Where do the notable chefs and bartenders of Hong Kong F&B scene like to eat when they’re not cooking? What is their best home-cooked meal? Cheat Day goes behind the scenes with the city’s culinarians and tastemakers to find out exactly what their personal favourites are during their days off.
The name May Chow is not unfamiliar to Hong Kong’s restaurant scene. Rather, it’s very well celebrated. You might recognise her by her cheery smile in wholesome snapshots over on Instagram @littlebaomay. You’ve dined at her restaurants — both of them — gorged on those signature baos and have been since returning for mid-afternoon comfort bites twice, no, thrice, weekly. You adore it that much.
Arriving to Hong Kong in 2009, the Toronto-born chef-founder of popular modern Cantonese eateries has upheld a notable presence within the dining — and even further, cultural — scene in the city, from advocating for female empowerment in kitchens to being an outspoken, avid supporter of LGBTQ+ rights. Of course, in between, Chow is also a dedicated chef, having won the 2017-edition of Asia’s Best Female Chef and working through various hotspots including Alvin Leung’s Bo Innovation, Matt Abergel’s Michelin-starred Yardbird and the now-shuttered TBLS with Que Vinh Dang.
She also founded and ideated her own modern, creative concepts with Little Bao and Happy Paradise — both an apt showcase of Chow’s inventive rendition on contemporary Cantonese cuisine.
“I enjoy creating food, breaking preconceived notions and really thinking outside the box. I like to see food in its context and pursuing change in a meaningful way,” says Chow, offering her vision of what it means to be a chef. “To be honest, I feel more like an entrepreneur meets chef, meets creative person, meets a person who is on the bench warmer always waiting to assist or fill in. I think I’ve never even fully related to the title of chef.”
It’s true, Chow has always angled for creative new avenues other than ones achieved within neat galley kitchens. Many of these avenues encompass the same homegrown heritage or artisanal craftsmanship as Chow’s own brands — like the most recent, a Little Bao collaboration with fashion brand Future Classics on a navy baseball cap, now available at Kapok. Previous ventures included Levi-branded tote bags and cotton hoodies that doubled as blank canvases for the Little Bao logo.
And then, there are those impromptu boozy block parties of endless fun — and food — especially now that Little Bao has made its return back in SoHo at the buzzy Shin Hing Street steps, along with the one-off, weekend-exclusive pop-ups and link-ups with fellow industry names that give wherever and whatever Chow is currently helming more the reason to stay, while away and chat instead of simply dine and dash.
Chow is most famous for, of course, the white fluffy bao that playfully riff on classic burgers. Her editions are smaller, bite-size and Chinese-inspired, with new-and-newer variations that range from a popular slice of caramelised pork belly, to a sandwiched battered fish fillet, a block of condensed milk-coated ice cream and a heaping of sliced beef slathered in satay sauce (new!). She borrows from those familiar favourites of the city, too: there’s a sourdough egg waffle served with Sichuan pepper-dusted fried chicken, or soy-coated thick rice noodles topped with seared Australian skirt steak.
“There is too much inspiration everywhere,” Chow muses. But despite this endlessly stimulating landscape, you’ll find each of her creations are carefully considered and meticulously tried-and-tested before finding their rightful place within the restaurant’s line up. “[The menu] is a balance of creativity and realistic studies of what is efficient,” she explains. “It’s what our customers need right now.”
We were already given a new bao creation this year — a breakfast bao with San Marzano tomato jam, sausage patty and fried Taiyouran Egg on Little Bao’s new brunch menu. So what’s new with the ever-creative, visionary chef? “Developing mooncakes!” she laughs.
Cheat Day with May Chow:
What was the last meal you had?
Breakfast at home. Steak and veg with French press coffee.
When did you realise you loved to cook / wanted to pursue a career in the kitchen?
My college counsellor asked me what I wanted to do and what I was passionate about. I thought about my life and what really brought me joy, and it was celebrating food with my mom through cooking, sharing and eating that made me really happy.
Tell me some of your signature dishes at Little Bao / Happy Paradise ?
Between Little Bao and Happy Paradise, we like to think about what we call future classics. We have the Sourdough Egg Waffle, Yellow Wine Chicken, the Pork Belly Bao and our Red Beetroot Turnip Cake. In hindsight, I am in awe that the bao burger is on a category of its own. People have it regularly, especially during COVID times. It doesn’t necessarily fit into any sense of traditional food categories, yet people order it for lunch or dinner all the time. We are proud we’ve served something of that for over eight years.
Honestly, what’s it like working with you in the kitchen?
I have very high standards and expectations, but I’m willing to listen, offer advice and also apologise if I feel I was unfair, or if I don’t want to feel like the most experienced or smartest in the room. I don’t really believe that things always have to be done a certain way. I prefer to approach things day by day, and breaking the status quo when needed. I’m always asking myself: is this the best way we can get this done today? How can we get further knowledge? Are we transparent? Are we fair? Is this excellent?
I constantly strive for progress and open dialogue.
Your favourite local Hong Kong ingredients to use?
We do love our local sauces like fermented bean curd from Liu Ma Kee and Kowloon Soy Company’s dark soy and yuk wen yack hot sauce.
Do you cook at home? What is your go-to home-cooked dish?
I cook a lot of steak at home.
You have 30 minutes. What will you make?
Some variation of rice, veggies and meat!
Name the top three favourite ingredients / condiments you currently own in your pantry.
Liu Ma Kee’s super spicy fermented bean curd, May Ma Hawt Sauce and 22 Ships’ Antonio gave me a bottle of awesome olive oil.
What are your guilty pleasures?
I like all innards, fatty bits and soft bones.
The best meal you ever had?
Really too many. I can’t choose one.
What was your most memorable food moment?
The one that comes to mind was when I got the chance to do Gelinaz! in upper-Austria. Steirereck was kind enough to host all the chef participants. They showcased all their signature dishes of all time. The char fish cooked in beeswax blew my mind. David Chang sitting next to me also added to the mind-blowing experience. Genius and delicious!
What is one dish/snack/food you can’t live without?
My mom’s spring rolls.
Savoury or sweet?
Where do you like to go on your day off?
We love spending time with family, so to our family’s house or to go hiking with Jodie and the dogs.
Five best dishes / drinks you’ve had in Hong Kong?
Too hard. Recently, the mushroom tart at Mosu, The Chairman’s claypot rice, Ju Xing Home’s pan fried vermicelli with superior stock prawns, the perfect martini by Lorenzo [Antinori; of Argo], and the yellow croaker lion head from Xin Rong Ji.