Pri­vate kitchen

Din­ner with a Hong Kong cele­br­tiy chef

Paradise - - Contents -

Ihave mem­o­ries of a car­toon in which an ex­as­per­ated driver gets lost on the end­lessly loop­ing in­ner-city high­ways of Los An­ge­les, un­able to get off. I’m in a taxi, but that’s a bit how I feel. In true Hong Kong style, the jour­ney to Yin Yang Coastal pri­vate kitchen, in the New Ter­ri­to­ries, in­volves travers­ing some se­ri­ous high­ways in ma­jorly ur­ban ar­eas.

But just when I think we can’t pos­si­bly be in the right place, the taxi driver pulls into a de­serted car park. With a nod of his head he di­rects my friends and I to­ward a pedes­trian over­pass, glar­ingly lit up in the night. It seems he can follow Yin Yang Coastal owner Mar­garet Xu Yuan’s di­rec­tions, even if we can’t.

We cross the over­pass. On the other side, a lift sinks us be­low the road to a foot­path that leads into Ting Kau, a jun­gle-green vil­lage on the edge of the bay. It’s so quiet we tip­toe along a pave­ment lined with two and three­storey con­crete vil­las. A cou­ple of frogs brave my foot­fall and a cat slinks past in the dark, then the beach comes into view. Be­yond it the red-lit spans of a bridge slip away into the inky night and the sparkling lights of high­rises in un­known sub­urbs wink at us across the wa­ter. A cou­ple on the sand pre­pares to light a lantern in cel­e­bra­tion of mid-au­tumn fes­ti­val. Be­yond them, a shut­tered older-style build­ing with a flat roof and its toes al­most in the wa­ter, is lit up from in­side. We’re here.

Mar­garet Xu Yuan is a Hong Kong celebrity chef, but she greets us at the door like we are old friends. We four are the only guests tonight and the open kitchen with a cou­ple of din­ing ta­bles could be a do­mes­tic set­ting, if it weren’t for the en­vi­able pro stain­less steel Miele ap­pli­ances, stu­dio light­ing and Ho Chi, Xu Yuan’s other chef and busi­ness part­ner, whose tat­tooed arms rat­tle the pans dili­gently in the back­ground.

I first in­ter­viewed her in 2010 at her orig­i­nal Yin Yang restau­rant in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Is­land. She was headed to Aus­tralia as a guest of the Syd­ney Food Fes­ti­val, her pi­o­neer­ing use of home­grown or­ganic pro­duce and tra­di­tional Chi­nese cook­ing tech­niques hav­ing brought her in­stant recog­ni­tion. She cooked me her sig­na­ture Yel­low Earth Chicken, roasted in an urn she made by up-end­ing two ter­ra­cotta pots, and I can still re­mem­ber reck­on­ing that it was the best roast chook I’d tasted.

I’m rapt to see it on the menu tonight, but Xu Yuan as­sures me the Wan Chai days are be­hind her. When the lease ex­pired three years ago, she grabbed the op­por­tu­nity to es­cape the fre­netic pace of the in­ner city and its rapidly evolv­ing food scene. Her new fo­cus would be this gar­den beach house and old Hong Kong fish­ing vil­lage cui­sine “re­born with wild con­tem­po­rary notes”.

Tonight, we’re hav­ing a ‘surf and splash’ eight-course din­ner. As is of­ten the case in pri­vate kitchens, you need to book well ahead. Her Hong Kong coastal cui­sine, she tells me as she pours a glass of gewurz­traminer (ex­cep­tion­ally well paired with Chi­nese cui­sine), is a re-in­ven­tion of older, tra­di­tional fish­er­men’s home recipes.

“Most pre-colo­nial coastal Hongkongers eat what­ever their daily boat har­vest is, Can­tonese fish­er­men’s style,” Xu Yuan says. “A lot of fish and seafoods, mixed with dried fish, dried prawns and cut­tle­fish, pre­served salted veg­eta­bles, salted seafood and ba­si­cally things that keep on the boat with­out a fridge.

“This has fil­tered down into Can­tonese cul­ture to­day. The fish mar­ket is an every­day thing – most Can­tonese love seafood in their daily diet.”

Xu Yuan’s cui­sine is a re-in­ven­tion of these recipes, re­tain­ing the tra­di­tional flavours and tech­niques and lay­er­ing them with her in­ter­pre­ta­tions. Her love of fresh, or­ganic and sus­tain­able in­gre­di­ents (from her nearby farm) shines in each dish and her cre­ativ­ity (she was a de­signer in a for­mer life) en­dows her food with an al­most whim­si­cal qual­ity that is cap­tured in the names she gives them.

Tofu Cloud, in a mar­tini glass, is home­made or­ganic tofu set with hand-fil­tered sea­wa­ter and topped with fresh crab­meat. The bluetinged tofu is a con­cep­tual take on the blue sea. Au­tumn Leaves is a plat­ter of whelks pret­tily gar­nished with pick­led pink gar­lic, chilli okra sauce and shiso leaves. The whelks are not as pop­u­lar as conch shells, but are far more sus­tain­able, she ex­plains.

Night Fever is a wild-caught, lightly fried fish, served whole.

“Tra­di­tion­ally, boat peo­ple would mar­i­nate the fish in salt overnight for ex­tra flavour,” she says. In­stead Xu Yuan has added Sichuan pep­per­corns to the ex­tra vir­gin olive oil mari­nade giv­ing the sub­tle fish flavour a tin­gling chilli hit.

Lob­ster in Spa, Tiger Chas­ing the Dragon and Live Duet in­duce sim­i­larly in­trigu­ing his­tor­i­cal and prov­i­den­tial culi­nary anec­dotes from Xu Yuan as she serves them. It makes din­ner more of an ex­pe­ri­ence than a meal.

Menus start from $HK880 (about PGK360) per per­son and must be pre-booked. See

Tofu Cloud, in a mar­tini glass, is home­made or­ganic tofu set with hand-fil­tered east coast sea­wa­ter and topped with del­i­cate fresh crab­meat.

Delectable dishes … Mar­garet Xu Yuan pre­par­ing her ‘Au­tumn Leaves’ (top); the ‘ Yel­low Earth Chicken’ that the au­thor rates as the best ever (above).

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