Hong Kong's The Chairman made history today by becoming the first Cantonese restaurant to win the Best Restaurant in Asia after being voted No.1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2021 sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
“I truly can’t feel anything right now. This is so unreal; we did not expect that," said jubilant owner Danny Yip. "I have hugged my team, our chefs, it has been a tough year, and this is so rewarding. We’re very grateful, it’s such an honour.”
Yip, a passionate food lover, retired from his internet company and opened The Chairman back in 2009, a place where he and his friends could eat. It has since become a regular entry on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list following its launch in 2013, and appeared at no.41 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2019.
Despite upheavals caused by the pandemic, the restaurant's team battled through the storm. As a defiant Yip puts it: "You want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain". Speaking of the pandemic experience, he says: “Our team got closer and had more time and resources to create and fine-tune dishes. We managed to keep the whole team, stay positive, and participate in programs to help the industry. The chefs managed to go home at 6 pm for the first time in years, see their kids and have dinner with them at home."
The understated restaurant is located in a side-street just off Queen's Road in Hong Kong's Central district, where its ingredient-driven Cantonese cuisine has a loyal and ardent following, despite (or perhaps because of) a scarce social media presence, letting the food do the talking instead.
"Cantonese cuisine boils down to two words: freshness and natural flavours," explains Yip. "Our cooking is fundamentally built on Cantonese culture, aiming at bringing out and enhancing the original tastes of the ingredients and being creative without distorting the Chinese traditions."
Chef Kwok Keung Tung
Rather than starting with a recipe, chef Kwok Keung Tung builds the dishes around local produce, including those grown on the restaurant's own small farm at Sheung Shui. Such is the restaurant’s commitment to fresh produce, it has employed an ex-fisherman for the past 12 years, whose job is to visit the seafood market at 6.30 each morning to select the catch of the day, including shellfish for Yip's favourite dish, steamed flowery crab.
The Chairman's steamed fresh flowery crab with aged shaoxing wine, fragrant chicken oil and flat rice noodles
It's a simple and delicately balanced dish made with just three ingredients, yet it's the hardest dish on the menu to get right, as Yip explains: "As each crab tastes different, chef adjusts the amount of aged wine, clam juice and chicken fat to strike the best balance between saltiness, sweetness and umami for every single dish. All ingredients go into the steamer. This dish had no formula to follow, it’s all about experience and judgement."
Despite the challenges of the past year, The Chairman's historic victory emphasises the desire among diners for familiar surroundings and simple, flavourful food. Meanwhile, Yip’s infectious enthusiasm for his restaurant and cuisine is a morale boost to his peers in this defining moment in the history of the list, with Cantonese cuisine finally coming to the fore. “For all the ones working in Chinese restaurants, if you ever doubt our cuisine or worry about global acceptance, please don’t. This award is for all of you. Let’s be proud of our culture and be brave to create,” he says.
"Hopefully, more Chinese restaurants will be on the list in future. Now I feel like getting back into the kitchen and creating more dishes. We can’t afford to disappoint our patrons who have been supporting us.”