Q&A: Chef Magnus Hansson on opening his first HK restaurant, and why he won’t eat there

They say never trust a skinny chef, but what about a vegan one? Chef Magnus Hansson gave up beef, pork and lamb 17 years ago, allows only one apple a day for his daily sugar intake, and shudders at the mention of rice or potatoes. He fasts 16–17 hours a day, tests recipes for chicken and beef by taking a bite and spitting it out promptly, and refuses to touch any fish except that which has been locally farmed in the Hamptons or Long Island, close to his home in New York.

So should you try out his new Hong Kong restaurant, Bizou? Well, the proof’s in the pudding, so to speak — we had a chance to be amongst the first to review it, and luckily chef Magnus isn’t just touting his own horn when he says, “I don’t really have to taste anything — I’ve been doing this for 40 years that I have it in my fingertips. I know how much salt to put on, and I know how long to cook it for.”

In the middle of a jam-packed schedule (the partially-retired chef only works 26 weeks a year, but this is already his 14th trip overseas in 2016), we sat down with the Swedish-born chef to discuss diet decisions, America’s gastronomic melting pot, and why baking bread is the best way to unwind. 

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Tell us a bit about how you got started in the industry.
My mom and my grandma were both amazing cooks, and they got me interested in food from a young age. I started doing apprenticeships when I was about 13, working in a pizzeria and learning how to make dough, and because we’re only required to do nine years in school [in Sweden] I went straight to chef school after high school. After, I started doing my apprenticeships in Germany, Thailand, Brazil, and from Brazil to New York, where I’ve been back and forth for 33 years. I’ve opened 47 restaurants around the world, owned 5-6 of my own as well as three bakeries.

So you work primarily as a consultant chef?
I’m involved with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, so I do a lot of collaborations with him, and he has 35 restaurants around the world. I was here [in Hong Kong] when he opened Mercato. I also have my own company for the past 27 years where I go in and help design the kitchen, design the menu, write the recipes and train the people. I come back a couple times a year to make sure its right and change the menus. 

With so many restaurants around the world, do you have a primary cuisine you focus on?
I cook everything. I’ve been a chef in nine countries so I cook food from Thailand to Morocco to Mexico, South America, Italy, France, Germany and Spain. My favourite cuisines are those with a lot of flavour, so Mexico, Morocco, Thailand, Italy — simple food, but it has a lot of flavour. I’m also a master bread baker so baking is one of my favourite things to do. It’s very relaxing, very tranquil — not a lot of stress as you can’t stress the dough. The dough has to take the time it takes, it’s a lot of chemistry and physics and I like that.

Magnus Hansson
Magnus Hansson is a dietician, nutritionist, and renowned baker and chef.

Tell us about your diet philosophy.
I have a degree in nutrition and diet so I’ve been into health for over 20 years. About 17 years ago, I stopped eating beef, pork and lamb. Chicken I eat sometimes if it’s organic, and fish only the small kind that’s caught locally in the Hamptons, like local Long Island bass, stuff like that. I don’t eat a lot of raw fish which has lots of parasites, mercury and lead. I eat very little fruit too because I try to stay away from sugar. Most of the sugar I get in my diet comes from vegetables, and all my carbs come from vegetables and nuts. I live on the greenest, most colourful veggies and I only eat with the season.

How do you fit this type of diet into your busy schedule?
I do something called intermediate fasting, where I only eat in a 7–8 hour window and I fast the remaining 16–17 hours in a day. This is the best way for your body to balance your metabolism. In the mornings I drink a big glass of warm water with lemon, organic juice, a spoonful of raw coconut oil, turmeric, cayenne and ginger. Lemon, turmeric and ginger are all anti-carcinogenic. There’s three things that cancer cells feed on: casein [protein in cow’s milk], stress hormones and sugar. So I’ve tried to stay away from that. I don’t like to stress, I do a lot of yoga in my personal time, and walk about 15 kilometres a day.

Are you ever worried this will affect your ability to taste, and make good food?
Well I never tell people, unless they ask me. I always taste the food, although I spit it out. But I make sure that everything is right. I’ve done it for so long, I know exactly how meat and protein should be cooked.

Is it hard to keep your diet in the kitchen? 
No, I don’t want any of it. The only thing I have is a sweet tooth. That’s my problem. I like chocolate and I like the cakes and stuff we have. I’ll never eat it at home, but like here just now I had a little piece of the gooey cake and the apple cake in the kitchen… yeah, it’s cheating. But I’m okay with it because I’m out of the country.

How do you justify serving food that you wouldn’t normally eat yourself?
Because I’m not cooking for myself at that time. What I’m cooking for you is what I used to like eating, so that’s how I justify it. I love flavours, I love fresh products, so I can cook anything. I can bake anything. I can make any pastry that I want for somebody else because I like to make people happy. When they smile and they say “this is awesome”, that’s my satisfaction. I don’t have to eat it.

Salmon Bizou
Oven-roasted Norwegian Salmon with fresh herbs, lemon brown butter, Brussels sprouts leaves and Ceringnola olives at Bizou.

Tell us about the food and ingredients used at Bizou.
Bizou is an American brasserie, which I think of as the American way of interpreting a traditional French brasserie. It’s simplicity, again coming down to farm-to-table style, local ingredients, using what’s in season, and not manipulating the products or the seasons, like using tomatoes in winter for example. If it’s potatoes, then it’s potatoes but prepared in the most flavourful way. If it’s a steak, just cook it with salt, pepper, maybe butter, so it’s nice and caramelised, and maybe a little sauce. Everything is simple and homemade, from the bread (which I put in the oven just now) to the ice cream.

Did you also take inspiration from your hometown?
We take pieces from everywhere, because America’s culture is such a hodgepodge anyways — in New York alone there’s 217 different nationalities, so you can take ingredients from Asia, or Hawaii, or France or Italy and mix it in with your food and call it an American brasserie. From Scandinavia, I took inspiration with the gravlax and the cod on the menu, but it’s brasserie food because it’s just simple, homestyle food with horseradish, butter, egg, cauliflower and potato. The apple cake is also a pure Scandinavian dish — it’s an almond paste apple cake with cardamom ice cream. 

What are some of your other favourite items on the menu at Bizou?
From the appetisers, I think the octopus is great. It has a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern influence with a mint- and jalapeños-flavoured hummus. We boil the chickpeas, soak for two days, let them sit overnight, then mix in tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, water, cumin, garlic, salt, jalapeños and mint and puree it all. One of my other favourites is the sweet prawns with smoked paprika. We buy the prawns fresh (one of only two ingredients we use locally) from the Wan Chai market in the morning, still alive, and we peel them and salt-cure to pull the moisture out and make it more tender. They’re put on a bed of fromage blanc with chili oil, lemon zest, smoked paprika and fresh dill. It’s a little spicy, sour, warm and cold.

What’s the other ingredient you use locally? 
Only the shrimp and the gai lan. Everything else is imported from Germany, France, Scandinavia, Holland, Italy… we set a standard for who we are buying from. Most of the local products we get are not good. And I don’t buy any vegetables from China because they have so many chemicals in the ground — mercury, quicksilver, lead — all the heavy metals are in the plants. I have a friend who’s a bio-chemist, he says never eat any vegetables from China. It sounds horrible, but I like clean foods, no chemicals. 

Bizou Cake
The gooey chocolate cake with lemon-kumquat marmalade, whipped ricotta and fried sage at Bizou.

Have the food trends in New York influenced what you’re doing here at Bizou?
Yeah, I think New York is way far ahead to most places in the world when it comes to food. They set a trend and then people follow them. And because I work so much with creating food, I always have to see everything that happens and I’m at the forefront in that sense. So the way I created this menu when I got here was to look up maybe 15–18 of the best, most popular restaurants in Hong Kong, look at what they had, and make sure we did something very different from all of them. 

As a nutritionist, how do you hope to influence/inspire the local diet here?
Probably most through the salads at Bizou — the beet salad, the kale, and the bitter greens which is actually one of my favourite dishes on the menu too. It’s with crispy farro, breadcrumbs, honeycomb, roquefort and Parmesan cheese, and some crispy lardons. The balance of flavours from bitter to sweet to salty to acid is really good. So I would like for people to eat more of the salads… some people have never had shaved brussels sports, or raw cabbage, which we mix with avocado, lemon vinaigrette and fresh oregano. They’ve never seen it before. We encourage people to take a chance and try something new.

The other thing I would say to Hong Kong is to start recycling! There are not many people to pick up recycling here, and even when you separate stuff it ends up in the same bin eventually. The environment is so important; without the world, we cannot live, doesn’t matter how much fun you’re having. 

What would be your ideal restaurant to open? 
It starts next year actually, a place I’m opening together with Jean-Georges. It’s a wood-fired bakery, and wood-fired pizzeria, in the seaport where the old Fulton Fish Market used to be under the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s my ideal thing to do because I love baking bread. I mill all my own grains and will be making all the bread and the pizza dough. There will be a selection of fresh, pressed juices — no fruit, just vegetables added, and a lot of salads, all organic, local and seasonal. I have seven restaurants to open from January to July, but this is probably the most special to me.

Bizou is now open at Shop 132, L1, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong, +852 2871 0775, diningconcepts.com/Bizou