In Hong Kong Food Diaries, we ask notable locals and visitors to tell us exactly what they ate and drank over the course of a few days, and where they did it.
One of the arbiters of authentic Vietnamese cuisine in our city, chef Steven Nguyen was born to Vietnamese immigrants, and is a first-generation Canadian. Growing up in the suburbs of Toronto, he was surrounded by aunts, uncles and grandparents who loved to cook and instilled in him the spirit of communal Vietnamese dining. In 2017, he joined Black Sheep Restaurants as head chef at Chôm Chôm, where Hanoi–style dishes are served up with an invitation to the bia hoi tradition of drinking fresh beer on busy street corners in Vietnam.
When he’s not wrapping rice rolls and braising fish for the wonderful ca kho (one of our favourite dishes at the hip Vietnamese eatery), Nguyen leads as close to a normal life as it gets for a chef: outdoor beach BBQs with friends, scarfing down delicious local eats around town, feeding his love for fine whiskies, and keeping fit with morning jiu-jitsu workouts. He’s also one of the nicest guys around — ask anyone on the BSR team who’s been charmed by his easy-going vibes, fun sense of humour, and generous, home-cooked staff meals.
And if all this sounds like a dating ad, well, that’s because Nguyen is single, ladies, and ready to charm — or cook — his way to your hearts (his last not-so-successful date ended in finding comfort in a platter of roast goose). Ready to meet one of the most eligible chef-bachelors in town? Read on below for Nguyen’s Hong Kong Food Diary.
SUNDAY, 25 FEB
It’s 2am and we’re having a team barbecue. Not your typical time to have a get-together, but this is the hospitality industry so we don’t live ‘normal’ lives. We’re celebrating the end of a very busy month, and frankly the team deserves it for their hard work. We pack coolers of food, drinks and equipment and taxi down to Deep Water Bay, a local favourite beachside barbecue pit.
I’ve prepared everyone a little Korean meat feast with marinated kalbi ribs, spicy gochujang-marinated pork belly and chicken yakitori skewers. I’ve also brought along the obligatory banchan of seaweed salad, cucumber salad, marinated bean sprouts and, of course, kimchi. The kalbi ribs are a big hit, and it’s such a joy to see the expression on someone’s face when they try it for the first time. The sweet and salty balance of flavours combined with the smokiness of fire-grilled meat cements this as one my top 10 foods of all time.
Everyone is happy, but more importantly, we’re coming together as a team. By 4am the fire has died out, and we’re calling for taxis to take us home.
MONDAY, 26 FEB
It’s morning, and I haven’t had a proper sit-down breakfast since I arrived in Hong Kong. I decide to treat myself. I stop by a spot in SoHo and order a big breakfast, a standard offering of bacon, sausage, eggs, beans and fruit. The breakfast itself is fine but my eyes roll when it comes served on a skillet and cutting board. I ordered breakfast, not the new summer collection from Williams-Sonoma. Plates are so underrated these days.
Lunch fares much better. Brass Spoon has some of the best pho in Hong Kong and the long wait time for a table is a good indication. I hate waiting in line so opt to leave and come back at 2pm when the crowd dies down. Brass Spoon does it right: They focus on one thing and one thing only, but offer variations by way of a checklist menu. You want beef balls? Check. Premium beef fillet and tendon? Check and check. And the option for adding a touch of beef fat to the broth is a game-changer.
Time for dinner. I usually have dinner alone or at the restaurant during family meal, which typically entails siting on a plastic stool facing a shelf, shovelling food down my gullet in two minutes flat to get back to service. But this time, I’ve got a date. Dating is hard enough already in the digital age, but near impossible when you work in the hospitality industry and especially as a chef. Want to go out Saturday? Nope, can’t. I have to be at service to feed people on their dates. How about Tuesday? You either have to date within the industry, or own cats.
We head to Ho Lee Fook, and it’s amazing. Chef Jow is killing the game over there. We opt for the drunken clams, wagyu tartare, ‘Mom’s Dumplings’ and the crown jewel: the roast goose. Oh man, that goose makes me weak. Savoury, unctuous and so satisfying. I would have it every day if I had a lifetime supply of Lipitor. The night is filled with polite conversation and ends with a hug and a ‘Nice meeting you’. The kiss of death basically, but that’s OK. I’m thinking about going exclusive with the Ho Lee Fook goose anyway.
TUESDAY, 27 FEB
It’s my day off and I’ve promised to join a cousin of mine, who has lived here for the past five years, for lunch. She’s taking me to an underground Vietnamese restaurant for some authentic Hanoian food. Now I can’t say where the restaurant is, because, well, it’s technically not legal. We enter a nondescript storefront and are greeted by the family who runs it. My cousin tells me they usually turn people away unless they are Vietnamese, but we earn their trust by speaking the native tongue, despite how broken mine is. The interior is as basic as you can get. Low tables with even lower plastic stools. The only thing on the menu is what the owner feels like cooking that day. Today it’s bun cha ca, a Hanoian dill and turmeric fish soup with vermicelli noodles. It’s so good. I’ve had cha ca before, but not in soup form. It’s so light and aromatic and punchy from the dill. We wash it all down with a fresh young coconut juice and some Vietnamese beer. Our entire meal comes to HK$100 for both of us.
I need to do a bit of shopping so I head to Causeway Bay and stop at Doraya to get my tuna fix. I get their tuna rice bowl. Thick slices of tuna are layered on top of rice with sides of egg custard, miso soup and pickles. An exercise in perfect simplicity. I’m then off to meet some friends for a drink.
After drinks I’m in need of something starchy to soak up all of the Hibiki whisky I’ve quaffed. But it’s late, real late, 4am late. Google tells me there is a 24/7 ramen spot in Wan Chai called Ichiran. I instantly love this place. It’s a temple for solo diners and introverts like me. Rows and rows of cubicles devoted to focused and meditative noodle consumption. Water dispensers are built into the tables with a bell to ask for service. They even have the high-tech Japanese toilets with the seat warmers and retractable bidet, which I still can never get used to. And don’t forget the Great Wall of toilet roll, where a plaque proudly proclaims that you’ll never run out, for your convenience. Smart service design is built into this place. Genius.
They only have one thing, pork ramen, but you can pimp it out however you like. I opt for extra pork belly, extra garlic and I go for the kaedama, because I’m drunk and make bad decisions. Kaedama basically gives you extra noodles so I finish my first round then almost instantly regret ordering seconds. But I solider on and eat them anyway, pay the bill, and roll out the door bloated like a beach ball. Time for bed.
WEDNESDAY, 28 FEB
I wake up late and need something quick and healthy for breakfast. I make myself a yoghurt bowl with granola, blueberries, bananas and strawberries.
I’m out the door and hit the markets, or at least try to. Navigating the streets of Hong Kong takes some practice and a lot of patience. From the hordes of tourist groups, to the distressing number of unaware people texting while walking, not to mention the selfie takers, I basically parkour my way around the city. I pop into Cheung Hing Kee Shanghai for pan-fried buns. I order their signature soup dumplings and an assorted Shanghainese noodle soup bowl that comes with pork and bean curd, wontons, turnips, pork stuffed tofu and slices of brisket. The food is great and affordable and fast. I like these buns because they come with a safety disclaimer. You’re supposed to take a small bite and suck out all the hot soup. I had no idea the first time I went and ate the whole thing, burning the hell out of my mouth.
THURSDAY, 1 MAR
It’s early morning and I’m off to a Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar with a three-time world champion, Gezary Matuda at Warrior Academy. As luck would have it, I get called to help her demo a knee slice guard pass and I’m on the bottom. She only weighs about 118 lbs but somehow she is able to put enough pressure on top of me to feel like I’ve been hit by a linebacker. After the workout I do a bit of shopping at Yata supermarket for lunch prep at home. I grab salmon sashimi, lettuce, avocado and sesame dressing for a salad plus soba noodles to fill me up.
Back to work, and I’m right into prepping for a busy service. Not only do I have to worry about food for the guests tonight, but I have to wrangle up some food for staff meal before 5pm. Luckily, someone from our team has brought in some homemade Nepalese momos. The hearty pork-filled dumplings are accompanied by a fiery tomato chilli sauce.
After service, the entire team heads out for a late meal to say goodbye to one of our interns who’s been with us for a few months. One of the only places that is open late and will take a big table is Under Bridge Spicy Crab in Causeway Bay. We opt for the banquet that includes fried noodles, a barbecue meat platter, black bean clams, steamed grouper and, of course, the spicy crab that’s covered in fried garlic. I am a bit reticent about going to a seafood restaurant due to a childhood shellfish allergy. I’ve abstained from eating any shellfish for 30 years but I decide to try it because I have a suspicion that I may have outgrown the allergy. I pack some Benadryl and an EpiPen just in case. I take a deep breath and try my first piece of crab, I wait for my throat to to itch and my lips to swell. But there’s no reaction, only delicious crab. I’m not allergic anymore! I’m gobsmacked. I eat nearly half the plate, and we promptly order a second crab.
FRIDAY, 2 MAR
It’s my birthday and I haven’t made any plans to celebrate as I’ve been too busy to try and organise anything. But since I’m surrounded by great people at work I’m treated to a last-minute omakase lunch at Sushi Sase with our company co-founder Chris and our Executive Chef Tony. A beautiful restaurant with equally astounding food. Standouts include the Hokkaido salmon and the uni.
Evening arrives and the Japanese-themed meals continue. Emma from the comms team takes me to try out ever-popular Yardbird. I used to walk by their old location all the time on my way to work but never got a chance to go before they moved. The new location looks vastly larger and more open. We have a few whisky highballs before the food assault begins. We get nearly all the skewers, from the oysters to chicken skins and thighs. The standout is the chicken meatball that’s dipped into a sauce of soy and egg yolk. We finish off with the katsu sandwich, scotch egg and corn tempura.
SATURDAY, 3 MAR
The next day it’s a lunch date with chef friends and fellow Torontonians, Farzam and Samantha, who are about to leave Hong Kong to travel around Europe. We hit up very popular Thai food spot Samsen. We get there and there’s a huge queue. We debate on whether to stay or not, but decide to wait it out. It’s worth it. We grab the crab fried rice, fried fish skins, pork rinds, fried pork neck and table favourite, the beef boat noodles. We finish off the meal with coconut ice cream and coconut dumplings. Upon learning of my belated birthday, they invite me to a beachside barbecue at Deep Water Bay after service that night.
It’s 1am and I find myself at Deep Water Bay again, but this time with a larger crowd. It’s a send-off for Farzam and Sam and also an impromptu birthday celebration. It’s a potluck of food ranging from tin foil-baked clams, Tupperware mashed potatoes, and a giant rib-eye steak that no one has brought a knife for so we eat it animal-style. It’s all delicious. Finally, I’m surprised by a cake that Farzam has made, candles and all. I blow out the candles and the cake is shoved into my face. Happy birthday to me.