In recent years, Hong Kong has become fairly inundated with international celebrity chef openings, from high-end sushi omakase spots to Italian pasta havens and chain steakhouses. With most of these culinary superstars off running empires thousands of miles away from Hong Kong, though, it often becomes the case that restaurants become stagnant after a few years, without their makers here to oversee the daily operations. In their absence, the menu gets left to a locally trained chef — some with little more expertise beyond simply following handed-down recipes.
Chef Laurent Tourondel, for one, is determined to not let that happen. The creator of the American-born BLT Steak and BLT Burger chains which both got their jump-start in New York City, Tourondel has had a fruitful relationship with local restaurant group Dining Concepts over the years. Together, they’ve turned BLT Burger and the adjoining steakhouse downstairs in Harbour City into some of the most popular weekday dining spots in Tsim Sha Tsui.
While BLT Steak looks to redefine the classic steakhouse experience, BLT Burger is all about the uninhibited joys of tucking in to a juicy, decadent, gourmet burger — with creative toppings and a sumptuous side spread of shakes and fries catering to those who tend to throw calorie counting to the wind. For loyal fans, you’ll be justly rewarded this month, as BLT unveils a near-complete revamp of the menu with irresistible new burgers including the Spicy Kowloon Chicken (spicy fried chicken, red cabbage slaw, scallion, Thai basil, hoisin, sriracha) and the Mexican “El Chapo” (grilled patty, chilli, crispy tortilla, guacamole, pickled jalapenos and sour cream). For sides, smoked gouda waffle fries and spiked bourbon milkshakes drizzled with caramel and vanilla ice cream round out the decadent spread.
Decades into his career, it seems Tourondel still knows how to have a bit of fun with his menus. With the lauded chef in town recently to test out the new menu, we nabbed the opportunity to sit down with the James Beard Award nominee and former Bon Appétit Restaurateur of the Year to talk burgers, brioche buns and the Big Apple.
We wanted to give a fresh look to the menu, so we went with some different flavours. There’s the Mexican-style burger, which I’ve named “El Chapo”; and the Beyond burger, or plant-based burger that we’re working on right now. We’ve made it into something like a French burger with a French cheese, spinach salad with truffle oil, and then some roasted portobello mushrooms. On the shake side we have a chia-seed shake with pineapple that tastes a bit like a virgin piña colada with lime and toasted coconut. Oh, also the Americana — Peanut Butter Reese’s with Cocoa Puffs and soft serve all blended together.
We haven’t changed the menu in a while and we wanted to kind of refresh the concept, so we took some of the ideas in New York and added some Hong Kong-exclusive ones. We’re also changing the bun, we found an amazing bun, I don’t even know if we have anything similar in New York. I mean, it’s unbelievable, I tasted it for the first time and it’s amazing — like a soft brioche bun.
The Beyond burger — I don’t do it in New York and I think it’s fantastic. [The plant-based meat] is definitely popular in New York but somehow I only tasted it two weeks ago. I was in Florida at this fast-food concept and I saw the plant-based burger and said, ‘OMG, I need to try that’. It tasted pretty good and so I decided to bring it in to BLT Burger and play with it a bit.
Then there’s the Kowloon fried chicken burger, which is mixed with a bunch of spice, a coleslaw made with red cabbage, ranch dressing, sriracha and cilantro. I think the chicken is one of my favourites. Also this morning we made smoked gouda fries, where we take waffle fries and add some smoked gouda cream on top with pickled jalapeño and scallion. We’ve just been working at it two days nonstop.
Travelling. Also Instagram, which I think is a big source of inspiration. I mean I must spend an hour every day, maybe more, on IG posting, following people in the industry and doing research. I follow people from Spain, France, Italy, US, Hong Kong.
Also some of the ‘real foodies’, the professional ones. I think they post some interesting stuff and I take some more ideas from there. I actually read much less now that there’s IG!
I mean this is the way we live now, so you have to be up to it. I have some friends of mine who are chefs who don’t care about it and I think it’s sad. Because this is how we grow, how I research now. I think the time of flipping a magazine is gone, I used to have maybe 15 different magazine subscriptions and right now I subscribe to maybe two of them. Because they’re all online now.
It’s funny because this year we decided to cut our PR in New York, and instead there’s the Instagrammers who come and post pictures and report every day and it brings in the other bloggers, etc.
I’d say 25 years ago it was the New York Times that was very powerful and dictating the restaurant scene. They had the power of making you stay open or close after just six months so everyone was very scared of it. I don’t even read the Dining section anymore but I follow Eater, also online reviews on Yelp. But you can tell the guy who’s just looking for a free meal and the person who really dines out and writes official reviews. I’ve been doing this for a long time in New York and it’s definitely changed quite a bit.
I love Cosme. It’s kind of like Mexican revisited or Mexican fusion, but I think it’s very, very good. There’s some really unusual flavours. I mean for me, it’s difficult when I sit down and eat in a restaurant to say “OK wow, how did he do that” — it doesn’t happen a lot because I’ve been doing this for such a long time. But there I asked a lot of those question. There are particular ingredients a lot of people haven’t seen. And the meringue with burnt husk of corn is unbelievable.
Also more Korean restaurants, and more ‘mono’ concepts, where there’s fewer options. It’s the concept that I’m actually working on now, where there’s not too many different dishes — it takes much less labour. We’re suffering in New York because labour [costs] have gone up dramatically. So right now I’m doing a concept that’s just one steak plus five veg.
Not fast food — you still sit, but it’s a simpler menu. So on your placemats you’ll find the menu, and the waiter simply asks what temperature you want your meat. There’s just one steak option, and then you choose between five different veggies. It’s not so expensive, there’s a faster turnaround, and you know what you’ll be getting each time.
I’m about to open a restaurant in London in two months, it’s a grill with a very upscale sushi bar. London is a big step for me so I want to make sure I get it right. It’s in a beautiful hotel called Hotel Café Royal, which faces Piccadilly; it’s one of those beautiful palaces that’s been redone.
Then I’m doing a new project in a hotel downtown in New York on Canal Street and Orchard, inside Nine Orchard Hotel. It’s going to be a beautiful boutique hotel, very crafted place downtown. There’s going to be two restaurants and a bar — another big project.
And I just bought a pizzeria in the Hamptons in a small village; it’s still under construction right now and set to open in May. I actually just opened a pizzeria in December in Miami. I have another project in New Jersey in a shopping mall, which is a grill house. Besides Jupiter and the shopping mall, the rest are opening this year so my work’s cut out for me!