chefs Club ap­peals to each Hong Kong chef dif­fer­ently. “They’ve cre­ated a plat­form where younger, emerg­ing chefs can meet es­tab­lished chefs,” says La, a chef com­ing into his own. “The name Chefs Club re­ally does de­scribe the at­mos­phere.” Chefs Club has be­come an ex­change for recipes, tech­niques and ac­counts of ex­pe­ri­ences, a theatre for demon­stra­tion and in­struc­tion, and a base for the foun­da­tion of net­works and rep­u­ta­tions.

For Abergel, the owner of three suc­cess­ful restau­rants, cook­ing at Chefs Club is an ad­ven­ture. “More of­ten than not, it’s less of a busi­ness de­ci­sion and more of us tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity to travel with our team and do what we love,” he says. Abergel was the first chef to take over Chefs Club Counter, the quick-and-ca­sual din­ing off­shoot that opened in March.

Hong Kong peo­ple are ob­sessed with the ex­otic, con­stantly im­port­ing din­ing con­cepts, cuisines and even chefs. The Chefs Club’s in­ter­est in the tal­ent in Hong Kong shows the tide has turned. “We’re hon­oured to have some home-grown con­cepts that peo­ple in other cities want to ex­pe­ri­ence,” Mark says.

Hong Kong is no longer just a des­ti­na­tion for dim sum and Chi­nese spe­cial­i­ties. It is a fount of ideas that cross the bound­aries be­tween cuisines and na­tions, ideas for cre­at­ing new, ex­cit­ing kinds of food that the rest of the world is ea­ger to taste.

Clock­wise from left: Chef Di­dier Elena; Lob­ster a la Piedra; Ho Lee Fook’s Chef Jowett Yu with Alain Du­casse; Cab­bage Cae­sar with kombu, an­chovy and dill by Chef Chris Ka­jioka

The Chefs Club Kitchen Op­po­site: Fire Roasted Beets with dill dress­ing, grape­fruit and radishes by Chef Lau­rent Gras

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