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Talking plants and pop-ups with chefs Peggy Chan and Margarita Forés

If anyone is the poster girl for eco-conscious eating in Hong Kong, it’s Peggy Chan. The pioneering chef has touted her brand of clean and sustainable food production and consumption all across the city — through seminars, charity events, chef panels, and most importantly, through the healthy and delicious food that everyone seems to go a little crazy for at Hollywood Road vegetarian staple Grassroots Pantry.

Last year, Chan took her food activism one step further to create The Collective’s Table, a series of pop-up dinners aimed at increasing awareness of plant-based cooking in the industry through collaborations with fellow chefs working in Hong Kong and abroad. The premise is this: For one night only, renowned chefs are invited to cook alongside Chan to prepare a multi-course menu using only vegetarian elements, with a percentage of proceeds going towards a charity of the visiting guest chef’s choice. The dinner is meant to give other chefs the chance to explore innovative, plant-based cooking while also showcasing to diners the healthier — and, Chan would argue, tastier — alternative to a meat-focused diet.

The Collective’s Table has been a notable initiative in the industry, with guest chefs including Amber’s Richard Ekkebus and Linguini Fini’s Vinny Lauria. This Friday marks a highly anticipated collaboration: Peggy Chan has invited Asia’s Best Female Chef 2016 Margarita Forés into the kitchen to co-create a 10-course plant-based sharing menu, with 10% of the proceeds going to support AGREA Foundation, a Philippines-based social enterprise which provides training and tools for local farming and agriculture.

Meant to be a family-style dinner, ‘Homegrown Roots’ will showcase the two female powerhouses’ innovative cooking side by side. You can expect Filipino-inspired dishes such as eggplant with miso paste and chilli jam, and three-mushroom stew with fried pigeon peas and wilted greens from chef Forés; and vegetarian creations such as harissa roasted cauliflower with fig jam, soffrito with garam masala and raw vegetable pepperoni, and raw bergamot pie with lemon poppyseed sponge from chef Chan. Meanwhile, the chefs will also collaborate on a main dish and a dessert, harmonising their cooking styles on one plate. The pop-up is priced at HK$680 plus 10% surcharge (includes spritzers and sangrias) and can be booked by calling the restaurant at +852 2873 3353 or emailing info@grassrootspantry.com.

Ahead of the collaborative dinner, we chatted to the two chefs to get a sneak peek of the menu, discuss the growth of Filipino cuisine in 2017, and find out what clean and sustainable eating means to each of them as two female chefs at the top of their game.

Can you tell us a bit about The Collective's Table in your own words?

Peggy Chan: We launched this one-night only pop-up last June as a way to drive environmental awareness and to increase the potential for plant-based cooking within the industry by utilising all of our collective energies in the ‘cheffing’ world — with food being our medium, and the restaurant space as our platform.

I invite renowned chefs from across the globe to explore, collaborate and put together a multi-course plant based menu catering to a range of limitations and dietary restrictions, and while suited to their chosen culinary disciplines. Partial proceeds will go to a charity of the guest chefs’ choice.

Peggy Chan and Margarita Forés
Chef Peggy Chan is one of Hong Kong’s biggest advocates for food sustainability.
How did this partnership come about for the upcoming edition of The Collective's Table?

Margarita Forés: We were introduced by a common friend, Cathy Chon, who has helped champion Filipino ingredients and cuisine. I think she felt it would be a welcome challenge for me, since I do not really do vegan food regularly, as well as a great chance to learn and explore Peggy’s passion and advocacy at Grassroots Pantry.

PC: Both chef Margarita and I have a deep-rooted advocacy for supporting indigenous, locally grown ingredients and it just naturally made sense.

Can you give us a sneak peek at the menu? What are some of your favourite dishes or ingredients?

PC: Both Margarita and I had the brief to 1) create a multi-course family-sharing-style menu, 2) use indigenous ingredients local to us in the Philippines and Hong Kong, and 3) create a menu free of dairy, gluten and eggs. The final score is a beautiful harmony of East mixed with Western techniques and influences.

Pili nuts are native to Filipino culture. The texture is buttery and flavour-neutral which makes it a perfect substitute for butter in raw cooking, except it’s only 6-8 times more expensive than butter in per gram comparison. We’ll be using pili in both raw versions of Zucchini Pasta (a collaborative dish) and in our Bergamot Pie.

MF: We are both doing three signature dishes each and collaborating on two more. My favourite dish on Peggy’s menu that was a real game-changer was her tef and sorghum gnocchi with maitake mushroom béchamel and greens. My dishes highlight some iconic Filipino ingredients and dishes like the pili nut in a pasta made with fresh zucchini, a dry “sinigang sa miso”, our classic sour soup thickened by miso paste and eggplant “inihaw,” our classic vinegar-marinated grilled dish. My dessert dish showcases mango and coconut, two very iconic Filipino ingredients.

What does clean eating mean to you, and why should we be focused on plant-based cooking?

PC: Simply because climate change is real! It’s our food consumption choices in the last 80 years that have caused major detriment to our environment and ecosystem, so therefore we should be responsible to reverse it. Mother Earth is very powerful, and forgiving. Even if we were to be gone tomorrow, trees will continue to grow, and money doesn’t grow on trees!

MF: Because of the challenges our planet is facing today, plant-based cooking and consumption is the best option to address this urgent situation. Having just come from the World Food Summit 2017 in Copenhagen where the theme was Better Food for More People, the main issues discussed were Better Information about Food, Safer Food for All, Food Diversity or Culinary Diversity, and Prevention of Food Waste. The significant learnings there magnify the need for plant-based cooking and consumption; it’s vital to help address these global issues in the future of food globally as well as the survival of our very challenged planet. Personally, I am a cancer survivor twice over, thus clean and healthy living, and using what one eats as preventive medicine and a means for healing is something I also take very personally. 

Peggy Chan and Margarita Forés
Chef Margarita Forés will showcase all-vegetarian dishes at ‘Homegrown Roots’, with a focus on native Filipino ingredients.
What do you admire most in each other's careers and work in the kitchen?

PC: Dedication, persistence and longevity. As women in the industry, the odds are almost always against us. I admire anyone who’s built careers out of resiliency and courage.

MF: The inspiration was truly Peggy’s advocacy at Grassroots Pantry. I was overwhelmed by how her flavours and creations could be so intensely tasty and delicious, in spite of, and because of the fact that they were all created with plant-based ingredients and void of garlic and onion!

Chef Forés, can you tell us a bit about Filipino food's popularity in 2017?

MF: We are proud and happy that because of a unified effort amongst the stakeholders in the food and beverage industry, the private sector, and government, particularly the Departments of Tourism, Agriculture and Trade, we have helped bring Filipino ingredients and cuisine to the fore, globally, in the last decade. The interest of international media has allowed us more mileage, too. Also because of events like Madrid Fusion Manila, participation at Slow Food in Torino, GrüneWoche in Berlin our government has helped us make our unique cuisine and ingredients more known to the world.

Events like this collaboration are a great way to showcase the richness of our plant-based produce from the Philippines, and because Hong Kong is so close by, this could even give birth to some opportunities to export our produce. We are continuing our efforts to share our cuisine with the rest of the world; this event at Grassroots Pantry will allow us to showcase these very exotic and nearly unknown Filipino ingredients in a very pure way.

Grassroots Pantry
Grassroots Pantry is one of Hong Kong’s pioneering restaurants for clean, plant-based eating.
What can we be doing to support our local farming/agriculture and spread sustainable consumption? 

PC: As chefs and stakeholders in this great industry, we must be spokespersons and advocates for this very important cause. We must commit to work closely with our farmers, use only ingredients that are clean and fairly grown and produced. We should celebrate food diversity on a plate and not allow the ruin caused by using homogenous ingredients that are also unhealthy and damaging to the environment. The future of our industry is hinged on the the future of our world, thus we must be champions for the cause and showcase what is delicious and prove that that delicious can also be good, clean and fair food.

And more importantly, we must share this advocacy with the youth — we must bring them back in touch with the soil and make farming part of their everyday lives whether in the city or outside, since their embracing this advocacy will spell the future of our world.

What's your biggest advice for those who think vegetarian eating is boring?

PC: You’ll have to come and see for yourselves on September 1st!

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.